Yoga therapy for survivors of trauma and abuse

Yoga therapy for survivors of trauma and abuse

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Yoga can heal the body and the soul

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2014 — Yoga and meditation serve as effective therapeutic approaches to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression for survivors of abuse and trauma.

Trauma explained

Trauma is any combination of physical, emotional or spiritual assault against a person that triggers immediate and involuntary responses in the body and mind resulting in stress, anxiety and/or depression in the aftermath.

Exposure, directly or indirectly, to a traumatic event and/or periods of perpetual emotional, physical and/or spiritual abuse, robs our thoughts and actions of their freedom. Our body involuntarily reacts by sending fear signals to our brain, activating our sympathetic nervous system and putting us in a position to fight, take flight, or freeze.

We lose control. Our heart begins to race and our breath becomes labored and stuttered. Our thoughts race. We fight back. We run away. We become immobile from shock. We scramble to find balance in our confusion.

These fearful and involuntary reactions experienced inside and immediately following the trauma event become our future norm and conditioned response to any situation that poses a real or perceived threat. The trauma event and/or series of trauma events compromises our sympathetic nervous system rendering it ineffective and unreliable, and unfortunately, the conditioned trigger responses find a comfortable home inside our brain, muscles, organs and connective tissues.

List of involuntary reactions and signs of trauma

Before a treatment or therapy can be prescribed or practiced, a survivors must first be willing to accept there is an imbalance and help is needed.

The following are common signs and symptoms experienced and displayed by individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress and/or anxiety:

  1. Intrusive symptoms – recurrent involuntary memories of the trauma, traumatic nightmares, flashbacks, or intense distress when exposed to a reminder of the trauma.
  2. Avoidance – efforts to avoid trauma-related thoughts and feelings as well as things or situations that may remind the person of the trauma such as objects, locations, situations, people, and places.
  3. Negative changes in thoughts and feelings – difficulties remembering important aspects of the trauma, pervasive negative feelings about oneself related to the trauma, loss of interest in daily activities, ongoing feelings of shame, horror, guilt, or anger, feeling alienated from others, and/or an inability to feel emotions.
  4. Changes in emotional reactivity – increased irritability or aggression, self-destructiveness, startling easily, problems with concentration, sleep disturbance, or being overly fearful.

Clearly, once understood, trauma is a holistic assault that consumes our body and our mind and continues to consume and retraumatize our body and mind the longer we remain in a state of imbalance and false conditioning.

How yoga works

Yoga works to recondition the involuntary reactions of our sympathetic nervous system and to rediscover our lost balance by combining mindful, voluntary and purposeful body and breath work to release the physical and emotional trauma trapped in our muscles, joints, connective tissues and our brain.

When we practice yoga, the skeletal/muscular/neuro proprioceptors, sensory nerve endings throughout our bodies that naturally ignite when imbalance is sensed, are activated and nurtured. This concurrent activation of proprioceptors in our body and mind silently work to bring us back into balance.

With continued practice, yoga realigns our conscious proprioception—body alignment and awareness of our physical bodies within our surroundings—to our unconscious proprioception—those conditioned patterns of thinking caused by trauma.

Poses like tree pose and warrior 3 and twists and lunges…really all of the postures/asanas… require us to pay attention and to be more patient with our body balance and alignment, which serves to balance both our conscious and unconscious proprioceptions.

Other ways yoga tackles imbalances and disease caused by trauma:

>>Internal organs are massaged.

>>Nerves are toned.

>>Respiration, energy, and vitality are restored.

>>Mind relaxes and anxieties are released.

>>Self-acceptance is encouraged.

>>Body is purified from the inside.

What it takes to do yoga and where to start

To be effective long-term, yoga requires a commitment of at least several weeks of consistent practice.

Recent studies conducted with older generation veterans concluded that after just 8 weeks of a regular and consistent practice of transcendental meditation (TM), vets with PTSD experienced a 50% decrease in their symptoms and triggers. That’s significant considering TM requires zero movement of the physical body beyond the rise and fall of the lungs, pumping of the heart, and the flow of oxygenated blood to all organs.

To add to its credibility as an effective tool, yoga is gaining the spotlight in integrative health care.

Non-profits like Boulevard Zen and Yoga Hope have successfully provide yoga as therapy to domestic violence survivors and to survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing respectively. Many survivors of cancer also have yoga lessons as part of their recovery programs in hospitals and institutes. In addition, medical students are being encouraged to study and practice yoga to better understand the power of yoga in order to recommend yoga therapy to their future patients.

But you still worry. You still have fears. You have never tried yoga. You are not flexible. You think you’re too fat or too short or too uncoordinated to do yoga. Many believe yoga is just about moving our bodies and being flexible in our joints and in our limbs.

These are myths.

First, yoga isn’t a sport or a competition of any kind. If you fear doing yoga because you think you won’t be good at it, ask yourself this:

“Can I breathe and move at the same time?”

If you answered “Yes” to this questions, then you will be fantastic at yoga.

At the heart of yoga is breath awareness. Yoga requires that we come into total and complete awareness of how we breathe, when we breathe, and when and if we stop breathing. Combine this mental and thoughtful awareness of our breath with movement of our limbs and core and one is doing yoga.

It’s that easy.

Regardless of how flexible your body is when you begin practicing yoga, the healing benefits begin with your first practice as long as you do two things:

  1. Focus on your breathing by paying attention to your inhales, your exhales, and when and if you stop breathing.
  2. Maintain proper alignment of each pose by following the teacher’s cues and only going as deep as your body permits you to go…today.

Once you receive your doctor’s permission to begin yoga therapy, consider restorative yoga, Kripalu, Iyangar, or viniyoga styles. Also, yoga nidra and beginner classes of most styles are also good options. Ideally, find a teacher who understands trauma and/or has yoga as therapy training.

Paula Carrasquillo is a registered and certified yoga teacher and health coach. She is the author of “Escaping the Boy: My Life with a Sociopath” and a survivor of domestic violence and abuse. Follow her on Twitter and on her Love-Life-Om blog.

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