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Find Your Center: PTSD and Yoga

More than 5,000 years ago, yoga was developed in the Northern part of India. Who would have predicted that this tradition can bring healing to war veterans and sexual abuse victims, alike, in 2010?

Yoga has been a part of the Western lifestyle for the last 40 years, and it has become more and more popular as years go by. I began practicing yoga about 3 years ago as part of my exercise routine, but I quickly found yoga to be something more than just an exercise technique. Yoga helps develop strength, flexibility, a healthier posture, and most importantly, it increases one’s self-awareness and ability to self-regulate. It gives yoga practitioners an opportunity to stay in a present moment by encouraging them to pay attention to breathing, muscle movements, and other internal sensations. As people practice yoga, they develop skills to pay closer attention to themselves without judgment, and to accept each moment as it comes. People can experience a sense of calmness and contentment with yoga. These experiences are not limited to the time spent while practicing yoga, and people often begin to use the same skills to stay in the present moment and listen to internal sensations when they are “off the [yoga] mat.”

As a clinician who works with trauma survivors, I thought yoga would be a great tool to help my clients to learn about self-regulation. People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) lose skills to self-regulate because the trauma that they have experienced directly affects their physiological and neurobiological levels. Their central nervous systems get intensively activated and this alters functioning. Another way to conceptualize it is that their bodies get stuck on ‘emergency call’ all the time, and the trauma keeps replaying in the body. Living with a traumatized body is very difficult, uncomfortable and confusing to most people. They keep themselves busy while ignoring their body sensations and this, in turn, reinforces trauma symptoms. Trauma survivors become detached from their bodies and tend to focus on “worrying” and keeping their minds busy.

Scientists and researchers have been studying the effectiveness of yoga in a variety of physical and mental illnesses. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has supported research on the effectiveness of yoga on reducing blood pressure, chronic low back pain, depression, insomnia and other conditions. In recent years, there has been more support for the use of yoga in reducing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.

One study found that low GABA levels, which are associated with depression and anxiety symptoms, have increased after 60 minutes of yoga asanas (postures) practice (Streeter C, et al. 2007). Another indicator for anxiety and depression is having a low level of Heart Rate Variability (HRV). The leading PTSD researcher, Bessel van der Kolk, also a fellow yogi, has been conducting research on PTSD and yoga since 2003. In one study, van der Kolk found that after 8 session of hatha yoga, there were significant changes in HRV levels (van der Kolk, 2006). In the same study, van der Kolk concluded that yoga appears to decrease PTSD symptoms such as hyperarousal and increases self-regulation skills in people with PTSD.

Armed with my personal yoga experience and this research data, I became strongly convinced that yoga is one effective way to address the symptoms of PTSD that remain strongly rooted in the body. I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2009, and also completed a 40-hour certificate program on Trauma Sensitive Yoga with van der Kolk (The Trauma Center) in 2009. At the Westchester Jewish Community Services, Treatment Center for Trauma and Abuse, I began a 12-week yoga program with trauma survivors. During the first three sessions, the group focused on educating members about PTSD symptoms so that they could learn about their condition and be reassured that their experiences are normal under the circumstances. Also, during the first three sessions, I introduced a gentle yoga practice to be done while sitting on a chair. After the fourth session, the group members were asked to move onto their yoga mats, and to practice the basic postures of yoga. At this point, I have run two cycles of 12-week groups. To examine the evidence of the group’s success, I asked all participants to complete a questionnaire regarding levels of psychiatric symptoms and distress before joining the group and after its 12-week conclusion. Group members have reported a decrease in symptoms at the conclusion of group, though the sample is too small to measure with reliability at this time. In addition, the feedback from group members was that the group gave them time to relax, learn about their bodily needs, and feel really good about themselves. Through the process, group members were able to rebuild both a sense of who they are, and their ability to trust their center. They were able to reconnect with their body, mind and spirit to live a more meaningful life. This experience has solidified my belief that body work, and in particular yoga, is a very promising and rewarding way to help trauma survivors recover their essential selves.

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