Today’s guest post explains how the alternative approach of yoga can help relieve post-traumatic stress symptoms, and why.
Yoga, Trauma and the Body-Mind I’m so pleased to chat with you about how yoga can help heal PTSD. But before I do that, I’d like to share a favorite anecdote.
In his book, Somatics1, Thomas Hanna tells the story of a rancher, in his 60s, who fell when he was getting out of his truck. He received minor injuries from the fall. These healed within weeks.
But, here’s the important part: as he fell, the left side of his body tightened, cringing and bracing. And what remained, a full year later, was a distortion in his frame, his “rib cage [pulling] so far over to the left that it was touching his pelvis” precisely the same kind of “cringing” effect that his body assumed when he fell. Why?
No injury created the pull. At the time of the fall, the rancher contracted his body to protect himself. The cringing was a response to his fear of falling a reasonable fear for a man in his sixties. And that fear left its residue in his body, even after the external injuries had healed.
This story gives us a great example of how trauma is embedded in the body. A traumatic incident may or may not leave physical wounds, but the body takes up the imprint of mind’s emotional distress, and these effects linger. They may manifest in the muscles and bones of the body, as with the rancher, or in our digestive or immune systems. They may settle into our very chemistry, affecting our neurotransmitters. But settle, they will. And until we discharge that trauma from the mind, yes, but from the body, as well, it will continue to linger, affecting the quality of our lives.
Hatha yoga, the yoga of body and breath, is an invitation to discharge the trauma that resides in our bodies and to do it in a way that respects our limitations, our needs, and our choices. By providing our muscles and organs and minds with new information that we””re now safe to grow and change we can gradually release the lessons of the past that no longer serve us.
In a related way, yoga introduces us to our bodies. This is helpful for all of us, but it’s especially important for folks whose sense of safety in their bodies was taken away by trauma, or for those of us who never felt safe in our bodies to begin with. Through yoga postures and breathing exercises, we can bring our attention to our bodies in manageable steps. In one pose, for example, we might connect with the muscles of our legs. And as we work with that same pose again, we might even learn how to access those muscles, to direct them, to understand what they do and how they do it. The same is true of the breath. How many of us pay any attention to our breath during the day much less understand its connection to our state of mind? Yoga brings the breath into our awareness, then begins to teach us how to use that awareness as a tool.
Yoga also helps heal trauma-related ailments. Sixty-four percent of sufferers of chronic pain have PTSD2. As many as fifty-four percent of folks with Irritable Bowel Syndrome have sexual abuse histories2. And there are a host of other illnesses with a high PTSD correspondence, including heart trouble, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue3. Studies and survivors’ experiential wisdom strongly suggest that yoga eases the symptoms of all these disorders 4, 5, 6. Yoga has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels which, in excessive amounts, has been implicated in depression, diabetes and obesity7, 8.
Finally, yoga teaches us how to introduce calm into the body-mind loop. How often do well-meaning people tell PTSD-ers that they just need to relax? Okay, sounds fantastic, we say. How exactly do I DO that? Yoga offers us useable tools for calming the body-mind. With mindful breathing and gentle, restorative yoga techniques, we can help the body achieve a more serene state. And because of the deep interconnectedness of the mind and the body, when we intervene at the level of one, we affect the other. When the body is calm, the mind is calm, and vice versa.
But that’s not all. As we progress down our healing paths, yoga offers increasingly advanced tools for achieving wellness. Yoga can, in fact, become a partner in all our journeys, contributing to quality of life as we move beyond our diagnoses into joyful, healthful living.
1. Somatics: Reawakening the Mind””s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna
2. Pain Control with EMDR: An Information Processing Approach by Mark Grant, MA
3. Physical Health Effects of Traumatic Exposure by Paula P. Schnurr, Ph.D.,