Celeste Mendelsohn

Yoga – Transcending Trauma



Breath. We take it for granted, after all it’s automatic… Isn’t it? 

For many people not so much. 

If you are a trauma survivor, focusing on you breath may bring up feelings and images from very scary experiences that can quickly become overwhelming.

Yoga can help people with a history of trauma to regulate their breathing and eventually, shift into some basic movement practices which can help them get back in touch with their bodies.

People with C-PTSD (complex PTSD) or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can often be mostly unconscious of their body in space and will often not be aware of physical symptoms of distress, like clenching their jaw, hunching in their shoulders, or balling their hands into fists. On the other hand, they are often hyper aware of everyone else in the room, what they are doing, their expressions, the loudness or quietness of their voices and their posture.

Trauma manifests in many forms and comes from many sources. It is not reserved for soldiers who go to war or for people in car accidents. As is becoming more widely known, trauma affects many people that might think of themselves as “normal.”

Some of the signs of trauma in human beings is an inability to control emotions, not trusting yourself to talk or to form stable relationships, binge eating, not eating, bingeing and purging, very focused control of the environment around them, obsessively locking and unlocking doors, obsessive hand washing, using alcohol or drugs to ‘numb the pain,’ obsessive gambling, obsessive spending and a host of other maladaptive behaviors that give survivors a temporary feeling of relief. These behaviors are fueled by anxiety and depression, sometimes both, and frequently  manifest as dissociation – losing track of what’s happening around you as your consciousness shifts to blank”keeping you safe” from the triggers in your current environment, and dysregulation – which manifests with overly strong emotional responses of hysteria, anger, sadness, irritability and frustration.

In 2010 the Justice Resource Institute presented findings that showed participants in a three year study who attended a trauma-informed gentle yoga session regularly reduced their dissociation and intrusive thoughts by 30%.

Other studies showed that yoga increases heart rate variability (HRT), which measures how strong the brain’s arousal systems are. People with trauma histories typically have low HRV.Dr. Bessel van den Kolk says that this could also explain why they are so active to stress and prone to developing physical illnesses.

Because yoga has the ability to touch us on all levels – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, it is an effective tool for helping survivors to safely calm their emotions and become reintegrated with their bodies and minds.

Trauma lives in the body – “the issues are in our tissues,” as yoga therapist and trainer Nikki Myers says. Body based therapies coupled with psychotherapy seem to work best. Traditional talk therapy doesn’t work as well with trauma as bringing up all the old memories, reliving the events over and over, reignite the pain and can re-traumatize clients.

Dr. van der Kolk speaks of what he calls “residue imprints” – the stuff we can’t let go of. Yoga philosophy talks about this too, calling them “samskaras,” or grooves in the brain. Body-based therapies can help clients feel safe again.

Issues left unresolved may become migraines, clenched muscles in shoulders, neck and jaw, a sunken chest. If not resolved they can become more urgent, turning into heart disease, ADHD in children, fibromyalgia, Chronic Myofascial Pain, TMJ, IBS and other autoimmune disorders.

Helping people to let go of the physical manifestations of trauma requires time and patience. Clients need to learn what it feels like to be present within their body’s; get comfortable with normal physical sensations. Using body sensing meditations and practices as well as using body awareness exercises in movement classes, to get back in touch with your own physical sensations cn be very helpful. Pendulating between activity and relaxation, exploring the sensations in the left and right hand and then both hands together, awareness of external stimuli like sounds and then internal stimuli like the sensation in your belly as you take a deep breath.Being able to shift between one thing and another teaches trauma survivors that they can have control over how and what they feel. It reminds them that they can feel something uncomfortable and then shift their focus, and come out of the discomfort.

One of the simplest and best lessons is that no matter what postures they choose or what breath practices, they learn that each exercise will end and that they can choose when to stop at any time. The sensations are temporary.

Breathing practices can help trauma survivors to stay present in their bodies. Focusing on exhalation can be very helpful for people who tend to hold their breath or breath shallowly. Conversely, practices which emphasize inhalation can be especially helpful for people who are depressed or dissociative, and are particularly beneficial when worked into easy movement practices. 

Asana and pranayama help to energize people who are frozen in fear or hopelessness as well as calm those who are anxious or agitated. Animals in the wild react just as humans do, to danger. We may freeze for a moment when we sense danger, and then start running for the hills. 

Likewise, animals will also freeze initially, assessing the danger. They become hyper-vigilant, activating the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight or flight response. This allows us and them to asses the danger, and also, become ready to either run away or fight. In the wild, an animal will run when they are sure there is danger present that they can’t overcome. If this fails they may stop and try to fight anyway. If caught the animal will move into a state of collapse, activating the parasympathetic nervous system which creates dissociation and actually numbs the pain sensors in an animal’s body so they don’t feel too much. 

This is much like our dissociation, except we as humans seem to have lost the ability to shake off (literally) the chemical soup that has been released in the body, and also, to resolve the strong, conflicting emotions caused by the traumatic event. 

Animals in the wild, if they have fooled the predator into thinking them dead, eventually WILL start to shake and tremble until they’ve moved the endorphins, acetylcholine, epinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline and other mood-altering chemicals out of their systems. Then, they take a deep breath go back to their lives. 

Humans don’t seem able to do that on our own. When we experience repetitive or chronic trauma we may alternate between being very easily triggered and being numb. We may also get “stuck in fight/flight or stuck in freeze,” 

A person who is stuck in fight/flight will be nervous, agitated, anxious and antsy. They are tense, with jaw clenched, shoulders up and balled fists they breathe shallowly and they’re constantly on alert for what will go wrong next. Yoga helps with sympathetic overdrive by calming the body first, by changing the breath. Taking slow, deep belly breaths and exhaling through the mouth can help release the tense muscles and allow the body to begin the process of unwinding. Movement, asana practice, is especially helpful here. Rhythmic movement and breath can shift people from the fight/flight response into a place of calm. It’s very important to meet the energy where it’s at, meaning if the heart is racing, trying to slow everything down all at once won’t work. Start with a faster pace of breath and movement. As the person becomes more comfortable, begin to slow the movement down, allowing for longer exhales and deeper stretches.

A person stuck in freeze, however, is numb, depressed, tired, dissociated – emotionally paralyzed. They are overwhelmed and cannot imagine being able to move or change anything. This person can start by simply taking even breaths, whatever the count that is comfortable, let the inhale and exhale be the same length. As they become more comfortable, you may notice them yawning. As their breath becomes deeper, you might start some gentle movement, getting them to move their head from side to side or their arms and down. Eventually, you may be able to shift their movement into asana practice helping them move into a sense of equanimity.

Meditation for Trauma

Meditation can be done sitting in a chair or on the floor. Synchronize the breath.

Even breath count of 4.

Sit with your hands in your lap, gently open. 

Inhale to a count of 4 as you gently close your fingers, silently saying the first syllable HUM

Exhale to a count of 4 as you gently open your hands, silently saying the first syllable SA.

Inhale to a count of 4 as you close your hands while silently intoning SO.

Exhale to a count of 4 as you open your hands, silently saying the syllable HUM.

Inhale to a count of 4 as you close you hands while silently intoning SO.

Exhale to a count of 4 as you open your hands while silently intoning HUM.

Inhale to a count of 4 as you gently close your fingers, silently saying the first syllable HUM

Exhale to a count of 4 as you gently open your hands, silently saying the first syllable SA.

Repeat for 8 rounds.