Yoga’s multi-dimensional approach can be a powerful tool for healing trauma and there is growing scientific research to support this. Yoga helps us to reconnect with our body, which is an essential part of the healing process for anybody healing from trauma. It also builds capacity to nurture self-compassion- fundamental for trauma survivors who experience chronic feelings of shame and worthlessness.
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound and is a very frightening or distressing event that can be life threatening or be perceived as life threatening to physical or psychological wellbeing. Experiences of trauma can include childhood abuse and neglect, sexual assault and rape, intimate partner violence, experiences of war and torture, chronic homelessness, chronic physical illnesses, natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, car and fire accidents and can be experienced as a single or re-occurring event. Trauma experiences that have not been processed, or integrated into our physical, psychological and emotional landscape can have an intrusive impact on daily life. Some of the impacts of trauma include: difficulty sleeping, feeling agitated, anxious or depressed, difficulty concentrating and being around large groups of people, self-hate and worthlessness, feeling emotionally and physically numb, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, self-harm and a misuse of substances such as alcohol and drugs and prescription medications.
The Autonomic Nervous System and the Brain
To understand how yoga can assist in trauma recovery we need to understand how trauma- particularly how complex trauma affects the body. The best place to start is to understand the autonomic nervous system.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) consists of two branches – the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is responsible for triggering the flight or flight response when the body senses and perceives danger. The SNS moves blood to the muscles for quick action, partly triggered by the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, which increases the heart rate and increase blood pressure in response to danger.
The part of the brain that is responsible for alerting us to what is dangerous or what is safe is the amygdalla.
Internationally acclaimed trauma expert, psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk in his book, “The body keeps the score” likens the amygdalla to a smoke detector. “The central function of the amygdalla, which I call the brain’s smoke detector, is to identify whether incoming input is relevant for our survival….if the amygdalla senses a threat…it sends an instant message down the hypothalamus and brain stem, recruiting the stress hormone system and the ANS to orchestrate a whole body response” (pg 60). The amygdalla’s danger signal releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline preparing the body to either run or fight back. When it recognises that the danger is over the body returns to normal. This is the job of the PNS. The PNS releases acetylcholine that calms arousal by relaxing muscles, slowing down the heart rate and returning breathing back to a normal rhythm. The PNS is essential for self-preservation, digestion, rest and wound healing.
In complex trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder the body and its physiology get stuck and the ANS becomes imbalanced. The amygdalla becomes hyperactive and starts reacting like it’s in constant danger. In response to this the body continues to secrete stress hormones, which leave a person in a hyper-aroused state. When the body thinks it’s in constant danger the risk of misinterpreting whether a situation is dangerous or safe becomes blurred.
One way to calm down the amygdalla is to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. Van der Kolk refers to the pre-frontal cortex as the “watchtower”. The pre-frontal cortex enables people to observe what is going on and then predict and make conscious choices about what it observes. In trauma this system breaks down and becomes imbalanced making it challenging to control emotions and impulses. This is the part of the brain that is most affected by trauma.
On the most basic level, yoga gives people an opportunity to release tension in muscles that are chronically tight from the body’s constant feeling of danger- always alert to every sound in the room, every movement in the room.
With practice yoga helps us to reclaim a connection to our body, which increases opportunities to experience ourselves viscerally. To be able to feel muscles contract or extend or to feel our feet on the ground is an extremely important part of the healing process for those people who have become numb to feeling or for those who experience dissociation in an attempt to survive.
Yoga postures provide opportunities to explore mindfulness as postures help us remain connected to the present by focussing the mind’s attention completely in the body. Yoga postures cultivate an ability to observe sensations in the body and to become familiar with those sensations that evoke discomfort. By holding a posture we learn that discomfort can be tolerated and momentary and does come to an end. This is a powerful experience for those trapped in the memory of trauma. Mindfulness puts us in touch with our moment –to- moment ever-changing nature of our feelings and emotions. Van der Kolk notes that, “When we pay focussed attention to our body sensations we can recognise our emotions and with that increase our control over them.”
One of the core practices of yoga is breath awareness. Paying particular attention to the breath helps us experience the immediacy of the present moment. Mindful breathing techniques regulate breathing, activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm the mind. Breathing techniques can be a powerful self-soothing tool for regulating heightened emotional states. Van der Kolk also notes that a growing body of research is showing that activities like yoga, meditation and mindfulness allows you to deeply access the “watchtower”. Research is showing that as little as one hour of yoga once a week over a period of eight weeks has shown thickening of the pre-frontal cortex. For more information about cutting edge research into the effects of meditation and yoga on brain activity and changes in brain structure check out Dr Sarah Lazar.
The body becomes the enemy because of the sense of helplessness, lack of control and self-blame felt during the time of the trauma. As the body’s physiology begins to be restored we come to slowly befriend the body. Reclaiming a loving connection to the body is central to the healing process and has a profound effect on our physical and emotional wellbeing. Developing self-compassion is the key to reconnecting to our body in a loving way.
Yoga is the ultimate practice for cultivating self-compassion because its teachings reveal that our innate inner essence is unconditional love and acceptance. Yoga calls this the True Self. Some western talking therapies like Internal Family Systems Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy often draw on a concept of a Self that is separate to our feelings and experiences. The True Self in yoga is both transcendent and immanent and is unaffected by our life story- it sits beyond our feelings, emotions and experiences and yet it contains them all! The True Self feels and holds and embraces the good, the bad and the ugly with total unconditional acceptance and love. Yoga teaches us that it is only when we move towards difficult sensations, emotions, feelings and memories with total openness and compassion that they begin to loose the power they hold over us.
If we can find our way to the True Self through practice and time we slowly unveil a deeper layer within our being that stands stronger than our life experiences and the emotional currents of our mind.
Yoga affirms that we are much bigger than the events that have taken place in our life. When we allow the armour of our heart that has ensured our survival up until now, to gradually crack open, a whole new desire to care and deeply know ourselves unfolds.
A practice for activating the parasympathetic nervous system
I return to the innate wisdom of my body to heal itself. I remain in restful awareness
You may choose to record this brief practice so that you can immerse yourself into it more easily.
Eleni Kidis is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and certified Amrit Method Yoga Nidra teacher. She is also a social worker/counsellor and provides private yoga sessions for trauma survivors. She is the founder of Yogahari Healing Art and will be running a 5 – week Restoring Balance Course for trauma recovery and mental wellbeing. Restoring Balance begins Saturday 5th November 2016.
For bookings please visit: yogahari.com.au or 0403 774 410