January 07, 2020
Odds are that at some point or another, you’ve seen a yoga class offered to the community. Maybe you’ve seen them pop up in your gym, the community center, or a post on social media. Depending on the source, it may have contained some variation of the following: “Improve flexibility! Relaxation skills! Build strength! Calm your mind! Overall health benefits!” While these buzzwords may sound great to someone looking to pick-up a new hobby or add it to an exercise routine, you may be wondering how exactly it ties in with mental health, specifically in individuals that have experienced post-traumatic and/or anxious symptoms.
To understand the benefits, one must first take a step back and look at what is occurring in both the mind and body of an individual that has experienced significant stress. Essentially, when a scary or dangerous thing happens, our bodies go into survival mode, frequently referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This response sends the emotional part of our brain into overdrive – pumping our bodies with everything they need to tackle the danger. As a result of this, the thinking part of our brain may go “offline,” allowing our emotion/survival center to take control until we know we are back to safety and can mentally process the details of the event. While that may sound fine and dandy to someone in a very dangerous situation, it may be less than desirable for those whose stress response systems are constantly sending their bodies into overdrive in normal, everyday situations. For someone that is regularly in a state of anxiety or panic, one might compare their experience to having a finger constantly on the panic button in their brain, acting on even the “slightest” trigger, regardless of if it was warranted by the situation or not. If that thinking part of our brain is underactive, we don’t have the ability to immediately put our reaction into context; we can’t reassure ourselves in the moment that we are actually OK.
This is where yoga comes into play. One of the key aspects of a yoga practice is the idea of mind-body awareness. When an individual starts to become overwhelmed by the discomfort they’re feeling in their body on a regular basis, they may make the unconscious decision to separate the two – meaning that it is sometimes safer to try to not feel than to constantly be feeling something unpleasant – which leads to difficulty identifying and regulating extreme emotions. If we can’t identify the difficult feelings, how can we work through them?
Yoga practices encourage individuals to first become aware of emotions and bodily sensations and learn to tolerate them, giving them the space to be curious about what their body is telling them without passing judgment about whether the feelings are “good” or “bad.” Opening this door allows an opportunity to learn – to understand the body on a deeper level and become more in tune with how we physically hold stress, as well as giving us clues as to our mental and emotional state. The active use and focus on deep breathing also provides a tool to assist individuals in engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of that “fight or flight” response, which allows the body to move toward a state of relaxation.
Trauma-sensitive yoga groups and programs have further bridged the gap between yoga and the field of mental health and have provided a way to facilitate the reconnection of mind and body in trauma survivors (as well as developing this skill in the general population). In the face of trauma, individuals so often lose their sense of control and learn that their bodies are not a safe place as a result. Trauma-sensitive yoga programs not only seek to help individuals feel comfortable in their bodies, but do so by empowering the individual and providing choices to help them gain back their power. By providing options, facilitators can walk with individuals as they learn to identify physical discomfort and anxiety in the body and identify movements that seek to decrease or eliminate this distress.
Ultimately, yoga practices offer a wide range of benefits, inclusive of the buzzwords presented earlier. However, it is important to highlight that these benefits are not limited to physical health and general wellness. By combining active breath work and movement, individuals are able to learn how to maintain control over their physical and emotional responses, as well as better understand their bodies and what is being communicated. If you stop and listen, you might be surprised with the messages you receive.
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