Yoga for Trauma Recovery

07 Dec 2016

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GUEST POST: HELEN CUSHING

Yoga is a powerful and efficient system for changing the brain. This is exactly the need of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not all trauma survivors develop PTSD but for those who do, life becomes unbearable, just as the trauma was. Devoid of hope, suicide can feel like the only way to freedom from physical pain and mental anguish. Yoga offers a vital seed of hope.

Although PTSD is generally treated as a psychological disorder it is increasingly recognised as a condition of the entire organism. Hence, body inclusive therapy has an important role to play in full recovery. The need is not to revisit the event as this tends to keep it alive. The need is to heal the nervous system, reset the brain and learn methods for relaxation, mind management and putting the past to rest. As the symptoms of PTSD reduce it becomes possible to re-establish fulfilling relationships with loved ones and interact comfortably with society.

“Yoga came along at the right time and saved my life.”

Vietnam War veteran

Holistic yoga offers a comprehensive system for healing the lasting effects that deeply traumatic experiences can leave. More than a decade of teaching yoga to war veterans and others with PTSD has shown me the heart-warming results that a gentle combination of asanas, breathing/pranayama, yoga nidra and meditation have when practised consistently. Practice is the condition for recovery – a weekly class with daily practice at home is ideal.

PTSD means that the nervous system is stuck in the fight or flight response and the body is overdosed with stress hormones. Over-reactive and always on alert for danger, it becomes impossible to relax, let alone have a good night’s sleep. Re-experiencing the event in flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts leads to avoidance of situations and feelings that might trigger the memories. Loss of confidence and isolation increase the burden as entrenched negativity makes it hard to see a way through. Numbing of feelings with both prescription drugs and by self-medicating with alcohol and other substances contribute to a downward spiral into a very dark place. The cost to self and others is high and the problem of being alive can seem just too great.

First priority is to know that you can feel better. Feeling better includes the experience of full relaxation. This is simply achieved with the most basic yoga using the tradition of hatha as a pathway to raja yoga. My training in Satyananda yoga means that this pathway is the structure of every yoga session I teach. This package of holistic yoga directly addresses both the physiological and psychological issues faced in PTSD. In brief:

  • Start with the body: Practice gentle asanas for the joints, to free up tension that limits the breath and to start toning the nervous system via the spine. Take it very slowly, softly and mindfully. This is also the training ground for starting to be aware and learning to internalise (pratyahara). It is the beginning of freeing blocked energy.
  • Awareness of the breath is fundamental. Breathing retraining follows. Tranquilising and balancing pranayamas bring additional benefits.
  • Yoga nidra is the ultimate relaxation practice and is literally a life-saver.
  • Meditation develops the skill of witnessing or mindfulness which is essential for self-understanding, letting go of the past and being consciously in the present.

“Even if the war leaves scars that are difficult to heal, yoga makes you forget about the evil.”

Colombian ex-militant.

Combined with the support of a skilled counsellor, yoga teacher and/or loved one, holistic yoga brings both short and long term relief from the life-destroying effects of PTSD.


About Helen:

Helen Cushing (Ahimsa) is a Senior Yoga Australia teacher. She is the author of Hope: How Yoga Heals the Scars of Trauma. Her work with war veterans is portrayed in the award-winning film, Heroes of Peace. Ahimsa teaches and consults internationally on yoga for trauma recovery. Find out more and buy her book at www.lifebeyondtrauma.com

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