As a professional in the fields of yoga and trauma, I am constantly learning new ways that yoga offers opportunities for healing. This article outlines four key ways yoga offers opportunities for healing across the layers of our human experience – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Notice which aspects speak to you the most, and know that engaging with any layer of your yoga practice will offer benefits in all four areas.
Yoga postures have developed to build internal strength and flexibility; to bring stability and mobility to the joints and muscles of the body and help to bring health and balance to the heart, lungs, organs and nervous system. One of the most significant and documented benefits of yoga is stress reduction. Since post-traumatic stress is just that, an accumulation of excessive stress in our systems, yoga can help decrease the allostatic load of stress and increase our capacity to cope with stressful experiences. In addition, the physical shapes benefit our systems. Backbends and expansive postures can shift stress hormones and invigorate the body, forward bends can soothe the nervous system, and inversions and balancing poses can help us, physically to stabilize.
The state of any mind, particularly those dealing with post-traumatic stress, is to be pulled in the past , the future, and to imagined circumstances. We all have different propensities for how our thoughts fluctuate, but according to yoga philosophy it is the nature of the mind to vacillate in this way. The practice of yoga is to interrupt these fluctuations and build a sense of presence in current place and time. This practice can be invaluable for the trauma survivor. Often when someone experiences trauma, especially early in life or during the course of development, there is a sense of fear and/or lack of safety. Since the body seeks to protect itself when exposed to a stressor, it can take a significant amount of time and repeated reassurance for the body to regain a sense of safety.
Fortunately, these mental practices of presence can help. Simply looking around the space you are in, identifying the ways you are or can make yourself feel safe, is helpful in building a sense of protection in the present. It does not change what happened in the past, but it can shift and soothe the experience of the present, and any residual energy that remains from past trauma that has carried itself into the present.
In American and most western cultures, we are often overwhelmed by tasks and to-do’s. This can have a significant emotional impact in that it reduces the amount of time and attention we offer to our emotional selves. It is common in a yoga practice that once some stress has been relieved, deeper emotions rise to the surface of our experience and, often, we are then able to process them. I witnessed this as a college student, immersed in my first-year studies while breaking up with my high school sweetheart – a significant loss for me. After an arduous yoga class, I was resting in savasana (the final resting pose of class) and felt a wave of grief come over me. I cried, and it passed. Upon returning home to my roommates, I told them what had happened and they reflected that I hadn’t been talking about the break up much at all. It was an interesting moment for me, realizing that while I was aware the feelings were there, they did not have space, time, or the degree of relaxation possible to move through me. This experience, combined with many more of my own and of teachers and students, shifted the way I understood the potential for emotional process in yoga.
While most esoteric, this can also be one of the most powerful aspects of a yoga practice. Many people ask in times of crisis: “Why is this happening,” or, “Why me?” Finding a sense of your own spirit, soul, and beliefs about the human condition can be helpful in trauma recovery, and this is accessible within a yoga practice. Rather than being told what to believe, yoga allows for a sense of stillness and inquisitive reflection, encouraging you to uncover what is true for you. Many find elements of post-traumatic growth in the spiritual realm, and may feel called to serve others or to find new appreciation for life after trauma. These experiences are as unique as each individual, so search for ways this resonates for you, rather than thinking it has to look a certain way.
We all have different ways of connecting with life, and of seeing ourselves. Yoga offers a multi-layered platform to practice reflection, build balance and increase your sense of health and of personal peace. Notice which layer feels most accessible to you, and start there. Your practice is yours and your healing journey is unique and creative, and yoga is here to help with that process.