Veterans day was only a few days ago, so my favorite radio station NPR, naturally has done lots of programs focused on veterans. One of the ones that moved me the most had to do with the high percentage of war Veterans that were returning from the middle-east with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). “According to a recent RAND study (2008), 18.5% of combat troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan meet criteria for either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression” (http://www.yogawarriors.com/sensory-processing-disorder.html). How incredible! No matter your views on the war, it is obvious that these Veterans need support and lots of healing.
Learning of those staggering numbers for PTSD has prompted me to do research on how yoga can heal this disorder. To my delight, not surprising at all, there has been a lot of studies on the effectiveness of an asana, pranayama, and meditation practice to cure/lessen the symptoms of PTSD.
To give the basic description of PTSD I have copied a passage from the www.yogawarriors.com website: “People who suffer from PTSD are plagued with frightening body symptoms which are characteristic of hyper-arousal: accelerated heart beat, cold sweating, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, hypervigilance, and hyper startle response (jumpiness). These symptoms lead to sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, sexual dysfunction and difficulties in concentrating, which are further hallmarks of PTSD. Hyper-arousal both instigates flashbacks and is also increased by them, and hyper-arousal is the underlying cause of the symptom of avoidance, as traumatic reminders increase ANS arousal. Through understanding hyper-arousal, the phenomenon of PTSD becomes comprehensible.” (Rothschild, 1997, ¶6).
What can the practice of yoga (asana, pranayama, and meditation) offer someone with PTSD? Below are a small list of how yoga can help treat PTSD:
- The release of emotional issues. It puts us in touch with our emotional body. It allows us to safely expresses stored emotions such as guilt, shame, anger, sadness and grief so we can better understand and integrate those feelings.
- Help towards relaxing and strengthening the body.
- Unfreezing bad memories and creating new bodily memories. Yoga helps gently unlock rigidly held memory material in ways that normal talk therapy might not. The feelings may be too complex for words or the person may be too self-conscious and find it difficult to talk directly about their feelings.
- Giving feelings of joy and personal empowerment.
- The mind becomes more clear and open.
- It produces acceptance of the self.
- Life feels better balanced.
- It allows one to safely express stored emotions such as guilt, shame, anger, sadness and grief so those feelings can be understood and integrated.
- A regular yoga practice helps alleviate symptoms of PTSD including anger, anxiety, depression, guilt and paranoia.
- “Yoga is therapeutic, because it isn’t therapy. There is no analyzing, no talking, no remembering.” Mark-PTSD survivor
- “There is turmoil inside, we don’t know Self. We are trying to find ourselves again, and I can sense that through yoga.” Paul-PTSD survivor
- Yoga begins with the question, “What is right with me?” not “What is wrong with me?”
- The key to recovery is evoking the relaxation response, the body’s antidote to the stress response. According to Dr. Herb Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind Body Medical Institute, the relaxation response causes the release of neurochemicals in the body, creating a soothing effect. Yoga is one of the activities that evoke the relaxation response.
- Yoga gives them the tools to lower anxiety thresholds, increase anger management skills, and increase the ability to self-calm.
- A regular yoga practice helps alleviate symptoms, which include anger, anxiety, depression, guilt and paranoia.
- Through yoga, the body becomes associated with pleasant sensations
- Hatha Yoga raises endorphin levels, improving mood and lessening pain.
Trauma victims often have a complete disassociation with their bodies. As you may know, the practice of yoga is a practice of cultivating a body-mind connection. It is as simple as concentrating on the breath. If you have ever taken one of my classes you will learn that the breath is the most important thing. Follow the breath in thru the nose, into the body and connect with the inhalation and exhalation as we move thru each pose. This total concentration on the breath brings the mind and body into union. Pranayama exercises (breathing exercises) allow the body-mind to connect even further by allowing the participant to regulate the only aspect of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that we can have control of. It is with the respiration that we can calm the fight-flight response. Which in turn has a calming effect the blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion just to name a few of the involuntary functions of the body.
I hear again and again, people way they come to yoga to get out of their minds and into the body. They say that until they move into an asana their mind is going nowhere a million miles an hour. Once we move into the pose, our minds become completely focused on the breath and the sensations of the body. We no longer have the free mind space to think about other things. Now imagine you are a PTSD sufferer and you are constantly replaying the traumatic event in your head. How painful! It makes sense that yoga would be a great way for the PTSD sufferer to find relief of the mind!
Yoga looks at the body as vehicle of the spirit. In this view, the yoga practitioner developes a deep appreciation for the body and its health. No longer will the body just be a shell which one has to “deal” with or ignore, but it becomes a beautiful living testament to the life that lives inside of it.
I will let SGT Hugo Patricino, an Iraqi war Veteran with PTSD whom has found healing thru yoga, tell you about his experience.
Keep in mind that PTSD is not only caused by experiencing war but can also be caused by physical and sexual abuse and traumatizing incidents. Last year in yoga class I met a woman who stopped me before I assisted her in handstand, she warned that I should not touch her hips. She explained she was a sexual abuse survivor and would sometimes have flashbacks when her hips were touched. This being my first experience with a PTSD sufferer in yoga, I was a little unsure how to approach the student. Now that I’ve done the research and have several hundred more teaching experiences under my belt, I’d like to offer a little bit of what I have learned to you.
For the yoga teacher:
- When you open your class and you are giving the introduction, let the students know you will be giving adjustments which requires that you touch them. Tell them if they feel uncomfortable with this to let you know as you near their mat.
- When you do touch your student, do so tenderly and directly, in a “safe” area i.e. middle of back while in downward dog, hand firmly on shoulder.
- Never surprise a student by grabbing or touching any area around the hips, breasts, or inner thigh unless you know the student has full consent. This consent can be done with or without words but needs to be very clear.
- If a student lets you know they are uncomfortable with being touched, assure them this is totally fine. Be compassionate and find other ways to lead them into alignment such as modeling the pose close to them and being very clear in your language.
- Remember your job is support them in every way you can so they feel safe, accepted, important, and cared for.
For the student:
- If having your yoga teacher touch you is a problem for you, come to class early to speak with the teacher in private. This way you can start your practice in a relaxed manner without worry about how to approach the situation.
- If you did not let your teacher know before hand, do so as they near your mat to assist you.
- Be compassionate towards yourself. It is okay if you need some space during your practice. We are all different and we all have different needs. Respect your needs and be confident that you are honoring yourself.
Further support, research, and websites relating to PTSD and the healing benefits of yoga:
- Yoga program in Massachusetts that focuses on yoga for PTSD sufferers, specifically ones that have returned from war. The program is called Yoga Warriors. http://www.yogawarriors.com/about.html
- “Healing Life’s Traumas”, Yoga Journal. http://www.yogajournal.com/health/2532
- Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, by Stephen Cope
- “A Breath of Hope”. Yoga Nidra and how it has helped soldiers returning from war. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/02/AR2008050203426.html
If you have further questions or comments, feel free to call to email me.
From my open heart to yours,