Yoga is an accessible portal to shifting daily routines guided by the wisdom of Ayurveda.
Yoga is gaining recognition in the field of Body Psychotherapy and is a unique complement to talk therapy. One of the fathers of trauma research, Bessel Van Der Kolk, said, “We just did a study on yoga for people with PTSD. We found that yoga was more effective than any medicine that people have studied up to now.” Yoga asana, as the third of the Eight Limbs, is known by yogis and Ayurveds as preparation for meditation, which is the seventh limb. Breathing techniques and mindfulness practices are introspective methods which have long been touted as effective treatment for unresolved trauma manifest as addiction and anger. But most people have no idea that meditation is meant to be practiced after a physical practice.
Skill-appropriate yoga is the basis of most physical therapy, and is now recognized as cutting edge psychophysiological treatment for PTSD and other maladies. The physical postures are really the access point to adapting daily routines. For people who are rebuilding their lives after violence or hospitalization, their old daily routines will either throw people back into the cycle of re-enactment or, at best, support them in pouring a new foundation for new possibilities.
In working with trauma survivors, vata balancing protocols are most beneficial initially. If someone has spent a long time in the immobilization, or freeze, response, especially those with addiction issues, a more activating practice must be cultivated, ultimately a more kapha balancing practice. For violence recovery, one would utilize a more pitta balancing practice.
When I discovered Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, it turned my way of teaching restorative yoga on its head.
This theory describes a third Nervous System, in addition to the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic: the Social System. The Sympathetic is responsible for fight (pitta) or flight (vata) and the Parasympathetic is responsible for the freeze (kapha), or immobilization response. The ventral branch of the Vagus nerve enervates the heart and facial muscles, and this communicates our state through our facial expressions and voice. This ventral branch signifies humans’ initial response of reason or communication when faced with a problem. Only when our needs can’t be met that way does the brain revert back into the phylogenically older limbic midbrain, the region of origin for the fight/ flight response. And if running or fighting are not viable options, or we are otherwise immobilized, brain activity retreats to the oldest part of the brain, the brain stem, and we experience being frozen in fear.
So rather than two systems, a yin and yang of stress reaction, there are three, which heralds a link to the grand triad of Vata-Pitta-Kapha, Sattva-Rajas-Tamas, Prana-Tejas-Ojas. There is a balanced and imbalanced state of all three nervous systems and their associated part of the brain, just like the balanced and imbalanced states of Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
In other words, we treat one who has experienced trauma primarily with Vata balancing dietary, lifestyle, and yoga asana recommendations. We also need to respond with an understanding of the individual’s resilience to trauma, which is dependent on the age of the first traumatic event and whether betrayal was involved.
The method seeks to create islands of safety and sanctuary for spirit to be invited back into, since previously the body has been the enemy for trauma survivors. We must titrate the visits into the memory of trauma for resolution, but not get lost there through practices that orient to the present moment. Activation sequences, or strengthening yoga postures, enable body awareness and trauma discharge. This builds what’s called the “window of resilience,” which, in Ayurveda, resembles ojas.
I had been teaching restorative yoga as a practice of balancing the chronic sympathetic stress most of us live in. This is still important to do regularly as a way to press the nervous system (and life’s) reset button. But when I learned of the Polyvagal Theory, and understanding that the thinking part of the brain turns off when triggered, it began to make sense why plans of what-to-do-when-triggered often fail.
The solution is to soothe and fortify the entire system, raising the bar of what triggers us. When change happens at the roots, it affects the being in its entirety. This is why making life affirming changes to our daily routines boost our immune system, and why Ayurveda is so important in the treatment of trauma.