Using yoga for trauma can be a powerful tool for helping you heal. Let’s talk about what’s considered trauma, what happens in your brain and body during times of trauma, and also ways to cope.
What is trauma?
Trauma is becoming an increasingly familiar term especially within the wellness world. But in order to talk about it, we have to first understand what it really means.
Trauma can be defined as anything that overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope. This can differ from person to person. There are three types of trauma—acute, chronic and complex. Once we realize that definition of it, we can acknowledge that, if you are human, chances are you have experienced some form of trauma in one way or another. Being trauma-informed can also really mean being human-informed. While there are varying degrees of trauma, the response of what goes on inside your body can remain relatively the same.
What happens in the brain and body during trauma
When we have experienced trauma, our whole body is affected. There are emotional and biological imprints left within our brains and our physical bodies.
During a traumatic experience, your brain stem (the part of the brain that is responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes) takes control. Your body shifts into reactive mode. It shuts down all non-essential body and mind processes, focusing solely on survival. During this time the sympathetic nervous system increases stress hormones. These hormones prepare the body to fight, flee, or freeze.
After trauma, your brain goes through biological changes. The impact of these changes are intensified by three major brain function dysregulations:
The amygdala is responsible for survival-related threat identification and associating memories with emotion. It’s an almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain. After trauma the amygdala can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop. It looks for and perceives threat everywhere. This makes it difficult to engage in ordinary situations.
An increase in stress hormones, such as cortisol, kills cells in the hippocampus. As a result, this part of the brain becomes less effective in making synaptic connections necessary for memory consolidation. This keeps both the body and mind stimulated in reactive mode. It makes it difficult to distinguish that the threat has transformed into the past and to embrace the present moment. Each time you are thinking about the event(s) that were traumatic, your body re-lives the experience. It’s not able to determine what is happening in real time.
With constant elevation of stress hormones, the body has trouble regulating itself. The sympathetic nervous system remains highly activated, leading to physical fatigue. In particular the adrenals suffer and cause further problems. You may experience muscle tension, a weakened immune system, less nutrient absorption from digestive system/ digestive issues, and higher blood pressure.
Yoga for trauma: a way forward
When looking to begin moving forward after trauma, yoga is an effective tool. It should be used in addition to other treatment modalities that can help with healing the brain and body. Trauma-sensitive yoga differs from a traditional yoga class. This form of yoga emphasizes:
- Safety: Since those who have experienced trauma tend to chronically not feel safe within their own bodies, ensuring that students feel safe in the environment with this type of yoga is imperative. This can be demonstrated through a welcoming atmosphere, the use of props (blocks, blankets, bolsters) for your physical safety and overall energy from the teacher.
- Choice: Every pose, breath, and movement, are simply options. Choice is encouraged, so you can slowly begin to feel empowered to make decisions. A lot of times during traumatic events, victims feel they did not have a choice within these experiences. Expect reminders that you are entitled to choice. You are in charge of your body. Focus on how you feel and not how yoga looks.
- Language: The use of language in trauma-sensitive yoga is one of the main distinguishing factors between a mainstream yoga class and a trauma-sensitive class. The type of language is completely invitational and less commanding. “If it feels comfortable for you, maybe you close your eyes” versus “close your eyes.”
Since the purpose of trauma-sensitive yoga classes are more feelings and relaxation-based, a lot of focus can be on implementing breathing techniques. Breath work is something that can be incredibly therapeutic but can also be triggering. It needs to be made clear to students that if at any point they feel restricted, they are able to come back to their regular breathing to avoid further distress.
Breathing techniques during yoga for trauma
With that said, two effective breathing techniques include square breath and bee breath.
- Inhale for a count of 4
- Hold the breath for a count of 4
- Exhale for a count of 4
- Hold the breath for a count of 4
- Repeat as many times as needed (can shorten or lengthen the count as needed)
Why it works: This allows you to practice steady breathing and increase your CO2 tolerance. Hyperventilation is a common condition for people who suffer from anxiety. The imbalance in their body increases the urge to breathe. Breath retention helps build up CO2 tolerance and with becoming comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Our level of carbon dioxide signals our body that we need to breathe more air. Not the lack of oxygen.
- Inhale naturally
- Exhale with mouth closed and hum (this sound mimics buzzing of a bee)
Why it works: A lot of breathing exercises help with calming the body. But this particular method further stimulates our vagus nerve, responsible for initiating your body’s relaxation response and parasympathetic nervous system.
Yoga, trauma, and the trigger of wearing masks for yoga
After trauma, you can become more susceptible to being in a state of hyper-arousal and feeling “on-edge” with triggers surrounding you. One of the biggest triggers happening right now are having to wear masks and the panic that can come with that. If you find yourself feeling anxiety building up from your mask in public you can:
- Re-locate: If available, take yourself to a quiet corner in the store / area.
- Feel: Place your hands on your body (heart, belly, shoulders)— having a tactile experience can help physically bring you into present moment awareness and slow down.
- Orient yourself: List 5 things you see, 5 things you hear and take 5 breaths (however you need to breathe).
Note: Depending on the severity of the anxiety, you may need to seek help or take yourself outside where you feel less confined.
With everything that is going on in our world right now, it can feel like a lot to ingest. And it’s important to remember that healing from trauma can be messy and that there is no “right” way to feel. Be compassionate with yourself and know that, wherever you are on your journey and however you feel, is valid and perfect as is.