Some say Yoga is simple physical exercises. They’re wrong.
Bringing Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Into Mental Health Practice
The Body Keeps The Score Chapter 16: Yoga & Learning to Inhabit Your Body
In The Body Keeps the Score, Trauma Expert Bessel Van Der Kolk explains the effects of trauma by recounting his first meeting with a patient we’ll refer to as ‘Sarah’. She was breathing quickly, her legs were shaking, and she was too nervous to talk. Sarah had been abused by both her parents growing up, and carried the resulting shock well into adulthood at the age of 27. What can help individuals like these, who are too traumatized for traditional talk therapy?
Working with the Breath
Dr. Van Der Kolk says that Heart Rate Variability (or HRV) plays a crucial role in our response to trauma. Healthy people typically have high HRV, which means their pulse fluctuates rapidly in response to external stimuli. This reflects a well-functioning nervous system which is able to change in balance with our environment. High-HRV individuals can moderate their emotions by controlling their breathing, allowing them to stay calm and engaged in the present moment.
In contrast, survivors like Sarah tend to be stuck in their traumatic past, taking rapid short breaths out of worry that their trauma may return–even when the threat has long subsided. This causes poor HRV, a state in which changes in breathing take much longer to affect emotion. Poor HRV has negative effects on thinking and feeling, and it also contributes to heart disease and cancer. Luckily, techniques exist which allow us to regain some control over our reactions to triggering stimuli.
Therapist & Yogi Anne Halleck finds that combining these two practices allows her clients to make progress rapidly. She reports that yoga can teach powerful techniques to utilize the breath and improve mindfulness. She says,
“I blend yoga and therapy to different degrees depending on the needs of each client. I often introduce mindfulness and practices such as calming breathing or meditation into individual and group therapy in order to approach mental health in a more holistic and integrative way…There is a lot more to yoga than yoga pants and being flexible!”
Anne is specially certified as a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher. This therapy was highlighted in The Body Keeps the Score, which highlights new technologies linking the body and the brain. We’ve learned that the prefrontal cortex is not where trauma is being stored. It’s actually being stored in the nonverbal—even preverbal part of the brain, suggesting that a more integrative approach may be more successful than talk therapy alone. Van Der Kolk presents several work-arounds to reconnect with the body, with ourselves, and with others.
The good news: Sarah began yoga for the trauma she had experienced and recovered, in a yoga group just like Anne Halleck’s. While Van Der Kolk discusses many promising new approaches, yoga remains among the best at treating PTSD and improving clinical measurements like Heart Rate Variability.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga
It looks like the evidence supports Anne’s observations. Learn more about PTSD, HRV, and yoga in this video. If mind-body approaches like yoga have helped your mental health (or a loved one’s), let others know by sharing this post!