Yoga is a hands-on practice of finding truth in oneself and externally of oneself to see that life, death, and religion are not what we seem to think they are but rather much more. An eternal energy and life force that lives inside each of us and is there waiting to be realized. Yoga is a practice of mind, body, and spiritual connectedness and awareness that goes beyond our daily lives and a small understanding of religion. It takes one who is truly dedicated to the practice to find this place of inner peace and consciousness (Hewitt 3-5). Yoga encourages one to not blindly follow others in their practice but to find themselves within their own practice. Teaching happens when a teacher takes pupil under their wing to advise on how theoretically this practice is accomplished but it is up to the student as to how far they will travel to have true understanding (Hewitt 5-6). Modern Yoga has been turned into a flexibility thing. Something to be done to work out and tone; though this happens with the practice, this is only a very small portion of the practice and not the goal. The ultimate goal is to have an awakening and remain on this new level of awareness and inner connection through cleansing practices that heal the body of impurity with body postures, physical detox, and meditations.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5thEd. (DSM-5). To qualify for this diagnosis one must be witness to a life-threatening event or have secondary exposure to a traumatic event. Classifications for this diagnosis include nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, hypervigilance, difficulty focusing, and difficulty feeling pleasure. Some may dissociate when triggered by a direct tor even indirect stimuli or reminder of the traumatic event (America Psychiatric Association 271-272). Often people avoid these reminders because of the severe physiological response that happens involuntarily. This often causes difficulty with mood, relationships, work, school and other areas of functioning. Due to these recurring symptoms often people who suffer from PTSD have difficulty with cognition. Their brain does not function like it used to or is supposed to. As a way to protect oneself the brain often dissociates or disconnects often losing the ability to reconnect in areas of the brain that are much needed. People who suffer from PTSD are at a very high rate of having physical disabilities, economic struggle, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation (America Psychiatric Association 280). It should be noted that not all people who have experienced trauma meet all the criteria to be diagnosed with PTSD. Though this does not mean that they are not severely affected.
Trauma drastically affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This is the system that is internal and is effected automatically by external and internal stimuli. Meaning, what happens around us will affect our thoughts and body. The main parts of the ANS are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS serves as the accelerator in our body which gets things moving at a faster pace which we call, the fight or flight response and the (PNS) which slows things down. To make things even more confusing the PNS is separated into two parts, the ventral vagal system which manages social engagement and the dorsal vagal system which controls the shut-down response (Paulsen 56-57). Trauma obstructs communication with these parts causing inaccurate assessments of situations causing one to think they are safe when they are not and to be on the defense when they should not. This leads to people who suffer from trauma to have difficulty adapting and being flexible to their environment accordingly (Gomez 7). When you think of trauma, many people think of war, physical, and sexual abuse as the only traumas which cause negative effects. However, such traumas as abandonment, maltreatment, and dysregulated emotional responses from caregivers in early childhood are known to also severely deregulate a child’s ANS (Gomez 8).
Often in the field of mental health, trauma can be separated into two classifications depending on the type of trauma. “Small t” traumas are often the smaller less serious situations such as a negative life event without one’s life being threatened. On the other hand, when one’s life is threatened or someone may feel as though their life is being threatened they are classified as a “Big T” (Paulsen 3-4). We tend to think that there is a large difference in how they affect someone but that is not the case. Someone with one “Big T” may have the same presenting issues as someone with several “small t’s.” This is important to remember when looking for the cause of these symptoms because a person with a ‘Big T” may know exactly what has caused their symptoms and why they are needing to practice Yoga but another person with several “small t’s” may not even understand why they have any symptoms at all.
The answer to why this happens is in the nervous system and how trauma changes the brain. These forgotten or even dissociated memories are held maladaptively in implicit memory in the brain and when triggered set off the nervous system. This is one way to say we don’t know that a trigger is there and why it was triggered but now my body feels anxious, sad, angered, or threatened. So how is one to treat a trauma that they don’t even know exists? By calming the nervous system (Paulsen 3-4). Trauma therapy is extremely hard on clients who seek treatment. Some never receive the help they need because it can be so difficult. The goal with trauma treatment should be to keep the client within the window of tolerance. Meaning if the client floods with an unbearable and emotional response they go beyond the window of tolerance kicking in the fight or flight response or the shut-down response and make no progress in their session. The client needs to have a healthy ventral vagal system to be successful at resolving their trauma (Paulsen 56). The best way to do this is with Yoga practice.
Vishnu-devananda discusses the difference between physical exercise and Yogic exercise. He demonstrates how the goal of the physical exercise is to intake oxygen combined with a violent physical movement which increased lactic acid in the muscles causing fatigue. Yoga, on the other hand, does not support violent physical movements and through circulating breath and postures achieves awareness with the inner supreme soul providing completeness and full consciousness of oneself (Vishnu-devananda 46-47). This ultimately provides inner peace and completeness as well as long-term health and well-being. By mastering these practices, one has perfected mind and body control as well as a spiritual discipline through psycho-physiological techniques. Therefore, by practicing Yoga one gains a quiet mind blocking mental chatter and negativity that eliminates tension, stress, and interference from external stimuli (Hewitt 371-378).
Yoga and meditative practices have furthermore been proven to assist in the improvement of blood pressure, lower heart rates, and manage involuntary cues affecting the ANS. Hewitt writes of the main purpose of Pranayama or the Yogic science of controlled breath, being to purify the bodily cells and nerves for controlled internal energies. But how does Yoga actually help do this? Yoga helps to manage the endocrine glands which secrete hormones straight into the blood system and are connected to the SNS and the vagus nerve. Uncontrolled emotions such as fear, anger, and sorrow can expend an overload of energy causing difficulty in further managing moods and other areas of functioning. These emotions drastically flood the ANS with different signals for how to respond. Therefore by practicing Yoga one strengthens these glands, returning secretion to a normal balance(Vishnu-devananda 46-47).
By practicing Yoga one can reunite with their previously disconnected body and become aware of the world around them and how that affects them. By having full consciousness of our environment and the self, one can manage symptoms when they arise instead of having involuntary responses their run their lives. When one comes to have inner peace and acceptance with the self they have better relationships and less harsh expectations of being perfect or inadequate but rather have peace with being who they are as an individual. All this being said, peaceful sleep returns, a calmness in the present begins to be the norm, and one can function as they please versus being controlled. Therefore, Yoga can be one of the best ways to treat trauma or be an adjunct therapy in treating PTSD.
Gomez, Ana. EMDR Therapy and Adjunct Approach with Children: Complex Trauma, Attachment, and Dissociation, Ch. 1. Springer Publishing Company, New York, NY, 2013.
Paulsen, Sandra. When There are No Words: Repairing Early Trauma and Neglect From the Attachment Period with EMDR Therapy,Bainbridge Institute for Integrative Psychology, Bainbridge Island, WA, 2017
Vishnu-devananda.Swami.The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga,Three Rivers Press, New York, NY, 1988
Hewitt, James.The Complete Yoga Book: Yoga of Breathing, Yoga of Posturing, Yoga of Meditation, (Ch. 1).Shocken Brooks Inc., New York, 1977
America Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th Ed. American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, DC. 2013 Print. 271-280.