11 Feb

Trauma is ubiquitous in our society; therefore, it is important to explore how individuals cultivate healing after traumatic experiences. Yoga may be one avenue to cultivate healing. Qualitative methods were employed to study the role yoga practice played in the healing process of those who experienced interpersonal trauma. Eleven interpersonal trauma survivors who practiced yoga regularly were identified through a criterion sampling method. Data analysis revealed that the emphasis of yoga on mind and physical body fostered numerous positive outcomes, such as spiritual growth, self-acceptance, alleviation of trauma-related symptoms, and increased feelings of self-compassion, empowerment, and serenity. Our findings suggest that yoga may be helpful to regain mental and physical health, foster wellbeing, and cultivate personal growth after interpersonal trauma.

Yoga has four principle components: breathing exercises (pranayama), postures (asana), relaxation techniques (Yoga Nidra) and meditation. If you’ve ever tried yoga, then you know that it is built upon the concept of body awareness and opening yourself to the transitory nature of one’s momentary experience. Practitioners focus on internal sensory experiences, which isolates emotions and physiological reactions to triggers such as fear.

What this means is that, instead of avoiding unpleasant memories, the women in the yoga study group were better able to isolate their memories and address them in a non-threatening way.

One interesting component to this study is the fact that the control group showed continued improvement in their Depression scores even as their PTSD scores relapsed. It is theorized that the supportive nature of this group, which shared food and encouraged contact outside of formal sessions, may have contributed greatly to the overall mood of the participants.

This would suggest that it might be the physical and interceptive aspects of yoga – and not the social makeup of the group – that was instrumental in the change in PTSD symptomatology.

When people think about trauma, they generally think of it as a historical event that happened some time ago. Trauma is actually the residue from the past as it settles into your body. It’s located inside your own skin. When people are traumatized, they become afraid of their physical sensations; their breathing becomes shallow, and they become uptight and frightened about what they’re feeling inside. When you slow down your breathing with yoga, you can increase your heart rate variability, and that decreases stress. Yoga opens you up to feeling every aspect of your body’s sensations. It’s a gentle, safe way for people to befriend their bodies, where the trauma of the past is stored.

Our studies show that yoga is equally as beneficial—or more beneficial—than the best possible medications in alleviating traumatic stress symptoms. In the studies involving neuroimaging of the brain before and after regular yoga practice, we were able to show that the areas of the brain involving self-awareness get activated by doing yoga, and those are the areas that get locked out by trauma and that are needed in order to heal it.

My approach is very much “one size doesn’t fit all.” One method doesn’t benefit everybody. In order to recover from trauma, you need to address a large number of different systems. Neurofeedback can affect brain activation patterns—it can actually change brain waves, and can help to make people’s brains quieter and more attentive. Yoga might be able to reach the same goal, but it would probably take longer. Theater is particularly helpful to help people gain a voice and to deeply inhabit a particular state. Instead of always feeling frightened or withdrawn, they can act like a king or a powerful warrior. It’s a consciousness-expanding tool. Also, traumatized people often misread other people, or become withdrawn or scared of others, and theater allows for deep engagement with other people.

8 Poses to Help Trauma Survivors 

  1. Child’s Pose
    Bring your big toes to touch, knees the width of your mat, and reach your arms away from your body. Sit your hips back toward your heels and let your forehead come to the mat. Inhale into your side bodies—the space between your ribs and your low back. On each exhalation, allow your belly and chest to drop closer to the mat. I find this pose nourishing because it’s a resting pose. “When I come in to this shape, I know it will bring me back to the present moment.” 

2. Extended Puppy Pose
From a tabletop position, walk your hands away from your body and keep your hips stacked over your knees. Bring your forehead (or chin) to the mat, and keep your arms active by pressing your forearms and hands down. On an inhalation, expand into your back body; on an exhalation, allow your heart to settle toward the floor. I find this pose challenging because as humans, we hold a lot of tension in our shoulders—and this shape opens up this part of the body.”

3.  Mountain Pose
Keep a soft bend in your knees to encourage your tailbone to point up toward the ceiling, elongating the spine. Press the space between your shoulder blades up toward the ceiling, and press down into your hands, knuckles, and fingertips. Keep your neck neutral while your eyes look to the middle of your mat. On an inhalation, press the ground away from you; on an exhalation, encourage your heels to come closer to the floor. “This pose is another resting pose, and I find it to be relieving. “It allows me to slow my breath in a way that brings me back to a restful state.”

4.  Chair Pose
Shift the weight in your feet toward your heels and keep your knees stacked you’re your ankles as you sit back. Hug your belly button up and back toward your spine, and encourage your tailbone to reach down toward the ground. Draw your lower ribs in toward the belly to activate your core. Reach your fingertips up toward the ceiling and rotate your pinky fingers in so your biceps frame your ears. On an inhalation, reach your fingertips away from your shoulders; on an exhalation, sit back and down a little deeper. “This pose is grounding and creates heat at the same time. It’s a pose that strengthens the body and mind.”

5.   Warrior Pose
From a wide-legged stance, place your front foot so it faces forward, with your front knee stacked over your ankle and in line with your second and third toes. Rotate your back foot in slightly. (Your foot, knee, and hip should be in the same line.) Anchor your weight into both feet evenly and draw your belly button up and back toward the spine. Reach your arms away from each other and out to a T-shape, and focus your eyes across the top of the front hand. On each inhalation, reach your arms farther away from each other; on your exhalations, bend a little more into the front knee. “This pose requires a lot of focus, and it is easy to let the mind wander here. I think that element makes it challenging.” 

6.   Eagle Pose
Root through all four corners of your right foot. Wrap your left leg over your right leg, and then wrap your left foot around your right ankle. Squeeze your thighs together and draw your belly button up and back toward the spine. Wrap your left arm under the right and bring your palms (or back of your hands) to touch. Reach your fingertips toward the ceiling and feel your shoulder blades glide down your back. On the inhalation, squeeze your thighs and arms together; on each exhalation, sit a little bit deeper. Then, repeat on your opposite leg. “I find this pose to be frustrating but rewarding . It requires slow, intentional movements with the breath as well as the mind. It’s a wonderful pose to practice staying present.”

7.   Headstand
From Extended Puppy Pose (at a wall), clasp your hands together so both pinkies are pressing down into the mat evenly. Bring the top of your head between your hands and walk your feet toward the body until you find tiptoes. Extend one leg at a time. Shift your weight forward, onto your forearms and head, hugging your elbows in toward each other. Hug your knees in toward your body, until your hips stack above your shoulders. Activate your core by drawing your belly button up and back toward the spine. Extend one leg, then the other, so your feet are stacked above your hips and shoulders. On an inhalation, zip up your legs and press up through your feet; on an exhalation, draw your belly button back toward your spine. “I find this pose to be the most humbling, and one that keeps me the most in sync with my breath. In a world of instant gratification, this pose offers a reminder that the practice you put in truly shows the results you get out.

8.   Constructive Rest
Lie flat on your back, knees bent, and soles of your feet on the outer edges of your mat. Knock your knees in toward each other to release your low back. Relax your neck and shoulders and bring one hand to your heart and the other to your belly. Close your eyes. On each inhalation, feel your hands rise as you expand your front body and chest. On each exhalation, allow your body to be heavy. “I find this pose to be soothing. The weight of your hands on your body can be calming. It also brings your awareness to your physical space, as well as your physical body.”