Yoga and Trauma
The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.
The commitment of yoga teachers and therapists for their work bringing trauma-sensitive yoga and meditation to veterans, prisoners, persons with eating disorders, and those in recovery from addictions — with powerful results — is deep and impressive. It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called “Yoga, How We Serve.”
In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:
“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”
Vietnam War Veteran
This veteran went on to say he hopes that yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.
I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma—whether it occurred 40 years ago or in the past decade, have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.
The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.
Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 victims of sexual assault or rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.
What is Trauma?
The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel van der Kolk, “Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”
Yoga for Recovery
The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.” Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.
Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.
Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin, “those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.” Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.
People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS. “Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.
Yoga for Prisoners
Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. He says “the extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety.” This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program. “It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B. Or “I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.
Yoga & Eating Disorders
Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combating eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment. “The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family–and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,“ she says.
Health Care Costs
What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.
According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.
The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.
The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading: the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress; Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper; The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt; and Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton.
Learn more about Give Back Yoga Foundation and how you can get involved.
Feel Healthier and Younger! 5 Detoxifying Habits to Begin
- Dry Brush Your Beautiful Skin
Europeans have used [skin brushing](/video/ayurveda-action-plan-skin-brushing} as an effective method of detoxification for centuries. It’s a simple detox technique which removes toxins accumulated in dead skin cells while simultaneously enhancing circulation. If you brush your skin every day for three minutes, you will be giving it a cleanse that is better than a traditional soap cleaning or bath. In fact, there’s simply no soap that can wash the skin as clean as the new skin which lies beneath the old.
Dry skin brushing your whole body every morning before you shower will do your skin so much good – even if you can’t see it. Just trust in the process because it works! Make sure you use an all-natural dry skin brush, and brush from the feet and hands in the direction of the center of your body. Be sure to brush the bottoms of the feet because nerve endings in your feet affect the whole body. Use lighter strokes over breasts and avoid your nipples if you can. Wash your brush every few weeks in water and let it dry. Get blissed out in the sensation of newly invigorated skin!
- Sweat It Out!
Perspiration is so very, very good for you. It’s an absolutely essential ingredient for healthy skin. Sweating detoxifies and cleanses the skin. If you only sweat for twenty minutes every day, you’ll be doing your skin a world of good. The body detoxifies through the skin, the body’s largest organ of elimination, by sweating. In many traditional cultures around the world, sweating is the first thing people do when they feel a cold or flu coming on. How many times a week do you sweat? For some of us, depending upon our constitution, it’s much easier to sweat than others. But for all of us – no matter what dosha dominates – there are ways to sweat every single day.
For starters, there’s cardiovascular exercise and vinyasa or Bikram yoga classes. Then there are steam rooms and infrared saunas. You can also have some fun in the bedroom by revving up your sexual activity with your partner to get the body sweating and releasing toxins. Whatever you choose to do, try to sweat regularly to maintain optimal health and remove those unwanted toxins.
- Drink Chaga Tea
Chaga, the king of super foods, is a natural detoxifying agent. You can take it in a number of forms, such as powders, capsules, or tinctures. But sipping it in tea form is a great way to relax and drink it as a daily tonic, the way it’s been done for thousands of years by traditional cultures around the world. Chaga is naturally detoxifying because it is a super food that directly impacts the immune system – in a good, good way.
When we feed our bodies with this immune super food, it detoxifies itself naturally because fifty percent of the detox process is simply the immune system working to eliminate toxins. Chaga is also one of the highest antioxidant foods in the world, second only to cacao. Antioxidants detoxify the body, too, by preventing our liver from being overtaxed with oxidative stress.
- Go To Bed and Wake Up at the Same Time Every Day
Research has shown us over and over again that serious sleep deprivation has the same negative effects on the body as do illness and stress. Our body naturally goes to work for us when we sleep, and getting enough sleep is crucial to the body’s natural mechanisms of detoxification. For the brain in particular to detoxify, adequate sleep is absolutely essential.
There’s something referred to as the glymphatic system, which is simply defined as the brain’s system of removing toxins that can lead to such diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other brain maladies. It’s like the lymphatic system for your brain. When we get a good eight hours of sleep on average, the brain “takes out the trash.” Sleep is absolutely essential for removing toxic waste products.
- Twist It Out With Yoga
Yoga postures that twist and turn the body have a natural detoxifying effect. They get things movin’ and groovin’ inside, enhancing the digestive system, while giving the organs a nice, internal massage. When we get into twisting poses, our organs are compressed. This action actually moves blood that inevitably gets filled with toxins out of our system. Twists also flood the liver and kidneys with oxygen while getting blood flowing to those organs of elimination. Try to detox daily by sitting in seated spinal twist and breathing for six to ten breaths.
Other excellent yoga poses for detoxification include: chair twists, wide-legged forward fold with twist, cat/cow (not a twisting pose but still great for digestion), supine twists, twisted side angle pose, downward dog with a twist, crescent lunge twist, and marichiyasana.
In addition, all inversions are also excellent for detoxifying as they soothe the nervous system while stimulating circulation and lymph in the legs and feet, bringing oxygenated blood to the abdomen and brain. While you do your yoga postures, try breathing through the nose. This, too, has a detoxifying effect because many environmental pollutants get stopped in the mucous membranes of the nasal passages when we breathe through the nose. They then travel to the digestive system where they are broken down and eliminated from the body.
Good luck with your whole body demo habits! Your body will love you for bringing these new habits into your life.