Could yoga really help in trauma recovery?

Quite possibly.

I hear remarkably positive responses every week in a trauma-informed class I teach at a recovery center here in Chicago.

And now a growing body of research supports that yoga could have a powerful influence in healing from traumatic experiences.

Before we get into how it works, let’s take a moment to clarify what we mean by trauma.

What is trauma?

Many of us don’t see ourselves as trauma survivors, even when we are. I know that for myself, despite being a professionally-trained social worker, I significantly downplayed my past for years and felt like this word was reserved for survivors of sexual assault, war, and so forth.

Definitions vary, but trauma can be understood as “any deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope”.

This expands our concept of trauma when we start to realize this can include events and circumstances like:

  • Loss
  • Divorce
  • A childhood with an emotionally unavailable parent
  • A bad accident
  • A long-term illness
  • The list could go on…

It can also include secondary and vicarious trauma, which refer to indirect exposure.

So, how can yoga help?

First, we need to understand what happens when we experience trauma.

Traumatic experiences result in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and body manage perceptions and specific changes in the brain occur. Here are a few examples:

  • Survivors tend to operate in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode in many situations which do not pose an actual threat. We are more likely to experience hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and increased stress hormones.
  • The self-sensing areas in the medial brain (center) do not light up on brain-imaging scans in those who have been traumatized as they do in non-traumatized individuals. Without these centers being active, self-awareness is frequently compromised.
  • Traumatic memories are fragmented, and while survivors might build stories that reflect the traumatic memories, they rarely capture the inner experience of the mind and body. In fact, the area in the frontal lobe of the brain called Broca’s area, which controls speech, goes offline when a trauma flashback is triggered. You can imagine how talk therapy could have limitations.

Traumatic experiences are stored viscerally, so working through the body and movement is critical in being able to regain some control over the body’s response.

Yoga helps us to retrain the body and rewire the brain to feel safe. 

Yoga inherently improves our ability to self-regulate (manage our behavior, emotions, and thoughts) and develop sensory awareness in our bodies. As we learn to observe what is happening in the mind and body, our awareness increases allowing us an opportunity to subtly reconnect with the wisdom of the body.

We then learn to regulate emotional responses while rebuilding a feeling of safety in the body.

Since yoga’s role is heighten our sensory awareness, little by little we begin to reduce fear and arousal, release stress, activate interoception (the sense responsible for internal regulation), and retrain the mind-body connection.

Further, breath awareness and lengthening of the exhalation helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our autonomic nervous system that calms the mind allowing us to feel the present moment.

When we become friends with our bodies, ease and healing ensue.

Yoga is not a substitute for professional treatment. But it can be a great tool in truly augmenting the flexibility of mind and body.

If you’d like to learn more about my classes for trauma recovery, please click here to contact me

Van Der Kolk, Bessel (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.
Emerson, David (2011). Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body.

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