March 10, 2012

Trauma and Yoga: Transformation Through the Body. ~ Jennifer Ryan

Photo: Jennifer Ryan









Life can be a battlefield and its events can be totally overwhelming for individuals, leading to the development of the debilitating anxiety disorder Post Traumatic Stress disorder.

“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” ~ Peter Levine, Ph.D

In America, 70% of adults have experienced a traumatic event once in their lives. That is 223.4 million people. Up to 20% of these go on to develop PTSD, making it 31.3 people who have struggled or are presently struggling with PTSD. An estimated 8% of Americans, 24.4 million people, have PTSD at any given time. An estimated 1/10 women will develop PTSD (women are twice as likely to develop it as men). Almost 50% of all outpatient mental health patients have PTSD. In the past year there has been a 50% increase in the number of diagnosed cases and its estimated that 1/5 of military personal returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have PTSD. Its prevalence is more common than people realize.

The witnessing or experiencing of a traumatic event can trigger its development.

The threat of death, a threat to one’s physical, sexual or psychological integrity, combat or military exposure, accidents, invasive medical or dental procedures, a life threatening illness, natural disasters or the sudden death of a loved one can overwhelm a person to such a degree that the symptoms appear either instantly or they can be delayed in their onset, developing months or even years after the traumatic event has occurred.

The symptoms are a constant re-experiencing of the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, feelings that overwhelm or a sense of helplessness, chronic anxiety and panic and avoidance of stimuli associated with the event. The surplus energy and adrenaline still trapped within the traumatised person’s body causes a state of hyperarousal, leading to insomnia, hyperviligance and an inability to focus or concentrate. This deters the person from being able to fully engage in the present, leading to feelings of isolation and depression. Unable to cope with such overwhelming feelings, sensations and emotions, the individual, in order to protect oneself, may shut down completely and feel numb or dead inside or even completely dissociate from their body and surroundings.

Many survivors hate their bodies, and feel let down by them for not getting them to safety and by continually letting them down with the debilitating symptoms. At the time of the traumatic event, the body is flooded with adrenaline and stress hormones, which have been proved to interfere with effective memory processing and consolidation. Instead of the traumatic memory being filed away in linear time, it becomes timeless. Fragments of sensory body memory are not integrated and the individual becomes a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off.

Photo: Jennifer Ryan

Trauma is traditionally regarded as a psychological and medical disorder of the mind and treatment prescribed was conventional talk therapy and medication. However, most individuals had no significant decrease in their symptoms and reported medication having no effect on their overloaded nervous systems. Peter Levine, Ph.D, who has studied stress and trauma for over 35 years and is the originator, developer and director of the Somatic Experience Institute, views the body as its own healer and that the scars of trauma are reversible if we listen to and access the wisdom of our bodies.

“Trauma is not, will not, and can never be fully healed until we address the essential role played by the body.” ~ Peter Levine, Ph.D

Developments in neuroscience and leading edge research now confirm what ancient wisdom and healing systems have always known, there is direct communication between the body and mind, each affecting the other. Dealing with the mind alone is not adequately addressing the deep relationship between the two and the true, physiological roots of the trauma.

Research done at The Trauma Centre at JRI (Brookline, Massachusetts), is now establishing empirically that yoga is beneficial for people with PTSD. A ground breaking study in 2004 revealed that yoga practice actually changes core physiology related to PTSD. An unpublished study by the centre has shown that 10 weeks of a Hatha yoga class resulted in clinically decreasing the symptoms of PTSD.

“Yoga became a major cornerstone in our understanding that it is imperative to befriend one’s bodily sensations in order to overcome the imprint of trauma.” ~ Bessel Van der Kolk

Yoga is an excellent way to learn to confront internal sensations and to learn that it is safe to have these feelings and sensations. In the observation of them, they learn the transient, impermanent nature of them, and learn how to ride the wave of sensation, knowing that it is not static or fixed. Everything is in a state of flux and no matter how intense the sensation is, it too will pass. This way the person becomes open to their present experience and can feel the internal residues of the trauma.

Instead of shutting down and resisting it, they become transparent to it, allowing the body to feel what it needs to feel and fully release it.

These frightening feelings and sensations are no longer locked in the body to be triggered constantly and unexpectedly. Yoga teaches how to surrender to the wildness of sensation and fully rest in the bodily experience of the present moment. They begin to see that they are not their trauma, and that these thoughts, feelings and sensations are just transitory experiences blowing through their much larger, and more powerful, field of consciousness. That there is a backdrop of stillness and strength that they can access at any time to help weather any storm.

Traumatic memories are not stored in time, but yoga with its powerful emphasis on present moment awareness re-establishes a sense of time in the individual. They discover that they can remember and deal with the past, without becoming overwhelmed by it. As they become aware of their own internal rhythms, they also learn how to move in rhythm with a group. This is important as many trauma survivors feel cut off from the rest of the world and disconnected. Moving in sync with a group fosters a sense of connection with others once more that transcends language. A yoga student at the centre said that taking a class with others made her feel less lonely.

Photo: Jennifer Ryan

Traumatized people have great difficulty in self-regulating, have high levels of sympathetic nervous system activation and low heart rate variability. Yoga teaches individuals how to self-regulate and gain control over their bodies once more. Asana, meditation and relaxation can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, reduce blood pressure, muscle tension, improve hormonal activity and decrease the physical symptoms and emotional distress.

Individuals learn to reclaim their bodies and awaken their healing potential there, while also developing a new, healthy relationship with their body.

“I feel like I can use my body again.” ~ Participant at The Trauma Centre

The Trauma Centre at JRI now have a specialist training course in teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga so the typical yoga class can be adapted carefully to meet the needs of the recovering individuals. The participant will work on key therapeutic goals in the class: creating present moment awareness, developing mindfulness skills, developing tolerance for experiencing sensation, practicing making choices, taking effective action and building affect-regulation skills.

The yoga practice is empowering, allowing the participant to feel in control once more.

It equips the individual with tools to help transform their experience into an opportunity for deep growth and self knowledge. Through meeting the experience with a full embodied presence and accessing the innate wisdom of the body, balance is restored and health regained. By reclaiming the body…

“We learn to harness and transform the body`s awesome, primordial and intelligent energies. In overcoming the destructive force of trauma, our innate potential now lifts us to new heights and mastery.” ~ Peter Levine, Ph.D

Within our deepest wounds and greatest pains lies the seed for awakening. Many traditions have spoken of “the dark night of the soul” and once this path is traversed the individual lives in greater light and in a more profound knowledge of their true identity.

Levine tells us that just like a tree grows around its traumas, the gnarls and burls signify obstacles overcome and also give it its unique shape, character and beauty. Our wounds can be healed over time and we can develop around them. And like the unique scars and marks on trees, they can begin to seem quite small in proportion to the greater whole of the person’s true being.


Editor: Kelly Brichta


Jenny Ryan is a Hatha yoga teacher in Dublin, Ireland. She has also completed training as a Trauma Sensitive yoga teacher with David Emerson and Bessel Van Der Kolk. She feel in love with yoga while travelling throughout Asia and her yoga mat has graced many weird and wonderful places along the way!Her classes are therapeutic in nature and help the student bring a deeper embodied awareness off the mat and into their lives. She enjoys sharing the boundless gifts of yoga with others and helping students reinhabit their bodies, to access the deep wisdom there and empower them to take charge of their own healing and development. A superfood junkie with a health food fetish, she will begin training as a Holistic Nutritionist later this year.

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