3 ways yoga helped my PTSD
Reduce stress and anxiety, increase energy, decrease blood pressure, boost immunity, and improve sleep, memory, strength, mobility, balance, and much more. These are all things that research has proven yoga is effective for, but today I’m going to be talking about before I knew all of that, before I was aware of the immense body of research proving yoga’s effectiveness and just when I found when I was in the throes of PTSD, when I was recovering from brain injury, and how specifically yoga helped me recover from PTSD.
In yoga, we often talk about mind, body, and spirit. We talk about those three things being in alignment so that we can source ourselves from that alignment of mind, body, spirit, and live a life that is true to us today.
I’m going to use that framework to explain how yoga helped me with my PTSD. And so, the first part is the mind and how yoga supported me figuring out how my mind works, how to work WITH my mind, befriend my mind again, after going through or while going through PTSD.
So for me, living with PTSD meant living with a mind that had become a complete runaway train. I became consumed with worry and fear. Afraid of living in the world, afraid of harm coming to me and my loved ones. I slowly became more and more stuck and frozen and consumed with those fearful thoughts, with that anxiety and not knowing what to do about it.
It was like having a mind I didn’t understand, a mind I didn’t know how to work with, and a mind I was afraid of because it was just serving me all of these negative worries and fearful thoughts, all the time.
And so, yoga was extremely powerful for me for working with my mind because slowly over time, time after time on my yoga mat, I was guided to begin to understand how my mind works, but also how to be with that fear and not run away from it all the time, how to meet thoughts and how to respond wisely from the guidance of my own body to those thoughts instead of reacting to them, and instead of sending my body into a certain state because I was afraid of my mind.
For me, yoga gave me tools and guidance on how to work with my mind, how to understand my mind, and also how to have compassion and gratitude for my mind and what it had done based on what had happened to me. Developing the capacity to see myself and my mind as something that really was wise and had done what it was supposed to do, which was to keep me alive, but that had become a little bit stuck was important in my healing.
Through the gentle movements of yoga, I could slowly become unstuck and learn ways to calm my mind, to find a little bit more space between my thoughts and to respond to my thoughts and to the events in the world in a more intuitive, thoughtful, calm way.
The second way that yoga helped me recover from PTSD was through working with the body. I spoke about the mind, and the mind being like a runaway train, and the doorway into working with the mind for me was my body and working with my body.
During my ptsd, my body had become very frozen and immobile – my nervous system protecting me, my mind protecting me, and everything becoming very, very tight. There was SO much gripping and trying to hold on. And so luckily for me, I found yoga and it helped me slowly work with my body and begin to unfreeze that sense of immobility and being frozen in the world.
Yoga was really powerful because the unfreezing didn’t happen all at once and if I had tried to force it to happen all at once that would’ve never worked, and that would’ve sent me probably into hiding. And so, alternative to that was yoga, which was a little bit of titration, which means processing the trauma little bit by little bit by little bit in a way that made sense for me. Having that guidance to slowly learn and strengthen my mind-body connection again, to feel into my body, and to unfreeze the unfrozen parts of my body were gifts yoga gave me.
I had extreme facial damage from a fall where I lost teeth and broke all the bones in my face. My PTSD nightmares used to be about skulls and skeletons coming to me in the night, and there would be hundreds of them and their teeth would be falling out and they’d have all these metal parts falling out of their faces. And so, that facial trauma was very devastating to me and something that my mind and body held onto as a source of the trauma and as something that was very, very scary.
And so when I started to find yoga, I actually couldn’t feel any of my face. I had just turned off all the sensation to that part of my body because it was not safe. It was not comfortable to connect to it, there was so much pain involved with it physically, mentally and emotionally. Slowly coming back to turn on that part of my body again and be able to relate to it was a really important part of my trauma healing. Yoga, helping me feel into my body was really essential.
Another part I had turned off a few years later actually was feeling my legs, and there was a good six month period where I couldn’t feel my legs. Turning this part off mentally came from a neck injury, which was related to the original fall. And so when I found out what was wrong with me was my neck injury I decided to save my life and to get my life back. I was going to become very stiff and I was going to only move in one plane of movement, and I was going to just be very safe in the world by keeping my neck still.
I placed so much attention and so much mental and emotional effort on stabilizing my neck when I didn’t even really know how to do that that I turned off of my body connection to my base, to my legs. I had to learn how to feel that again and how to activate those muscles and use those muscles, which are really important for helping you stand and feel strong in the world.
The process of yoga and slow movement also helped me turn that back on day after day, time after time. There was no big immense change on any given day, but slow, slow, slow, slow helped me turn that connection back on in a way that was safe for me.
For me the slowness mattered, the little bit by little bit, working with the body, connecting to the body again. My body was a source of trauma because I fell without knowing why, and that became very scary for me to live in this body. And so that slowness of connecting to my body again through yoga and through just feeling my body and being prompted and guided over and over again really was everything in my process of recovery because not only did it help me connect the mind and body again, but it also helped me learn about my nervous system, learn about when I needed something that would calm my nervous system and also when I needed something that would activate me, because I tended to go into that free state, I often needed things that would kind of wake up my system and give my system a sense of strength, again.
That process happened through yoga ,through feeling in the different poses, taking different shapes, and through working with my body over time and understanding the strengths of my body, the weaknesses of my body, but also the reality of my body because I had become very consumed with the unsafeness of my body, which wasn’t really reality. The reality was my body fell one time, I don’t know why, but all the other times it has kept me standing up, it has kept me strong in the world, and it has allowed me to do many amazing things. And so yoga and the body and merging those two things for me were truly very pivotal in my trauma recovery because once the body became less frozen, then I was able to work with my mind and to work with my spirit, which I’m going to talk about next, and bring all those things together in a true sense of healing.
Having PTSD is like having a spiritual, dark Night of the soul and so the third way that yoga helped me recover from PTSD was by connecting me to my spirit again.
When I was going through PTSD, I had enormous amounts of shame, grief, loss and identity confusion. All of those things felt like a pressure on the system, on the soul. To not be able to connect to a sense of meaning, to not be able to connect to my own sense of higher self, or expanded self, or greater sense of reason of being in the world was truly crushing.
Yoga helped me turn that back on very slowly by giving me tools to hang onto, concrete tools to connect to that greater sense of myself, my greater sense of being in the world, and sense of connectedness with myself, with my community, with the greater world. That really mattered because when I had my trauma, I lost a lot of identities. I lost the identity of wife, eventually, I lost the identity of worker or teacher, I lost the identity of triathlete. I lost the identity of trust in my body and being able to be strong in my body in the world, and many other identities that just were completely shattered as my life unfolded as a result of my trauma. That part was really difficult because to have identities, views, and behaviours that used to exist, just gone or floating out there, that was very disorienting and confusing and also shame inducing because when you don’t have a center of self and a sense of who you are, you don’t really know where you belong or where you fit in the world.
For me, that led to a lot of isolation and sense of non belonging in the world. And so yoga helped me return to that, number one, because it immediately connected me to a community of people who surrounded me no matter what state I was in, but also it connected me, slowly, to that sense of I am here, I belong, and I matter. That really made a huge difference as well, because self-esteem was affected, confidence, ability to have confidence of being in the world and relating to other people in a safe way that helped me reestablish those connections as well.
Different people teach yoga differently and different teachers speak into the spiritual aspects of yoga more or less. It was very healing for me when teachers spoke to elements of belongingness and connecting to a greater sense of self.
Parts of identity coming back on board were really essential in my trauma recovery because have those identities lost was like a vast wasteland of not knowing where I was or where I fit in the world. The ability to reconnect, reimagine, rebuild through yoga practices, through breathing practices, through the mind-body practices, all of those things came together in terms of being able to connect to that spiritual aspect of myself again. Being able to have routines of even just connecting to a more wise part of myself through journaling or being able to turn on something a little bigger than me, or being able to turn on that sense of connecting to something a little bigger than me through breathing, through Yoga Nidra, through working with my mind and getting the mind to settle, all of those were extremely important in my trauma recovery.
So you can see for me, mind, body, spirit, yoga helped me basically turn them all back on because I had run from everything, I had turned off everything I had just turned the dial completely down on life. That sense of frozenness is the best way to describe PTSD for me and yoga helped me slowly over time, become unfrozen, mind, body, and spirit. Then slowly and eventually and happily connect all of those things, feel into life again, and connect to life again.
There were so many pieces broken during PTSD and yoga helped me piece the fragments of my life, body, identify back together again.
Leave a comment below to share with me your story of trauma recovery – what helped you?