How to regulate trauma response with Yin yoga

How to regulate trauma response with Yin yoga

When you’ve been affected by severe emotional trauma, the wounds are deep. In trauma cases where there’s prolonged stress and distress, physiological changes can include constant hyper alertness, sleep problems, heart palpitations, panic attacks and many other uncomfortable symptoms. For the autonomic nervous system to regulate itself, there are many approaches now available, including Yin yoga.

Yin yoga can be a helpful tool for regulating trauma response by promoting relaxation and mindfulness. The slow, gentle movements and long-held poses characteristic of Yin yoga can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can counteract the ‘fight or flight’ response often associated with trauma.

Having experienced severe emotional trauma in my early years, I can speak from personal experience about how the practice of Yin yoga has slowly and quite gently helped me to heal my life to finally feel at peace. I’ve chosen the beautiful practice of Yin as my main area of expertise to help others heal the body, mind and spirit.

How to regulate trauma response with Yin yoga

The issues in our tissues: How emotions are stored in the body

Western medicine used to believe that our thoughts, feelings and emotions were separate from our physical bodies. But it’s now more widely accepted that there’s a connection between the mind and the body, that we store emotions in our bodies and that this can often result in negative physical, mental and emotional outcomes.

The Indian yogis and the Daoist yogis in China noticed a correlation between particular emotions and certain areas of the body: fear centred in the kidneys, anger in the liver, worry in the stomach, fright in the heart and grief in the lungs. These associations make a lot of intuitive sense: when we grieve our lungs go into spasm (crying), when we’re afraid our adrenal glands activate to prepare us to run or fight, and so on.

The yoga traditions also believe in the connection of positive emotions with the organs: joy or courage in the heart, creativity in the stomach, kindness in the liver and wisdom in the kidneys. Examples that most of us are familiar with are butterflies in the stomach or having a ‘gut feeling’ about someone or something.

How do animals deal with trauma?

What is it that happens to animals versus humans when our nervous system kicks into sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) mode?

An example in the animal kingdom is a gazelle being chased by a lion. The gazelle, fearing for its life in full flight mode (sympathetic trauma response), after some time of trying to run away, may lay down and pretend to be dead. The lion might then go back and collect her cubs to bring to their gazelle meal. In the meantime, the intense adrenaline energy created within the gazelle when they were trying to escape, which they desperately want to release, is used in a giant burst to seize the moment and run away to safety. Essentially, the emotion/stress/hormone/trauma response gets cleared out of the gazelle as close to the event as possible.

Whereas, in humans, we have a fright or undergo a big trauma of sorts, and we commonly feel the urge for the body to want to release it (think full body shaking, wanting to scream, wanting to run, etc.), but our mind kicks in and overrules the primal urge to clear the stress out immediately. Maybe we feel self-conscious or maybe we’re playing down the event. Whatever the case may be, in that moment the stress experience gets suppressed deep into the body.

How to regulate trauma response with Yin yoga

Suppression as a trauma response

The suppression switch can be so effective that even when we get re-triggered – especially if we’re not in a safe, supportive environment or not working with a professional who helps us move through the reaction – it may just get stuffed down inside again. This makes it really difficult over time to even touch base with the old wound stored within and help it to start healing.

When observing animals, we notice that if they have a fright they pretty immediately shake it off and move on. But we humans don’t shake things off very well. We hold onto the stress or trauma and put it somewhere out of our awareness, ready to pop up as a trigger as we get older – just when we least expect it!

Deep held traumas and emotions may need to be worked through with a qualified professional. Many psychologists now recognise the benefits of bodywork such as Yin yoga, in conjunction with talking therapies, to help release trauma from the body.

Neuroplasticity & yoga: What’s happening in our brain when we practise Yin?

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the scientific term that refers to the ability for the brain to change and develop. From birth until the day we die, the connections in our brains reorganise in response to our changing needs and environment; everything we come into contact with is consciously and unconsciously feeding and structuring our brains and our minds.

The relevance of neuroplasticity in Yin yoga

During a Yin class, we’re making subtle changes to our bodies and minds. As we hold a pose for an extended period of time, we use the breath, focus and discipline to hold the pose whilst often experiencing some discomfort or ‘stress’ to the tissues (fascia).

The poses are held for long periods of time to release the fascia and often the student will be guided to deepen the breath and listen to philosophical and spiritual concepts, which may also open the mind to new ways of thinking or of framing their lives. We’re creating new thought patterns and hopefully releasing the old ones, thus restructuring our brains.

In Yin yoga we’re bringing the brain into the lower brainwave states, which create a state of calm, relaxation and deep rest – the states where we can specifically rewire the brain’s connections, patterns and neural pathways. It’s in these states that deep healing of the body-mind system takes place.

What is Yin yoga?

The science of fascia & trauma

Fascia has a complex relationship with trauma. Trauma, whether physical or emotional, can result in the fascia becoming tight and restricted, which can cause pain, decreased flexibility and altered posture. Some people believe that trauma can also be stored in the fascia, leading to long-term physical and emotional issues. However, the exact mechanisms of this relationship are still being studied and understood. Many practitioners believe that techniques such as myofascial release, other forms of bodywork and yoga can help address the issues of trauma held in the fascia.

What is fascia?

To get a feel for what fascia is and what it looks like, think of a network of membranes that differ in thickness, covering and separating every organ, from bones to muscles and every other cell in between.

Fascia is a live protective sheath working hard to protect you from bacterial and viral invaders and sending sensory messages back and forth to your brain. It mostly consists of collagen, lubricated with 70% water, with the fascia acting a bit like a sponge. It’s three-dimensional, completely continuous throughout the body and is the fundamental connective tissue that builds and joins together muscle fibres, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, organs, capillaries and lymph vessels.

In addition, fascia plays a critical role in the central nervous system through the dural tube that encases the brain, spinal cord and meninges. These membrane layers of fascia contain and protect your entire central nervous system. It’s incredibly strong and resilient, and is able to withstand a pressure of up to 2,000lbs per square inch.

In a healthy body, fascia is stretchable with no restriction. But, when things go wrong, it can affect the entire fascial network. Fascia binds every muscle fibre, with both fascia and muscle fibres functionally interlinked. Therefore, any imbalance or injury to the muscles will result in the fascia tightening and dehydrating. And restrictions in the fascia can result in muscle imbalances. It’s these restrictions that cause pain.

Going deeper, the complete circulatory system, as well as the nervous system, is surrounded, supported and penetrated by a web of fascia. If there are any restrictions in the fascia, it squeezes those parts affecting circulation and movement, heart rate and respiration.

How to regulate trauma response with Yin yoga

So, what does fascia have to do with emotional trauma?

Fascia can harden and become dehydrated as a result of emotional trauma and the body’s response to extreme stress. This dehydration, tightening and hardening decreases the space between the fibres and increases friction and irritation inside the fascia. As a result, fibres shorten, thicken and constrict, putting pressure on the adjoining areas.

This resulting pressure then compresses nerves and capillaries, which in turn leads to discomfort, pain and reduced blood flow in the area, affecting the immune system and reducing resilience even further.

Yin yoga helps to rehydrate the fascia, restore elasticity and widen the space between the fibres to improve circulation and help blood and oxygen flow smoothly around the body again.

How Yin yoga helps with trauma response

Yin yoga can be beneficial for people experiencing trauma, because it focuses on holding passive, seated postures for longer periods of time, typically three to five minutes or more. This extended duration allows the student to work deep into the connective tissues and joints, promoting relaxation and increased flexibility.

Yin yoga also encourages mindfulness and breath awareness, which can help individuals with trauma to reconnect with their bodies in a gentle and supportive way. The meditative aspect of Yin yoga provides an opportunity for individuals to process emotions and release tension.

Here are some elements you can expect to experience during a Yin yoga class:

  • Mindful breathing: Deep, slow breathing during Yin yoga practice to promote relaxation and soothe the nervous system. This also helps the student to stay in the poses, which can sometimes feel challenging due to the duration and intensity.
  • Yin poses: A mixture of gentle poses that allow the body to release tension and promote a sense of safety and comfort.
  • Focus on sensations: Focus on bodily sensations and non-judgmental awareness during the practice to cultivate a sense of present awareness.
  • Safe environment: Practising in a safe and supportive environment, which may include dim lighting, soothing music and comfortable props like blankets or bolsters.

Q&A with Bessel van der Kolk

No article about trauma would be complete without some mention of this experienced expert!

Bessel van der Kolk MD is a clinical psychiatrist whose work attempts to integrate mind, brain, body and social connections to understand and treat trauma. He’s the author of The Body Keeps the Score, which examines how trauma affects the brain and body, and looks at a variety of treatments, including yoga.

“If you are not aware of what your body needs, you can’t take care of it. If you don’t feel hunger, you can’t nourish yourself. If you mistake anxiety for hunger you may eat too much. And if you can’t feel when you are satiated, you will keep eating. That is why cultivating sensory awareness is such a critical aspect of trauma recovery.” – Bessel van der Kolk

Bessel van der Kolk on trauma & yoga

Bessel van der Kolk responded to the following questions for Kripalu about yoga in the context of trauma response.

How does yoga practice impact people who have experienced trauma?

“When people think about trauma, they generally think of it as a historical event that happened some time ago. Trauma is actually the residue from the past as it settles into your body. It’s located inside your own skin. When people are traumatised, they become afraid of their physical sensations; their breathing becomes shallow, and they become uptight and frightened about what they’re feeling inside. When you slow down your breathing with yoga, you can increase your heart rate variability which decreases stress. Yoga opens you up to feeling every aspect of your body’s sensations. It’s a gentle, safe way for people to befriend their bodies, where the trauma of the past is stored.”

How important is talk therapy in treating trauma?

“If you’ve been traumatised, you’re likely to have a very distorted relationship to your body. My particular angle, or contribution, is that trauma is really a somatic issue. It’s in your body and, because of that, yoga has great relevance, because it goes directly to sensing and befriending the body. While talking and knowing what happened and being able to articulate it is an important part of treatment, the most important part is starting to regain ownership of your body and be comfortable in your own skin.”

What does the evidence show as far as yoga’s efficacy?

“Our studies show that yoga is equally as beneficial – or more beneficial – than the best possible medications in alleviating traumatic stress symptoms. In the studies we did involving neuroimaging of the brain before and after regular yoga practice, we were able to show that the areas of the brain involving self-awareness get activated by doing yoga, and those are the areas that get locked out by trauma and that are needed in order to heal it.”

Are there other methods you’d recommend for regulating trauma response?

“My approach is very much ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. One method doesn’t benefit everybody. In order to recover from trauma, you need to address a large number of different systems.

  • EMDR (eye movement desensitisation & reprocessing) is particularly helpful to integrate traumatic memories, and it does so by shifting some areas of the brain involved in memory processing. Neurofeedback can affect brain activation patterns – it can actually change brainwaves, and can help to make people’s brains quieter and more attentive.
  • Yoga might be able to reach the same goal, but it would probably take longer.
  • Theatre is particularly helpful to help people gain a voice and to deeply inhabit a particular state. Instead of always feeling frightened or withdrawn, they can act like a king or a powerful warrior. It’s a consciousness-expanding tool. Also, traumatised people often misread other people, or become withdrawn or scared of others, and theatre allows for deep engagement with other people.

How to regulate trauma response with Yin yoga

Yin yoga: An accessible and affordable path to healing

As we’ve seen, there are many different ways to regulate trauma response, and what works for one person won’t necessarily have the same impact for someone else. The best way to find what works for you is to try out some of these different methods for yourself. Of course, you may well need professional guidance to help you do that.

Yin yoga offers an accessible and affordable way of regulating the nervous system and healing from stress and trauma. And, as I mentioned earlier, I speak from experience in saying that.

If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of Yin yoga, feel free to get in touch. Or why not book a class and come experience it for yourself?

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