How Trauma-Informed Yoga Helped Me Overcome PTSD
The path to teaching trauma-informed Yoga and understanding alternative treatments to PTSD was a winding one that I can only describe as divine. I’ve survived many circumstances in life and have always considered myself to be spiritual, but the experience of discovering – and then working to prove – that my baby boy was being abused by his father required me to change my entire approach and to turn within.
My intuition told me that something was off — I’d come home from work and my son’s face would look like he’d been crying. My husband’s explanations sounded like lies, and he had a history of telling dark elaborate ones. After trying to ignore the feeling, I set out to see if my gut was right, if my husband had indeed been abusing my son. Over the course of three heart-wrenching months — and with the help of spy cameras as well as divine intervention in the form of help from strangers – I finally had a video of the abuse and was able to take my son away to a safe place.
Ultimately, with help from a pro-bono lawyer, I got an order of protection through family court. Even so, I am still grappling with the experience. Despite the anxiety, depression, trauma, guilt, fear, anger, and sadness, I have persevered and discovered some incredible healing tools through trauma-informed yoga.
In my experience, traditional talk therapy sometimes left me feeling worse. I found the repetition of the issue only perpetuated it as I kept reliving it over and over. In short, that would start the cycle of disconnection over and over — disconnecting from the present and being stuck in the past. With Post Traumatic Stress (as you often see in combat veterans when they hear loud noises or experience flashbacks), reliving the trauma creates what is called a "tra-minder": a traumatic reminder, which is actually the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
Trauma-informed yoga, however, allows you to re-establish a connection with your body; it is about empowering you and helping you to get present. During trauma, you lose control, and it is very difficult to feel safe in the present moment. This can lead traumatized people to get stuck in fight or flight mode, which is a primitive trigger that activates our sympathetic nervous system to fight or run.
The sympathetic nervous system slows stimulation, making it the responsible biological system for calming and soothing. Breathwork is really effective at activating the sympathetic nervous system, hence why we feel calm when practicing Pranayama (the yogic word for breathing practice) or linking breath to movement (the postures that we flow through in yoga). It’s fascinating to explore the science behind this connection. The vagus nerve, which runs along the diaphragm, is stimulated by deep, slow breathing, which then calms the parasympathetic nervous system and thus, calms the entire body. One book that really helped me to unpack the science behind trauma and its effects on my mind and body was “The Body Keeps the Score” by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. Understanding what was causing my inability to cope on a scientific level both validated me and led me to tools that, when paired with honoring the process with time, resulted in healing progress.
In trauma-informed yoga, you use this calming effect from the breathwork to connect to the present moment. And feeling grounded in the present, you start to be able to associate the trauma of the past with the past and recognize the present moment as being safe. You start to worry less about the future as you become calmer and find more clarity. I always found a feeling of peace after practice, and others dealing with trauma have told me that they feel the same feeling of being OK after practicing.
Another important shift: I discovered that I had to forgive in order to heal. Forgiveness is the key to freedom. On an energetic level, if you can forgive, you vibrate on a higher frequency so that you can be of the highest service. Carrying around hate and anger brings you down and clouds the clarity. If love is the opposite of fear, then to live in fear and anger isn’t being the highest version of myself.
The connection with the Divine was an important factor as well – I had always looked externally for God but through this process and through sitting in silence and turning inward, I realized the Divine was within. I carry it with me everywhere. I see it in all things. The only way to describe this shift for me is that through meditation, I realized that there was no wrong or right, only learning experiences. We have no control over situations; we only are in control of how we respond to them and what we do with them.
An understanding support system has also been imperative for me as I work through my trauma. Compassion and understanding are so critical to human healing — it must first come from self in order for the healing process to begin, but once we recognize the light in ourselves, we can honor the light in others.