Yoga and Trauma Healing

You don’t have to be Hindu, or spiritual, to do Yoga, a Hindu spiritual practice that involves prescribed physical activities as well as breathing and mindfulness exercises. Over 20 million Americans practice Yoga – that’s over 8% of the adult population – and nearly half of the remaining adults are thinking about trying it.

Yoga can have a positive impact on a variety of psychological and physiological conditions. Yoga cultivates mindfulness through breathing exercises, intentional relaxation, and body movement (West, Lang, & Spinazzola, 2017). In addition to helping certain medical conditions and somatic dissociation, yoga has also been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, and eating disorders (West, Lang, & Spinazzola, 2017).

Yoga can be especially beneficial for people with PTSD or other post-traumatic stress symptoms (West, Lang, & Spinazzola, 2017). Meditation and mindfulness have been found to help with PTSD recovery, but it can be challenging for some people to sit still and clear their minds to meditate. Yoga can also help people achieve a mindful state, and by keeping busy with the physical aspect, there is less potential for losing focus or re-experiencing a negative memory (Cloitre, Courtois, Charuvastra, Carapezza, Stolbach, & Green, 2011). It can improve relaxation, self-confidence, and self-efficacy in clients who have experienced trauma (Büssing, Michalsen, Khalsa, Telles, & Sherman, 2012). Yoga also reduces somatic symptoms associated with helplessness, stress, and fear (van der Kolk et al, 2014).

Yogic intentional breathing exercises help clients gain control of their emotional regulation, calm the sympathetic nervous system, and trigger other biochemical and physiological relaxation mechanisms in the body (West, Lang, & Spinazzola, 2017). This physiological relaxation is important because when stress responses are activated they can cause hyperarousal and intrusive symptoms (van der Kolk, 2006). For those with a history of chronic trauma exposure, Yoga can improve self-concept and coping skills (Dale, Carroll, Galen, Schein, Bliss, Mattison, & Neace, 2011). Practicing yoga in a group setting has also been shown to decrease traumatic re-experiencing and lessen problematic substance use behaviors (Reddy, Dick, Gerber, & Mitchell, 2014) while increasing a sense of interpersonal connection (West, Lang, & Spinazzola, 2017).

Yoga cannot be considered a first-line treatment for trauma because it does not reliably heal the trauma memories via memory reconsolidation, which requires methods like EMDR or PC. However, Yoga can help clients to reduce and manage their symptoms, and to tolerate their trauma therapy. Furthermore, even after generally successful trauma treatment, some clients may continue to experience dysregulation, and Yoga can help them to acquire a better habit of self-regulation and calm.

References

Bussing, A., Michalsen, A., Khalsa, S. B. S., Telles, S., & Sherman, K. J. (2012). Effects of yoga on mental and physical health: A short summary of reviews. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 13, 1-9. DOI: 10.1155/2012/165410

Cloitre, M., Courtois, C. A., Charuvastra, A., Carapezza, R., Stolbach, B. C., & Green, B. L. (2011). Treatment of complex PTSD: Results of the ISTSS Expert Clinician Survey on best practices. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 24, 615-627. DOI: 10.1002/jts.20697

Dale, L. P., Carroll, L. E., Galen, G. C., Schein, R., Bliss, A., Mattison, A. M., & Neace, W. P. (2011) Yoga practice may buffer the deleterious effects of abuse on women’s self-concept and dysfunctional coping. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 20, 90-102, DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2011.538005

Reddy, S., Dick, A. M., Gerber, M. R., & Mitchell, K. (2014). The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20, 750-756. DOI: 10.1089/acm.2014.0014

van der Kolk, B. A. (2006). Clinical implications of neuroscience research in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071, 277-293. http://dx.doi.org/10.1196/annals.1364.022

van der Kolk, B. A., Stone, L., West, J., Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M., & Spinazzola, J. (2014). Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 75, 559-565. doi:10.4088/jcp.13m08561

West, J., Liang, B., & Spinazzola, J. (2017). Trauma sensitive yoga as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A qualitative descriptive analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 24, 173-195. doi:10.1037/str0000040

Note: This post was authored by Izzy Lederman and Ricky Greenwald, PsyD.

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4 Responses

  1. Although yoga is traditionally credited as being founded in India and a lot of Hindu influences are brought in by many practitioners, it is not a specifically a Hindu practice. My teacher, for instance, embraced yoga as a child in India when he rejected traditional Hindu religion. As a yoga teacher and trauma/mindfulness person I describe yoga as a practice for living that has influences from the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist paths, although it is not specifically Hindu. And yes, as you noted you don’t have to be a Hindu or of any religion to do it. Sorry, thanks for letting me geek out. My recent oral final exam question in the intensive yoga training I just took was, “Is yoga a religion?” And I had to answer this as if a client was asking it. And thanks for getting the word out. In my experience, yoga, if done properly, can help with memory consolidation although this is an area where the research will still need to catch up I’m sure before it is considered as a first line intervention. Speaking for myself, integrating yoga into my clinical practice has accelerated what I’ve been able to do an an EMDR therapist, in Phases 2 & 7 and as subtle interviews. I’ll be speaking a bit on this at EMDRIA at the Mindful EMDR Therapist presentation I’m doing with Stephen (Steve) Dansiger.

  2. Although yoga is traditionally credited as being founded in India and a lot of Hindu influences are brought in by many practitioners, it is not a specifically a Hindu practice. My teacher, for instance, embraced yoga as a child in India when he rejected traditional Hindu religion. As a yoga teacher and trauma/mindfulness person I describe yoga as a practice for living that has influences from the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist paths, although it is not specifically Hindu. And yes, as you noted you don’t have to be a Hindu or of any religion to do it. Sorry, thanks for letting me geek out. My recent oral final exam question in the intensive yoga training I just took was, “Is yoga a religion?” And I had to answer this as if a client was asking it. And thanks for getting the word out. In my experience, yoga, if done properly, can help with memory consolidation although this is an area where the research will still need to catch up I’m sure before it is considered as a first line intervention. Speaking for myself, integrating yoga into my clinical practice has accelerated what I’ve been able to do an an EMDR therapist, in Phases 2 & 7 and as subtle interviews. I’ll be speaking a bit on this at EMDRIA at the Mindful EMDR Therapist presentation I’m doing with Stephen (Steve) Dansiger

    1. Jamie, thank you for the corrections/clarifications.

      I have heard of trauma healing occurring via yoga, meditation, dancing, etc. and I’m sure it can happen. Even so, these activities will probably never be considered first-line trauma treatments because they do not *reliably* lead to memory reconsolidation.

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