Yoga for PTSD
When I was a child, I had a pretty traumatic upbringing. My Mother would often beat me, abuse me psychologically by saying things such as she was going to kill herself by jumping off the bridge, and if I cried at her funeral she would haunt me until I died - this was at the age of 5. On my birthday, Christmas day, a drunk uncle held a loaded shotgun to my head. I was an overweight child, terrible at sports, and grew significant body hair all over upon hitting puberty, to the ridicule of many. I began to rebel as a punk rocker in my teens, but, through necessity, I joined the Navy later on so I could afford university. As a member of Generation X, life was hard as I did a variety of jobs to get by as I could not find work in my Educational field. One of those jobs saw me as become a Correctional Officer in a maximum security prison - a very difficult culture for me to adapt to as I am a very non-violent, altruistic individual who loves Art and Academics - where I was constantly exposed to trauma: riots, murders, suicides and suicide attempts, violence, etc.
In 2003 I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.War, cultural conflicts, crumbling family systems, natural disasters and financial difficulties are all playing a part in the rise of individuals affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in our society today. PTSD presents itself in a variety of ways: depression, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, emotional numbing and volatility, intrusive thoughts, recurring nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating and efforts to avoid people, places, feelings, and events that evoke memories of the original trauma. Trauma survivors have a great need to find ways to work through their experiences and get a sense of meaning and understanding. While the majority of those who have experienced direct trauma or who have witnessed trauma can heal, even persons who do not develop full blown PTSD, will experience a number of the symptoms mentioned above.
There are a variety of treatments for those affected by PTSD. Psychologists assist PTSD patients identify the source of their trauma, provide coping skills to help one’s self when re-experiencing a trauma, understanding the physical side of PTSD, dealing with associated symptoms of PTSD and ways to regulate emotions. Many modern therapies are utilising Mindfulness meditation and applying concepts from Eastern Philosophy; primarily Buddhism and Taoism, as the platform for treating PTSD patients.
Yoga is another discipline coming from the Eastern cannon of Philosophy and Spirituality being used to treat PTSD, and the one that I have found to change my life. The practice of pranayama – Yoga breathing techniques – complements many of the strategies being used in sessions by psychologists as a way of calming the parasympathetic nervous system. With many PTSD sufferers, panic or anxiety attacks largely characterise their disorder as the “fight or flight” part of the body does not turn off when it is no longer required to keep the individual safe. The amigula, the part of the brain that regulates our body’s responses to danger, can be significantly affected by pranayama practice, re-setting one’s sensations back to a calmer state.
The practice of asana, – Yoga postures – can also assist PTSD patients to address PTSD symptoms by allowing them to give themselves permission to let go of worry, guilt and pain by focusing on the present moment and learning to accept that we are all where we are and that we are not our thoughts. Challenging asanas can assist in focusing the mind, while asanas requiring balance calm the mind. Asana affects posture, the central nervous system, massages internal organs and promotes the oxygenation of breath while flushing fresh blood into muscle tissue. While Yoga is not a quick fix, when the individual begins to maintain a regular practice and attempts to extend the Yoga techniques beyond his or her mat, the impact on their lives and condition as it relates to PTSD symptoms can be significant. This transformation comes through the simple re-acquaintance with one’s body.
I still suffer from PTSD symptoms, but am a far cry from the lows that I experienced over the past decade. In my present vocation, I teach in a special programme at the elementary school level. My students are grades 2-6 and have come from refugee camps, with no previous schooling and no English language skills. Every one of my students have been exposed to severe trauma, coming from the famine and civil war in Somalia, and now living in low-income Canadian neighbourhoods. Practicing what I preach, I have introduced Yoga and Meditation into my classroom with profound results. It is my hope that a collaboration project that I am presently involved in will eventual evolve into a piece that I can take to other schools to assist in the positive development of our youth who face a plethora of issues as they make sense of our modern world and try to find their place in it. Recognising the stress level on my colleagues, working with similar children, I also teach a weekly staff Yoga class.
In closing, I am at peace with myself and my past. While it appears terrible - and many aspects of it were - it is also what made me who I am today and has, if anything, encouraged me to be that change that Gandhi spoke of in the world. Life is what it is. I am grateful for my life, those around me and the opportunities I have had. I hope that, in sharing this piece, others will find a way to find peace and their way.
Stankovic, L. Transforming Trauma, International Journal of Yoga Therapy, No. 21, 2011