Healing Trauma Through Yoga

Posted September 17, 2014 by

common denominator of all trauma is an alienation and disconnection from the body as well as a reduced capacity to be present in the here and now. The body, instead of being an ally in ones road to recovery, becomes the enemy. The enemy who started on the outside is transformed into an inner torment. The lives of trauma survivors comes to revolve around isolating and neutralizing unwanted sensory experiences, dulling their inner world with drugs, alcohol or self-injury.Trauma has a way of tearing us from the present moment and reality, making us feel at times as if were are right back in the thick of a traumatic event, while at other times making us feel numb and disconnected from the world.

Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD

How can we learn to befriend and safely inhabit our bodies?

 For those burdened by trauma narratives, the accompanying symptoms can vary from debilitating anxiety, to somatic manifestations like chronic pain. Current research now suggests that meditative practices that connect movement with the breath are the safest and most efficient ways of managing trauma.

 Yoga not only focuses on strength and flexibility but on cultivating a sense of inner peace and stillness, a rare experience from those with trauma narratives. The purpose of yoga is to unite the mind, body and spirit through a series of stretches and poses.  It is about promoting balance in the body and an awareness of self.  

How EXACTLY does yoga helps trauma survivors?

Our natural survival system is called our Autonomic Nervous System which is comprised of two branches, the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System. Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) gets activated when we sense danger.  It gets our blood pumping and floods our system with hormones that will help us fight or flee a dangerous situation. Our Parasympathetic Nervous System gets activated when we recognize that the danger is gone and we are safe.  It floods our body with hormones that help our heart rate slow down and allows us to relax. It tells our muscles to relax, it promotes good digestion and immune functions, and even is responsible for proper sleep. It also is key in healing and restorative functions.

When we are traumatized our Parasympathetic Nervous System becomes faulty and no longer works properly after a stressful event.  This leads us feeling like we are in a constant state of attack, causing us to feel stressed and anxious. We may have difficulty bringing our heart rate down, or find ourselves being more irritable, jumpy or sensitive to sounds or touch.  It can hinder our capacity to bounce back from illness, it can disturb our sleep and even impair our digestion.

So how can yoga help?

Yoga strengthens our Parasympathetic Nervous System.  The practice of mindful and calm breathing paired with a gentle awareness of our bodies is the key to improving our stress response.

 Bessel van der Kolk, Founder of the Trauma Centre, and internationally recognized leader in the field of trauma, has studied the profound impact yoga has on the traumatized spirit.  He conducted a study of 64 women with chronic, treatment unresponsive Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Half of the participants were assigned to a 10 week Trauma Informed Yoga Program, while the others were assigned to a control group. Those that were assigned to the yoga class had a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms. Most notably, 52% of those in the yoga program no longer met the criteria of PTSD!

In other studies, yoga has also shown to improve Heart Rate Variability.  This measures the health of the autonomic nervous system and also is the most effective predictor of longevity and heart health.

 Those with a High Heart Rate Variability are able to manage stress both psychologically and physically, which is related to better heart health and vitality.  Those with a Low Heart Rate Variability struggle to regain stability after stressful events. They are often more susceptible to illness and are associated with a shorter lifespan. As you can imagine, those who carry trauma narratives have been shown to have considerably lower heart rate variability. 

 There are several ways you can improve your heart rate variability such as regular exercise, boosting your vitamin B12 and reducing stress in your life.  However, the most effective way to improve and maintain a high heart rate variability is….

Yup you guessed it – YOGA!

Yoga has been proven to increase heart rate variability up to %150! It does this by training your nerve supply to the heart and arteries to be more response to your breath. This process of training our nervous system is called neuroplasticity. 

 On that note, if trauma has damaged your mind, body and spirit, there is hope.  Yoga and meditation are gentle and safe ways to regain control over a mind and body that has felt foreign and a source of pain. Yoga is not only the process of quieting the mind, but also healing the heart.


Excerpt from Healing Life’s Traumas with Yoga by Denise Kersten Wills

The memory of the trauma is imprinted on the human organism,” he says. “I don’t think you can overcome it unless you learn to have a friendly relationship with your body.” Van der Kolk found yoga a safe and gentle means of becoming reacquainted with the body. “Yoga reestablishes the sense of time,” he says. “You notice how things change and flow inside your body.”
Learning relaxation and breathing techniques helps PTSD patients calm themselves down when they sense that a flashback or panic attack is coming.

If you are interested in trying out yoga there are MANY affordable options from online videos that you can practice in the comfort of your home, to drop in (or memberships) at your local gym or yoga studio.  Below are a few links that I have found very useful! You can also find plenty of free videos for beginners on YouTube!

 Unlimited online yoga videos for under $12.50 per month!

Ekhart Yoga

Gaiam: MyYoga Online

Drop In Yoga Classes in Guelph (Under $20 per lesson)

Moksha (hot)Yoga

Tranquil Yoga Studio
We also have FREE passes for Tranquil Yoga Studio!!!

 Maha Pura Yoga