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Trauma

7 Ways Yoga Helps Heal Trauma

Research identifies how yoga is a viable path for one's healing journey.

Key points

  • Researchers explored if practicing yoga helped people who survived interpersonal traumas.
  • A theme that emerged supporting yoga as a complementary method in one’s healing journey was that it ameliorated trauma-related symptoms.
  • As a result of their yoga practice, participants developed more positive self-perceptions and greater self-acceptance.

Can practicing yoga help people who have survived interpersonal traumas such as emotional abuse, physical abuse, or domestic violence?

This was the question of a recent study conducted by psychologists Ashley Gulden and Len Jennings. This form of trauma is widespread, with symptoms such as emotional dysregulation, generalized fear, and feelings of worthlessness, which can be particularly difficult for survivors to resolve. Thus, the investigators sought to explore whether yoga can serve as a viable path to healing.

In order to pursue this inquiry, Gulden and Jennings began by recruiting participants who were survivors of interpersonal trauma and had been practicing yoga for at least three months.

Participants completed an online survey and were also asked open-ended questions that explored their experiences with post-traumatic growth.

What did these psychologists find? The data identified seven themes that support yoga as a beneficial complementary method in one’s healing journey. The findings are outlined below.

Theme 1: Heightened spiritual awareness and growth. Participants expressed that their yoga practice, which included breath work, mindfulness, and meditation, was helpful in their healing journey. The data suggested that this may be because of the “deepened connection” between trauma and the notion of larger forces that are bigger than any single individual. A yoga practice might also cultivate a sense of peace and spiritual awareness, which can help diminish trauma symptoms.

Theme 2: Enhanced mental and physical health benefits. Participants reported both mind and body changes from practicing yoga, ranging from better sleep to lower stress—and even lower cholesterol. One participant remarked:

Physically, I have noticed benefits with balance, strength, and flexibility... yoga has taught me a huge lesson in learning to turn off my mind to just listen and feel myself, in the present moment...

Theme 3: Amelioration of trauma-related symptoms. Participants found that yoga techniques, such as breath work, physical movement, and mindfulness, helped improve mental health. One woman shared: “...breathing helped me through flashbacks. This has provided evidence that yoga and recovering from trauma go well together.”

Theme 4: Love, empowerment, and acceptance of oneself. As a result of their yoga practices, participants developed more positive self-perceptions and greater self-acceptance. One participant reflected,

Yoga reminded me that I am powerful, that I have power. Sometimes trauma makes us forget that we are powerful. I know that I can take my energy and amplify it with love and compassion.

Theme 5: Internal sense of safety. Many trauma survivors have difficulty reestablishing a sense of safety in their bodies. The participants in this study, consistent with previous research, found that yoga helped them regain a sense of safety. A woman explained,

When I first started yoga, I couldn't do child's pose without bringing my hands back to the back of my neck... this was related to my trauma, and I didn't feel safe. Over time, I [found] a gentle balance between my awareness and inviting myself to be open…

Theme 6: Nurture the self. Participants saw yoga as a form of self-care and a way to reset the mind and body. Participants even referred to specific yoga poses they found nurturing, such as heart-openers. Consider a participant’s reflection:

When I am in camel pose [back bend] for a long period of time, I [feel] very empowered, I am self-aware, and it has a positive impact on my mind and body the rest of the day. I don't know why it happens... but all of a sudden, my chest relaxes, and I don't feel so defeated by my experiences.

Theme 7: Getting “blissed out.” This refers to “yoga bliss” or “getting blissed out.” “Blissed out” means feeling “pure joy” and “inner renewal,” which leads to improved mood. The data suggested that yoga bliss had positive influences personally, relationally, and emotionally and thus played a meaningful role in participants’ healing journeys.

*Note that the authors presented the themes, so the first letter of each one spells healing.

References

How Yoga Helps Heal Interpersonal Trauma: Perspectives and Themes from 11 Interpersonal Trauma Survivors Ashley W. Gulden, PsyD, Len Jennings, PhD. International Journal of Yoga Therapy — No. 26 (2016)

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