You may have heard of yoga being taught in schools, prisons, and as part of addiction and recovery programs and wondered: how does making strange shapes with your body help you heal? As yoga becomes the subject of more scientific study, we are developing a deeper understanding of why it is so beneficial in restoring and maintaining mental and emotional health. As both a yoga teacher and a trauma therapist, I see clearly how trauma treatment and yogic practices connect and complement each other.
Here are three important ways yoga can help with trauma recovery.
Balancing the Nervous System
Many current theories of trauma focus on the function of the nervous system, its desire to protect us, and its propensity to become dysregulated in the face of extreme threat (for more info on the nervous system, read The Key Role Your Nervous System Plays in Trauma Recovery). While trauma therapists will talk about hyper-arousal, hypo-arousal, and the window of tolerance, yogis will use the terms tamas, rajas, and sattva to describe physiological and emotional extremes and the balance we seek through practice.
It’s not necessary to remember these words, but understanding the concept of balancing your nervous system can be extremely helpful for a trauma survivor. When the nervous system is overstimulated (or hyper-aroused/rajasic), one may tend toward anxiety, anger, irritability, or restlessness, whereas when it is under-stimulated one is more likely to experience depression, dissociation, lethargy, and/or fatigue. Yoga postures can stimulate, soothe, and balance the nervous system, which helps with the therapeutic goal of balancing out these extremes. A healthy nervous system sets the stage for mental and emotional health.
Yoga encourages range of motion and gives practitioners the opportunity not just to hold a new posture, but to explore tension held in the body with the purpose of releasing it. Somatic therapists often say, “The issues are in the tissues.” The mindful movement yoga provides gives us a chance to feel into our own tissues, and to create space for the issues they may hold. Simply standing up straight can pose a significant challenge to someone who has endured abuse or is feeling fearful, but it can feel more attainable to practice this individually or as part of a class where there is a safe, supportive atmosphere.
In addition, the posture we place our bodies in can have effects on the rest of our systems. As researchers such as Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School have identified, the way we hold our bodies has a strong impact on how we feel. Dr. Cuddy’s research suggests that as little as two minutes of holding a position can change hormones and shift a person’s capacity to respond to stress. Yoga poses that open the front of the body have long been understood to bring energy, to stimulate the nervous system and even elevate mood, while poses that close the front of the body, such as forward bends, are known to be more soothing and quieting for the brain and body. A healthy yoga practice will include both of these types of postures and leave the practitioner feeling more balanced than he or she felt at the beginning of the practice.
Benefits of Breathing
While a quick glance at the cover of a yoga magazine may lead you to believe yoga is about contorting your body, not all bodies create these drastic shapes; in fact, many yoga poses are quite moderate. No matter the difficulty of the yoga pose, breathing is an essential piece of the practice. Different lineages vary in how they emphasize breath work, but most agree that a smooth, steady breath is essential in the yoga practice.
Interestingly, Dr. Stephen Porges, founder of the polyvagal theory of the nervous system, agrees that a long, slow exhale can have a positive effect on the nervous system and on our capacity to connect well with other human beings.
In Sanskrit, breath work is called pranayama. The word prana means not only breath but also energy, or life force. Many yogis believe that this spiritual energy enters and leaves the body with the breath, and that the practice of elongating and developing the breath capacity increases our ability to feel this life force. If you connect with this idea, it can be a wonderful addition to breathing practices. For clinicians reading along, know that many cultures of the world have a word or concept for energy and that while this is a part of yoga science does not measure, it can be a motivating factor for many who practice.
These are just three ways that yoga helps with trauma recovery, but there are many more. If you are curious about yoga, consider doing a search for a local studio and seek out a practice and teacher you can connect with. You can also ask your therapist if he or she is familiar with yoga and its effects on mood, or seek out a therapist who has this expertise. As yoga grows in popularity and research continues in this area, an increasing number of mental health professionals are becoming familiar with yoga’s benefits and can guide you on your path of healing.
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