In June, we bring awareness to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Harry Dudley, a Living Yoga volunteer teacher and forensic & clinical psychologist, shares the impact of yoga on PTSD and traumatic experience:
Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, the second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, defines yoga as being that which stills the fluctuations of consciousness. I am basically paraphrasing the various interpretations and translations that I have read over the years, but for me, if the content of a yoga class, regardless of whether it is asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhrana, or dhyana, is not in service of this definition of yoga, then it is simply not yoga.
Nowhere is the need for the stilling of the whirlpools of the mind more needed than with people who struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder, whether it is due to childhood trauma, war, accidents, intimate partner violence, crime, sex trafficking, torture, or the myriad of other circumstances where trauma is possible. There is the abundant research documenting how PTSD is prevalent in the populations served by Living Yoga, and how various yoga practices help ease the suffering of those struggling with PTSD. I will not go into that here, rather, I will simply share some of what I have witnessed of the powerful capacity of various aspects of yoga to ease such suffering, which includes flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, nightmares, panic attacks and hypervigilance, emotional and physical numbing and depersonalization, as well as high risk behavior where the trauma may be compulsively acted out, and traumatized individuals seek alcohol, drugs, sex, and self-injurious behavior to cope with the sequelae of trauma.
In many circumstances, we will not know the stories of our Living Yoga students. We may catch snippets here and there. They may share something about themselves, or inadvertently reveal something. What we learn is usually what they share with us at the end of class, such as how calm and relaxed they feel, how they feel peaceful or grounded, or how the practice of yoga has enabled them to reclaim their lives in some way. I will always recall how at the end of my last class at MacLaren, a youth correctional facility, one of the lads shared with me how the Living Yoga classes allowed him to, “find a calm in me that I never knew that I had.” That is the power of what we do.
I will call her Sarah. Sarah, which is not her actual name, has given me permission to share her story of how yoga practices have helped her. Sarah is one of the bravest people I know. She came to me as a private student to experience relief from PTSD. Due to multiple childhood traumas, she suffers from complex PTSD as well as panic disorder with agoraphobia. She also has bipolar disorder. What has made a profound difference for her is using asana, which she learned in private lessons from a yoga therapist I referred her to, as well as pranayama and yoga nidra meditation that I have shared with her. I vividly recall a private session in my office where she was triggered and flooded by flashbacks of abuse and began to experience a full blown panic attack. But instead of trying to “fight it”, or “ignore it, and then having a lengthy panic attack, she instead labeled the experience as a group of sensations and memories that were temporary. She maintained coherent breathing and practiced aspects of yoga nidra. Instead of being caught up reliving the past, she stayed with the present and the panic episode was brief. She was also able to stay with a sense of her body, rather than experiencing numbing and dissociation. What Sarah drew from was from trauma informed yoga practices, and with this she has developed a new relationship with her trauma so that it no longer rules her. This why we do what we do.