The body has a key role in trauma development and trauma resolution and yoga can work as a bridge between the mind/body disconnect and therefore has a place in its healing. As trauma is encoded into brain memory or in body memories then this becomes a part of the unconscious life of that person. According to body/mind researcher and M.D, Alexander Lowen, trauma is widely perceived as a brain and mental condition, with little regard given to the role of the body in trauma activation, then subsequent trauma re-activation later on. The body has a key role in trauma development and trauma resolution.
Yoga in its origins was traditionally performed as “preparation for meditation” practice, or the meditation practice itself was contained within a wider yoga process. Stretching the body muscles and deepen breathing was intended to induce suppleness of body and mind for mediation. As such, yoga created the basis for muscular relaxation, energy movement in and through the body, and relaxed the person’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) so that the stressed nature of the person dissipated. A supple body creates a supple mind that calms under the process of inner attention that comes from meditating.
It is often hard for trauma survivors to sit and meditate. They find themselves experiencing heightened states of anxiety and arousal when they attempt to be still and critically when they turn their outer attention inwards into the inner unconscious world of their images. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is turned on and they are in a state of heightened vigilance. When you ask a traumatized or stressed person to shift from outward to inward attention of their senses they can feel unsafe. For that person the process of outward attention is a survival response. If you take it away and ask them to turn inwards they hyper-arouse, the brain feels stripped of a defense and vulnerable. Yoga can be a vehicle that can help to retrain the mind and allow for slow and safe entry back into the body.
Despite more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of Yoga. We do know, however, that it originated in India 5,000 or more years ago and was considered a science of uniting the mind and the body (which is also the goal of body psychotherapy). Since then, Yoga has undergone many evolutions and there are a broad variety of theory’s and practices. Today, the practice of yoga as we know it in the West involves repeated performance of exercises or techniques (poses) that are intended to produce both physical and mental benefits. The mental aspects of yoga encourage the practitioner to let go of old behavior patterns, habits or attachments. Focus is the key to making improvements. With focus comes control and power. The power in question is the energy of consciousness itself. Yoga is a progressive process of replacing our unconscious thought patterns and behavior with new, more beneficial patterns that are helpful towards a better life. Its effectiveness lies in its simplicity of process, its ability to evoke a sense of wholeness, balance and calm. One works on tuning-in to their body in that present moment and then begin to open and strengthen through breathe and movement. By paying attention to “where you are now” and then striving to make that condition better, we become focused on creating positive changes that unite us with our highest aspirations. The intention of yoga is to empower the individual by creating focus and a conscious path of connectivity between breath, physical body, and emotions. It takes time to achieve the goal of self-transformation, and therefore practitioners of yoga must first practice patience. All these skills practiced on the mat are skills that are transferable into life and ultimately help with mastery over reactions to the pressures and conflicts of life.
According to a Yoga Journal survey in 2016, over 36 million Americans, up from 20.4 million in 2012, practice yoga and annual practitioners spent $16 billion on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories, up from $10 billion over the past four years. Harvard Health Publications states that yoga promotes physical health in multiple ways. Some of them derive from better stress management. Others come more directly from the physical movements and postures in yoga, which help promote flexibility and reduce joint pain and arthritis. A growing body of research also reports stress relief, help with migraines, osteoporosis, balance and mobility issues, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, fibromyalgia, and ADHD.
As a yoga teacher and practitioner I have come to realize that yoga can be a vehicle to break down both mental and muscular patterns that hold tension and restrict movement.
In Yoga, the chakras (wheel) are non-physical energy centers, portals in the field of the subtle energy body through which a yoga practitioner practices certain poses to increase or decrease energy flow. Each major chakra in the human body is a center of swirling energy positioned at one of seven points, from the base of your spine to the top of your head. You might think of them as a circulatory system for the energy system. They are conceived of as whirling, wheel-like vortexes through which universal/cosmic energy flows into and out of a person. Each of the seven chakras have specific qualities that correspond to the refinement of energy from the base-level material-self identity, located at the first chakras, up to the higher vibration spirit-level awareness of being at our crown. Each chakra is associated with a certain part of the body and a certain organ in which it provides with the energy it needs to function. Additionally, just as every organ in the human body has its equivalent on the mental and spiritual level, so too every chakra corresponds to a specific aspect of human behavior and development.
The theory states that the openness and flow of energy through our chakras determines our state of health and balance.
In 2010, Bessel van der Kolk, MD and colleagues reported their findings on a three-year study conducted at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, with women who have treatment-resistant complex PTSD. Results revealed that participation in trauma-informed gentle yoga leads to a significant reduction (over 30 percent) in symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including fewer intrusive thoughts and less dissociation from the body. By the end of the study (after only 10 weeks of yoga) several women in the yoga group no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Other smaller studies show yoga increases heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of how robust the brain’s arousal systems are. It appears that traumatized people have unusually low HRV, says van der Kolk, which could explain why they are “so reactive to minor stresses and so prone to develop a variety of physical illnesses.” Yoga’s ability to touch us on every level of our being—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—makes it a powerful and effective means for trauma victims to inhibit their bodies safely, calm their minds, experience emotions directly, and begin to feel a sense of strength and control.