Western research has known for a while that yoga is an incredibly powerful tool, and before the westernization of yoga in the late 1800s, it is an ancient practice dating back 5,000 years. While the westernization of yoga (and the ethics involved) is a whole conversation in and of itself, today we want to focus on the known benefits of yoga for clients struggling with mental health, trauma, and stress.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma has become one of the most well known books on trauma. Written in 2014, the book is part autobiography, part research review, part a collection of human stories detailing the experiences and work of the author Bessel van der Kolk. It helps you understand how trauma gets stuck in our body, as well as how to treat it. Van der Kolk references yoga practice and mindfulness repeatedly.
“Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.” - Van der Kolk
Self-care and self-compassion are an integral part of therapy for depression, anxiety, and trauma. We cannot heal or establish healthy relationships and habits if we do not have a healthy relationship with our self, our worth, and or needs. Mindfulness allows us to turn inward, to focus on our experience in the moment in our bodies and use that to ground into the moment and our needs, reactions, and feelings. Feeling our feelings is so incredibly important and something many, many of us neglect; this leads to an increase in stress and inability to process our emotions. Trauma survivors in particular, struggle immensely with facing these sensations, but once they do, it minimizes intrusive thoughts, memories, and feelings of the traumatic event.
The mental part of yoga as well as the physical aspect of yoga is incredibly good for stress. Research have shown that exercise helps mental health by regulating our levels of cortisol- the steroid hormone responsible for regulating stress in our bodies. This is especially important for trauma survivors who often have above average cortisol. A common American social pressure is that a workout has to make you want to throw up to be effective. This is just not the case. For regulating mood, a modest 30 min moderate impact workout is enough. Even for changing body composition, which is another conversation, consistency and life style change are more effective long term then crash workout plans and yo-yo weight loss. Finally, the best part of yoga is that it grows with you. You can take the same class as a total amateur or as a master and still benefit immensely. As you master a pose, you can go deeper, move to the next pose, and hold longer increasing mobility, strength, flexibility.
“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.” - Van der Kolk
Yoga is an incredibly powerful tool for mindfulness, self awareness, and physical autonomy. Yoga starts from empowerment and self compassion. At REST (and many trauma informed spaces) we start with assist cards- we allow the individual- without speaking- to verbalize a boundary over their own body. "Yes- you may assist me physically" or "No- you may not touch my body". This practice grows into- "Yes, my body can move to this position today." - or "No. I desire and wish and am ok with using a different posture today." This then moves into your life. Yoga is not about getting your foot over your head, it is about realizing what feels right for your body in the moment and listening.