Self-help

Does Yoga Help You Heal From Trauma? The Experts Weigh In

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We've heard all about the benefits of yoga to our bodies. Yoga has been used to eliminate back pain, loosen tight muscles, and regulate breathing. But what about the deeper benefits? Does yoga help heal your thoughts in a similar way?

According to studies, more victims of trauma are using yoga to help them cope and recover. One victim, Rocsana Enriquez, has been participating in a yoga program called The Art of Yoga Project. Teachers are specially trained to help girls heal from abuse, trauma, and other difficulties.  

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By slowing down breathing, recognizing emotions without reacting, and routine, girls like Rocsana have experienced balance and healing. Exercises on the mat taught her to "slow herself down when she got angry and to pause before reacting." Also, the "breathing techniques and poses...made her feel better about herself."

Since trauma has become a very real problem, it's refreshing to know yoga can be used as part of the healing process. In a study of children in the U.S., "26% said they were physically abused and over 14% reported emotional abuse." In addition, PTSD is much more common in women than men.

Medication and talk therapy are most often used to deal with traumatic events, but physiologists are starting to believe other therapies, such as art therapy and yoga, can be a new way to help victims.

Missy Hart from California is another example of how yoga can change victims' lives. She was just 13 years old when she was jailed for using drugs. Before that, she'd been involved in gangs and had been in and out of foster care.

While still in the juvenile hall, she went to "trauma-sensitive yoga," but not without complaints. She didn't like it at first, but over time, she got used to the rhythm and credits yoga with helping her learn to be calm and deal with bipolar disorder.

"Where I'm from," Missy said, "you're constantly in alert mode, like fight or flight."

"Most of us [in juvenile hall] come from traumatic childhoods," she said. "It was the only time you experienced a quiet time, when everything wasn't so chaotic."

Both Missy and Rocsana grew up to pursue careers in helping others after their experiences with yoga. Rocsana became a yoga instructor with The Art Yoga Project, while Missy is an art therapy teacher.

Continue to the next page to find out what experts have to say about yoga as a treatment for trauma and PTSD.

Bessel van der Kolk, a clinical psychiatrist, explains how yoga can affect victims and help them recover. He says the complicated thing about trauma is victims often are caught in the "fight or flight" response, which can be difficult to halt.

"When people are traumatized, they become afraid of their physical sensations; their breathing becomes shallow, and they become uptight and frightened about what they’re feeling inside," he said. "When you slow down your breathing with yoga, you can increase your heart rate variability, and that decreases stress.

"[Yoga] is a gentle, safe way for people to befriend their bodies, where the trauma of the past is stored."

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Studies have shown improvements and feelings of "safety, self-confidence, and calmness" after victims of trauma participated in a yoga. Many previously felt disconnected from themselves and numb, but yoga helped them reconnect with their bodies and recognize when and how to take care of themselves.  

Rebecca Epstein, who helped write a report from Georgetown Law's Center on Poverty and Inequality, has discovered the real effects yoga has on traumatized girls.  

"What we're learning," she said, "is that fights go down on wards after adolescents participate."

She also says the girls have fewer physical ailments after regularly doing yoga and "are requesting medicine less often."

If yoga was so successful with these girls, maybe it can help other victims of trauma heal faster!

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