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Fri, May 1, 2015
Saying Yes To Your Body: Reclaiming Yourself Beyond Trauma Through Yoga
The Experience of Trauma
 
Imagine discovering your mind, body, thoughts, and emotions had been suddenly ‘hijacked’ - taken away from your active, conscious control. Disoriented, disconnected, and terrified might well describe your experience.
 
For people who live with the effects of trauma and PTSD, this hijacking repeats itself with great frequency, disrupting and inhibiting their flow of life continually on a daily basis.
 
Although the originiating traumatic event may have occurred years before, the physiological effect of trauma plays out repeatedly in present time and without warning - often with no conscious recall of the initial incident.
 
Trauma Changes The Brain
 
As a yoga teacher who works directly with women who live with the intrusion of trauma and PTSD in their lives, I see these effects daily in their bodies. It can show up as little or no direct eye contact, not being able to speak about what they are feeling in their bodies, or spacing out, etc.
 
Certain key areas of the limbic (emotional) brain, particularly the amygdala, the brain’s “fire alarm”, and the hippocampus (“memory center”), are often impacted by acute trauma. The amygdala becomes hyper-sensitive to seemingly normal stimuli, creating over-arousal and excessive worry.  This set up invites increased release of the hormone cortisol into the body.
 
An excess release of cortisol damages the hippocampus and can result in short-term memory dysfunction and depressed immune system function. Also, over-activation of the amygdala inhibits access to the speech center and to the pre-frontal cortex – the rational decision making center of the brain.
 
Hence, it is not a surprise to me when one of my Trauma Awareness Yoga students is not able to speak to her feelings when we are in session.
 
Neuroimaging studies of the brains of persons living with the effects of PTSD show these brain regions behave differently in structure and function compared to persons for whom trauma has not had an impact.
 
Brain Neuroplasticity and Body-Based Therapies
 
As physically, mentally, and psychologically painful the effects of trauma and PTSD can be, an expanding body of neuroscientific research points to the potential of the brain’s resiliency, sometimes called neuroplasticity. In other words, the brain and the body can recover from the negative effects of trauma.
 
There are several body-based therapies, including Trauma-Informed yoga, that are gaining attention and scientific study within therapeutic circles. These body-based therapies are aimed at helping persons with PTSD and severe trauma become aware of their bodily sensations of hyper-arousal or shutdown and befriend their body’s sensations safely; guiding them back into a more balanced and less stress-filled life.
 
 
Yoga As A Body-Based Therapy For PTSD
 
I shared my initial journey of discovery with Trauma-Informed yoga in a separate article for CoSozo in August, 2014. (http://www.cosozo.com/article/trauma-yoga-awareness-healing).
 
Since that time I have worked weekly in private sessions with women living with the effects of trauma in their daily lives. I have witnessed subtle and profound changes in these courageous women, including the ability to safely feel intense physical sensations while increasing their capacity to quietly notice what is going on inside them. This noticing of one’s internal landscape is called interoception.
 
Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a leading researcher of PTSD, and a pioneer of yoga as a therapy for trauma, in a recent interview with Integral Yoga Magazine, spoke to another of yoga’s benefits for those who are trapped by the memory of intense bodily sensations.
 
For people with PTSD, time stops and there is little enjoyment of the present moment. By “keeping time” – holding a yoga pose that may bring up uncomfortable physical sensations for a limited period of time, students learn and are guided bit by bit to realize “things come to an end”.
 
By being in a safe place, allowing an intense sensation to emerge and recognizing that it will end, creates what van der Kolk calls a “positive imprinting process”, one that can replace the trauma imprint.
 
A Student Shares Her Experience
 
One of my Trauma-Awareness yoga students, I will call her “Sally” (not her real name) was available to share her reflections of some of the work we have done together over the past year. With her gracious permission I have quoted her:
 
“During one session, she (Patty) had me sit in a chair, stand up and then asked me to sit back down in the chair without looking behind me. It seemed simple, but I froze. I can’t fully explain it, but later when I talked with my therapist about it, she hypothesized that Patty was asking me to do something that was out of my control in some ways, and that triggered a freeze reaction. Trauma is all about loss of control, so it made sense. Patty worked through it with me, and I did eventually sit back in the chair. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was really the moment that I understood being in the present, connected to my body and trusting my body was safer than being disconnected and constantly stuck in the past. I felt more confident after that, stronger somehow, just knowing I had been able to get through the scared feelings and move past them without disconnecting from the moment.”
 
Supporting Re-entry Into a New LIfe
 
In the instance to which Sally refers, she was offered a choice as to whether she wanted to engage the movement of lifting up from the chair and sitting down again or not. My choice in that moment was to hold the space for her to make her decision safely and to honor whatever her decision was.
 
In addition to Sally and I meeting for yoga sessions each week, I regularly communicate with her therapist. This interactive relationship guides and supports Sally’s movement towards healing her trauma.
 
Her choice to sit back in the chair without looking at it, as simple as it seemed, was a new way for her to move, one which invited clarifying dialogue, insight, self-reflection, and a movement away from fear.

Trauma-Informed yoga can provide persons living with trauma a profound way to say “Yes” to their body, “Yes” to life and “Yes” to a new and more expanded way of being in the world.
 
 
If you would like more information about Trauma Informed yoga and other body-based therapies for treatment of trauma and PTSD, you may be interested in reading:
 
The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing of Trauma, by Bessel A van der Kolk, MD
 
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD
 
Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A Levine, PhD and Ann Frederick
 
In An Unspoken Voice: How The Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter A Levine, PhD

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