“The lives of many trauma survivors come to revolve around bracing against and neutralizing unwanted sensory experiences . . . [they] have become experts in self-numbing. They may become serially obese or anorexic or addicted to exercise or work. At least half of all traumatized people try to dull their intolerable inner world with drugs or alcohol” (The Body Keeps the Score, p268).
Before we discover what yoga has to do with recovery, let’s start with a quick review of how the brain works. The autonomic nervous system is essentially our brain’s survival system. It has two branches that regulate the body: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS uses hormones like adrenaline to kick the brain and body into action. PNS helps regulate functions like digestion, sleep and dream cycles, or the healing of wounds.
Heart rate variability can help us understand the balance between the two systems (SNS and PNS). Inhaling stimulates the SNS and increases the heart rate. Exhaling stimulates the PNS and decreases heart rate. So in a balanced brain or healthy person’s system, normal breathing in and out produces normal heart rate functioning. We can look at heart rate variability and predict general well-being.
So what about individuals who aren’t balanced or whose heart rate varies significantly, likely reflecting some form of dysfunction? Many studies show that how we breathe can have a positive effect on problems with anger, depression, anxiety, and PTSD… as well as conditions like high blood pressure, asthma, and back pain (Cuthbert et al, 1981). Did you know yoga is one studied method of regulating breath and addressing some of these issues?
As the introductory quote pointed out, at least half of traumatized people have problems with some form of addiction. Even people working through addiction recovery but without a history of trauma can find benefits in yoga. People living with mental illness, which may or may not be trauma-related, can also benefit from yoga. One way it has helped many people heal, recover, and cope with challenges is by helping us connect to our breathing and our bodies.
Yoga is the connection between your mind and body through asanas (poses), breath, meditation, and more (depending of the kind of yoga being practiced). Bessel van der Kolk, an M.D. and author of the book The Body Keeps the Score, explains why the connection to body and breath is so significant for the populations I’ve described. First of all, research shows our sense of self is directly rooted in our connection with our bodies (Damasio, 1999). As van der Kolk describes, “...we need to register and act on [physical] sensations to navigate safely through life. While numbing (or compensatory sensation seeking) may make life tolerable, the price you pay is that you lose awareness of what is going on inside your body, and with that, the sense of being fully, sensually alive” (p.274). Those suffering from addiction or a history of trauma often talk about feeling like they are dead inside. They have lost some of that sense of being fully alive.
It’s impossible to take care of our bodies if we are unaware of our bodies’ needs. The practice of yoga helps us focus attention on breathing, how our bodies move and feel. As you begin to practice yoga, you may start to notice a connection between emotions and body. Just the fact of noticing alone will foster emotional and physical regulation, something typically severely lacking in addicts as well as sufferers from mental illness and trauma.
Through the practice of yoga, you can relearn how to connect to your body when you are in discomfort and work through physical ailments that come with problems you may be facing. You can tune into your body and more importantly, listen to your body and intuition. By forming this connection of mind and body, you are retraining yourself how to cope in life with whatever your challenge is. How to breathe through a painful thought, feeling, or physical sensation can regulate your nervous system and improve your overall well-being. In fact, a study showed that after 20 weeks of weekly yoga, women who had been chronically traumatized experienced improved critical brain function and self-regulation (van der Kolk, 2014).
Clients of Hope Recovery and Healing can participate in restorative exercise and yoga on a weekly basis! By becoming more aware of the body mind connection, a person can learn how to overcome difficulties accompanied by challenges like mental illness, addiction, and trauma. You can feel safe in your body again and regulate your nervous system more effectively.
If you liked this article, you might also like this article about how your body heals by Hayley Sims.
Cuthbert, B., et al., “Strategies of Arousal Control: Biofeedback, Meditation and Motivation,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 110 (1981): 518-46.
Damasio, A. The Feeling of What Happens: body an dEmotion in the making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt, 1999).
Van der Kolk, B., et al., “Yoga as an Adjunctive Therapy for PTSD,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 75, no. 6 (June 2014): 59-65
Van der Kolk, B., The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Penguin, 2015).