by Sarah Todd
When a woman separated from her husband last fall, she tried hard to shut down her emotions. A 30-year-old working mother of two young boys, she felt she couldn’t afford to be sad or angry, even as she contemplated divorce. But something shifted when she began taking yoga classes in her town in northern Michigan. “It was my one place to relax and let go,” says Emily, who asked that her real name stay private.
“I used to go to class, get into a deep stretch and cry. It was like my muscles were connected with my heart. My instructor would warn us that certain poses would provide emotional releases, and sure enough, the tears would fall.”
People suffering disruptive changes —from losing a loved one to coping with unemployment or striving for sobriety— often find yoga to be a healing force. Lola Remy, of yogaHOPE, a Boston and Seattle nonprofit that helps women navigate challenging transitions, attests that yoga makes them feel safe enough in their bodies to process difficult emotions. “The goal isn’t to make stressors go away, it’s to learn resilience,” Remy explains. “Irreparable harm isn’t necessarily the only result of experiencing stress. Even if I’m in a challenging position—like wobbling in the tree pose—I can see that I’m still okay.” The object is to teach women that their bodies are strong and capable, giving them more confidence in their ability to weather obstacles off the mat.
Research suggests that yoga can also be an effective therapy for people affected by some forms of severe traumatic stress. A study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that scanned the brains of trauma survivors after a reminder of the traumatic event revealed decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that helps make sense of raw emotions and bodily experiences.
While shutting down the connection between body and mind can help in coping with dangerous experiences, it also makes recovery difficult. “You need to have a highfunctioning prefrontal cortex to organize the thoughts that come up and know that you’re safe in the present moment,” advises David Emerson, director of yoga services at the Trauma Center, in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Otherwise, you’re assaulted by memory sensory information.”
Yoga appears to rewire the brains of trauma survivors to stop reliving past distress. “You can’t talk your prefrontal cortex into functioning well again,” Emerson observes. “But you may be able to do it with your body.”
The study found that eight female patients that participated in traumasensitive yoga saw significant decreases in the frequency and severity of their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. In a study at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, military veterans enrolled in a 10-week yoga course also showed improvement in PTSD symptoms. A paper presented at a recent International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies conference studied 64 people that had experienced childhood abuse and neglect; those that participated in a trauma-sensitive yoga course had a 33 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms. Two months later, more than 50 percent in the yoga group experienced greater freedom and were no longer diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, compared to the control group’s 21 percent.
Yoga can also transform traumatized lives in other ways. “For many traumatized people, being touched intimately can be a trigger,” Emerson remarks. “Yoga may let them feel ready for physical intimacy again. Others have mentioned victories such as being able to go to the grocery store and knowing exactly what foods their bodies crave.”
Emerson notes that such programs emphasize choice and individual empowerment. “The beauty of yoga is that you reclaim your body as your own.”
Spreading the Word
Once largely concentrated on the East Coast, trauma-sensitive yoga programs are spreading. Jennifer Johnston, a research clinician and yoga instructor at Boston’s Mind Body Institute, sees programs like these enriching our culture’s understanding of the physical and mental health connection. “In a country where drugs and surgery are often the first go-to,” she says, “it’s important to remember that things like yoga can change our chemistry, too.”
Sarah Todd is an East Coast-based writer and editor. Connect at SarahToddInk.com.