Before I go directly into the benefits of yoga, I would first like to write about trauma, what it is and what it isn't. As a result of many studies, it has become agreed that the trauma we suffer does not reside in the event that cause physical or emotional pain, nor in the pain itself or in the story we attach to it. The trauma is caused by the energetic response to the event that gets blocked in our body when we are not able to release it in the aftermath, according to Peter A. Levine PhD, who made it his life’s work to explain and transform trauma.
When we look at this description, it becomes clear that trauma can be induced by a far wider variety of events than only political and war crimes, domestic violence and abuse. An accident, bullying, hospitalization or the sudden death of a loved one can be the cause of posttraumatic stress and dissociation in various degrees.
Unfortunately, we in the West are not equipped with a lot of tools to regain control over our lives after a stressful event, and, as a result of all the cuts in mental health care, it has become quite a lottery to find yourself good and affordable therapy when you need it. I, for example, had to wait 9 months before a therapy program became available for me after my suicide attempt in 2004. Therefor it is understandable that people often try to find solace in self-medication or prescription drugs, only to discover that it is extremely difficult to wean off them after some time and that it didn’t cure the pain.
On a more positive note, when we want to release and overcome the debilitating effects of trauma, we don’t need to wait 9 months to take action. We can work on ourselves. First thing we can do is to re-balance and strengthen our central nervous system, because that is where the posttraumatic responses are ignited.
We can use the same method to train our nervous system as when we want to train our muscles or condition; by alternating periods of stress and relaxation we restore the balance and build resistance. Too much stress can cause injuries in the form of new trauma, while long periods of rest will weaken the nervous system further. It is the pendulation that does it.
It's wellknown that almost all kinds of exercise are good for us, whether it is dance, gymnastics, football, a walk in the mountains or tai chi; they all serve certain goals like equilibrium, strength, flexibility or body-awareness. However, as people in recovery from long-term stress or trauma, no matter how many years have past since the original event took place, we benefit most from a form of exercise that can help us on all levels of our being, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Traumatised people often have lost the connection with their inner feelings and bodily sensations to a certain extent, a 'blessing' called dissociation that occurs when feeling becomes to painful. This implies that when we are going to restore these connections, we preferably do that in an environment where we feel safe and nurtured and in a pace that feels comfortable to us. If we want to break through resistance or fear too quickly, we risk further traumatization.
A body-based approach that has the ability to touch and transform us on all levels, is Yoga.
Yoga offers not just a physical training, it is an ancient practice to access, heal and integrate the body, mind and spirit. While moving into the postures guided by our breath, we connect with our thoughts, feelings and emotions, and discover how we interact with ourselves. I, for example, discovered, after pushing myself so far that I got injured, how harshly I was judging the limitations of my body. And obviously I didn't just judged myself..
A recent study of women who suffered treatment-resistant complex PTSD, at The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, has shown that the practice of Trauma Sensitive Yoga reduced PTSD symptoms by 51%, and 83% of the women no longer met the criteria for PTSD after 20 weeks of Yoga-therapy. Other studies show that the heart rate variability increases, what means that the nervous system gains strength and the hypersensitivity for stress, that is one of the PTSD symptoms, decreases.
Another great advantage of Yoga in comparison with a lot of other exercises is that it can be done by everyone, healthy, injured or (partly) immobilized. Even for paraplegic students Yoga can be uselful, resulting in profound benefits to their nervous systems and overall well-being.
When we start the Yoga practice, we use the breath to direct our awareness to our bodily sensations in a non-threatening way, at the same time positioning us firmly in the here and now. That is the starting point for further exploration, but only if, and when, it feels comfortable to succeed. Yoga offers specific poses (asanas) to open up those areas in our body that have contracted to hold unreleased energy, which is often the case in the pelvis, heart, shoulder and throat area, as well as poses for deep relaxation that might trigger an emotional release. This is a normal reaction, as we link our awareness with our feelings and emotions, perhaps since long. A powerful tool that can help us to dive deeper is the Emotional Walkabout, developed by yoga teacher Bija Bennett, which is a step-by-step process to navigate through emotions.
We can safely state that (trauma-sensitive) Yoga is a powerful and effective method for people who suffer from long-term stress and trauma to come home in our body, restore our direct experience and feel a sense of control and involvement with life again.
All given information is meant as merely information and never aim to replace advise or therapy from a medical professional.