Healing Trauma with Breathing and Yoga

posted in: Blog, Mental health, Recovery, Trauma | 0

Mental health is on a continuum. Many people experience anxiety in our culture today. PTSD, high levels of anxiety and clinical depression are serious diseases which require treatment by qualified medical professionals. Yoga, breathing and meditation are complementary treatments that can help tremendously in the healing process. Understanding trauma is also very helpful in gaining perspective and letting go of judgment and despair. As human beings our bodies, minds and nervous systems are affected by the events of our lives. This does not mean there is something wrong with us. It means when we experience trauma our nervous systems are affected by it.

It is always all about the breath! Learn and practice proper diaphragmatic breathing. Medical research is backing up what yoga science has taught for years. Start with the basics – diaphragmatic, smooth (no jerks or pauses), even (same length of exhalation and inhalation), quiet, through the nostrils and relaxed. Smooth, even diaphragmatic breathing is the number one most important tool we can give to ourselves. Once this is established, gradually lengthen your breath to six breaths a minute or longer.

Use awareness of the body and breath as an anchor to the present moment.

Note: there are a few people for whom the breath is triggering. If that is the case with you, start slowly and at first focus on relaxations and meditations that don’t focus on breathing. Examples are Systematic Progressive RelaxationTension Release and Blue Star. As more safety is experienced, the triggering may lessen or disappear and you can work with breathing.

Alternate nostril breathing is up next. Yogis knew it affects the vagus nerve and scientific research now shows this as essential for overall health. The practice is simple to learn and practice. Three rounds at least once a day is the minimum. Try it yourself for a month and see the effects.

Learn practices specific to your situation. People who experience anxiety benefit from 2:1 breathing practice (exhalation up to twice as long as inhalation). Depression may get worse with 2:1 breathing. People with depression need to keep the inhalation and exhalation the same length. The healthiest regular 24/7 breathing pattern is a relaxed, continuous flow of breath with no pauses, breaks or jerks and the same length of inhalation as exhalation.

Modify yoga practices and poses you already know based on principles for specific conditions and what you sense you need in the moment. If you have depression, you will benefit from some slow chest opening poses to start to build energy then move into more energetic poses. If you are experiencing anxiety, you may enjoy more vigorous movement followed by a blanket covering you in a long restorative pose. With the improving technology, scientists are discovering best practices and validating much of what yoga science has always known. I found when I had active PTSD that I did a lot of guided relaxations and breathing exercises with slow stretches and some standing yoga poses as I felt able.

During yoga class, monitor yourself for signs of distress, holding the breath or disassociation (mind wandering off). Smaller classes or private classes could be helpful if you are experiencing with strong emotional disturbances. Remind yourself to go at your own pace and give yourself permission to come out of a pose early if you’re not comfortable. Work gently with kindness and without pushing yourself.

Judgment is contraindicated in all poses and in life. We can all use encouragement to practice kindness and compassion with ourselves, which may mean coming out of a pose early or asking for a modification. With anxiety and depression, methods of working directly with and challenging catastrophic or obsessive thoughts have been helpful. Judging ourselves as wrong or bad for having mental health issues, uncomfortable emotions or problems leads to avoidance and makes our situation worse. Learning to be with reality without resistance is a practice for everyone and there are many ways to do this.

Develop the ability to witness, to hold space for emotion and thoughts to be present without shutting down. In this way we begin to have direct experience of the space in which these thoughts and feelings are arising and that a temporary thought or feeling isn’t who you “are”.

Allow the blessings from the depth of your own practice and insight to flow through you into your life.