Why Yoga for Trauma?

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

I had an enlightening experience at a trauma informed training last month. We did an exercise observing images which alternated in emotional charge; images of puppies, car accidents, flowers and men in prison. We were asked to notice and journal related body sensations.

I noticed something new, when I felt stressed the skin on my feet and hands would feel cold and tingle. I noticed this again two weeks later at another training, I was feeling anxious waiting for my turn to speak. I drew my awareness to this sensation; I created movement by circling my hands and feet and added a few relaxing breaths. I was able to create a sense of calm in my body. I felt more at ease when I spoke to the group.

I have been getting to know myself on a deeper physical level for the last few years. The tingling sensation was new, but the overall experience of developing awareness was not.

When I started my training 4 years ago I was very disconnected from my body. I was under a lot of stress. My husband had been diagnosed with PTSD,and I was lost. I had my own traumatic experiences and the safe family foundation I had built was disappearing. I was caught in a toxic cycle of reacting to my husband and his pain.

I talked to therapists and friends. Being an intellectual person, I already had the story of “why” all mapped out. I could recite this calmly and easily because I had shut-off all my body sensations and underlying emotions. If anyone asked, “I felt fine”.

I was a floating head – living in my mind, disconnected from my physical self.

I would remain this way, as the increasing turmoil in my life would open up old wounds. The result would be a total breakdown. I would fall off an emotional cliff and feel everything. I would become overwhelmed and panicked. I would hide in the shower and cry. I would become a 12 year old girl, feeling bullied, alone and ashamed. The neurological wounds imprinted in my body would not release their energy. I had no ability to relate to my body or my pain to be able to let go.

Through yoga and meditation, I’ve gotten to know myself again. I am learning to be aware of, and regulate my emotions. I have practiced yoga for 20 years, but never had the understanding of “why” it made me happy until I was faced with these new challenges. Why it made me relaxed and more in control of my actions. I didn’t fully understand the healing power of body awareness and movement. Like many yoga students, I simply enjoyed the practice.

How - Trauma imprints the body, not just the mind

Peter Levine in his book In an Unspoken Voice describes how trauma happens in the body. He describes how the body can become scared stiff or overwhelmed; creating an experience of “dis-ease”. A traumatic stimulus sets off a neurological cycle of arousal and reaction. If we can’t successfully react, feeling the release of escape or conclusion, this can imprint our nervous system and Post traumatic Injuries can occur. We can become trapped in a cycle of immobility.

I appreciate Levine’s comparisons to how animals are able to release stress in the wild. An animal escaping from a tiger can conclude the cycle of fear by running and moving its body. A bear shot by a tranquilizer dart will shake and tremble when it wakes up releasing the sense of fear and immobilization.

As humans, we don’t always have the opportunity to escape from stress. First responders, like my husband, are expected to move towards stress to overcome a required task. I have experienced unhealthy situations where I’ve been unable to talk about stressors and find support; I’ve experienced the expectation of keeping a stiff upper lip and holding emotions in. I don’t think this experience is uncommon.

I can speak to the experience of re-living the pain of past traumatic events. By noticing where sensation lives in my body, adding breath, movement and empathy, I was able to let this experience from my past go and move on.

I would suggest exploring various forms of yoga practice as a way for others to also embody this process.

Why? Emotional Control

If our nervous system was an engine, the autonomic nervous system would control the brakes and the gas. A healthy nervous system is highly responsive and can speed up or slow down when we need it to. When we encounter something stressful, like a large snake, our nervous system automatically revs and speeds up to react. After we realize the thing that scared us is not a threat, perhaps noticing the snake was just a misshapen stick, we need to our nervous system to engage the brakes allowing us to relax. Emotional control provides the ability to pause and assess situations, choosing how we want to respond.

Yoga teaches us how to pause; pause at the end of a breath, pause at the end of a movement, pause and notice sensation, pause and choose where to go next. Yoga teaches us to slow down, notice and choose.

A regular yoga practice has changed my life. One of my favorite quotes is by Dolly Parton and it simply states “Live your life on Purpose”. Yoga has given me the gift of being able to choose who I want to be.

Why? It’s an alternative to talking

Yoga holds the benefit of not needing to understand or verbalize the story behind our un-ease. It creates awareness and access to experiences through our body instead of through the mind.

In my experience I had difficulty accessing my emotions through talking alone. Another person I met shared their story with me of not understanding emotional pain but feeling it. Talking about traumatic experiences can be very stressful. Having another way to access emotional release without talking can be very beneficial.

Note, however, that Yoga and movement practices work with, not replace, the need for social support and talk therapy.

Why? Becoming Comfortable with your body

If you’ve experienced trauma you may feel disconnected from yourself. Spending time noticing sensation can help create a sense of comfort with feeling in your body. It can create a sense of ease. Establishing a mind body connection can get us out of our head and back into a space where we feel present.

And Yes! It can be very relaxing

Relaxing is a commonly advertised benefit of yoga. A yoga class can calm the nervous system; although it might not happen at first. This shouldn’t be automatically expected during the first yoga class. In a trauma informed class learning to be comfortable in the body may be the first step before a sense of relaxation is accessible.

Interested in starting a practice?

A beginner yoga practice is accessible and adaptable to all bodies. Despite media images of focused on only lean flexible bodies, yoga is for everyone. If you are new to yoga and looking for a class, I would suggest confirming what level, pace and style meets your needs.

If personal comfort is a concern, a trauma informed class is a great option. The instruction is designed to be clear and set at a comfortable pace. The instructor will endeavor to create a calming environment, eliminating adjustments and avoiding poses and descriptions that may trigger an unbalanced response in students.

Lisa Quintin is a yoga instructor and trauma survivor, please contact her for a and introduction to healing with yoga and a class near you

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