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Yoga for Trauma

“Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.”

  • Peter Levine

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.

It is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event, whether the event happened to you directly, you witnessed it, it happened to someone very close to you, or you were a first responder at the event.

Trauma looks different on everyone, but some common signs of trauma are:

  • Intrusive Thoughts or Re-Experiencing

  • Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories

  • Nightmares

  • Flashbacks or dissociative reactions

  • Distress after being triggered or reminded of the traumatic event

  • Physical reactions or distress after exposure to a trigger

  • Avoidance

  • Avoiding thinking or talking about the trauma

  • Avoiding people, places, and activities that remind you of the trauma

  • Negative changes in thoughts and mood

  • Inability to remember important pieces of the event

  • Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world

  • Hopelessness

  • Feeling alienated, and difficulty maintaining close relationships

  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions

  • Emotional numbness

  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions

  • An active stress response that leaves you easily startled or frightened

  • Hypervigilance

  • Self-destructive or reckless behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Lack of focus or problems with concentration

  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior

  • Overwhelming guilt or shame. Blaming oneself

The causes of trauma are varied. We often think of trauma as something that occurs with veterans, people who have been attacked, and survivors of terrible events. But childhood trauma is often overlooked. In fact, in the 1998 Kaiser Permanente study on adverse childhood experiences - or ACEs - on over 17,500 adults, they found that not only were adverse childhood experiences very common, they were also linked to a wide variety of health concerns.

These ACEs or adverse childhood experiences include:

  • physical abuse

  • sexual abuse

  • emotional abuse

  • physical neglect

  • emotional neglect

  • domestic violence

  • parental substance abuse

  • household mental illness

  • incarcerated family member

  • parental separation or divorce

Adults that suffered from toxic stress during childhood development were more likely to have:

  • chronic illness

  • severe obesity

  • fractures & injuries

  • giving birth prematurely

  • addictions

  • mental illness, such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety

Adults that suffered from four or more ACEs were:

  • 2x more likely to have heart disease

  • 4x more likely to have chronic lung disease

  • 9x more likely to commit suicide

  • 7x more likely to become homeless

  • 10x more likely to use IV drugs

  • 7x more likely to become an alcoholic

  • 5x more likely to suffer from depression

“Once [they]...have the information, they are able to look at the context of their lives differently.They no longer feel that they are to blame or that they’re stupid or that there’s something wrong with them. They understand that their bodies have experienced a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances across the span of their lives.”

  • Nadine Burke Harris, MD

This is your brain on trauma.

The amygdala is the brain’s alarm system. It turns on the Fight, Flight, Freeze response. Hormones and neurotransmitters such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline are released. The amygdala takes up all of the brain’s energy during times of trauma. The rest of the brain, including the hippocampus, basically goes offline.

The hippocampus stores memories. Typically memories are stored in an organized way, in a timeline that makes sense, and they can be altered by new information. The hippocampus is like the secretary of the brain. It moves memory from short term to long term.

When the amygdala sounds the alarm and the rest of the brain essentially goes offline, this causes the hippocampus to improperly store memories. They are not coded correctly. They are stored as fragmented, incohesive memories that are unorganized. These memories tend to come up involuntarily. They’re often triggered by reminders around the traumatic event. They are not time stamped - so it can be difficult to remember when exactly they happened. They also feel very real, as if they are happening right now, and all of the emotions and feelings you experienced at the event come back up.

The frontal lobe also shuts down during times of trauma, or sympathetic stress. The Broca’s area, a region of the frontal lobe linked to speech, also shuts down. Often in traumatic experiences, people report being unable to speak ro scream. This is why.

So why is yoga helpful for healing trauma?

Trauma is both physical and emotional. It can be very difficult to talk about, especially if the memories are scattered and fragmented. Sometimes talking about the trauma can cause the amygdala to take over again leaving speech and cognition impaired.

Talk therapy is still important for healing trauma. However it isn’t always enough.

Trauma can have an overwhelming effect on the body and can appear as somatic, or physical symptoms. Sensorimotor therapy joins cognitive and somatic methods. Yoga is a mind-body intervention that can bridge the gap between the somatic and cognitive experience of trauma.

Traditional talk therapy takes a top down approach to healing. Meaning they focus on what’s going on at the top of the body, in the mind. For example, they may work on cognitive reappraisal, reframing, and goal setting.

Another way to heal trauma is by taking a bottom up approach. This employs self regulation strategies that attempt to modify the emotional centers of the brain (limbic system), without using the higher or logical centers of the brain (frontal lobe). This method is especially effective because in trauma, physical reaction comes before cognition.

Yoga teaches us to self regulate in four specific ways.

  • Orientation - Orientation is the awareness of where we are. This is taught through use of a drishti point. During a yoga flow, students also orient themselves on their mat by stepping to the top of the mat, or stepping one foot to the top right corner of the mat, etc.

  • Grounding - Yoga teaches us proprioception, understanding where we are in space and what our bodies are doing. Yoga also places emphasis on grounding through the feet or hands or whatever body part is being used as a support.

  • Centering - Yoga teaches centering through use of core engagement and subtle engagement, such as the use of bandhas and understanding of the subtle energies of the body like the chakras. Feeling what’s going on inside the body takes you into the present moment.

  • Breath - Breathing, especially deep breathing, is one of the simplest and most profound tools for relaxation. Many pranayama techniques stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system nicknamed Rest, Digest & Heal, or Feed & Breed), which calms you down.