Yoga and Mental Health, The Science of Trauma Recovery and the Brain

Original Publishing Date:
November 4, 2022
Last Update:
July 26, 2023

When you hear the word “yoga”, what do you think of? A crowded, hot classroom of people wearing tight exercise clothes; their sweat flying onto the person next to them as they move quickly from pose to pose? A teacher humming and chanting before guiding their students into a meditation while they lay on their mats, covered in thick blankets? Or perhaps a class full of blocks, bolsters, and other mysterious props with that person going from a handstand into a pose you are not sure is humanly possible? While yoga can include all of these situations and more, it's important to know that practicing yoga can soothe, heal, and strengthen more than just the physical body: the deep wounds of emotional trauma and other mental health issues can be addressed in a safe way.

Yoga and Mental Health Trauma

First, let’s talk about trauma. According to the CDC (2022), in the past year, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse or neglect in the United States, which is a soft number since many cases are unreported. Almost 25,000 people lost their lives to homicides in 2020 alone (CDC, 2022), and even in the average yoga class, 1 in 3 people who walk into the studio have experienced some kind of traumatic event (Abram, 2018). The point is that trauma is common in our society and no one is immune to it.

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What is trauma?

But what is trauma? An event is traumatic if it is extremely upsetting and at least temporarily overwhelms the individual’s internal resources (Briere & Scott, 2014). A traumatic event is subjective, can be life-threatening or life-altering, can be vicarious, continues even after the initial event is over, and imprints on the mind, brain, and body. The mind-body must enter into an emergency state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, and may need extra support returning to a “normal” state once the event has passed. Someone who experiences a traumatic event might become trapped in a cycle where they continuously relive in the past experience (van der Kolk, 2000). Unaddressed traumatic experiences can contribute to the development of depression, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms.

Symptoms of trauma

Traumatized individuals go through any number of symptoms, which can include the following:

  • emotional dysregulation
  • dissociation
  • body or somatic disturbance
  • negative or distorted self-image
  • impaired capacity to initiate, navigate, or sustain relationships
  • rupture of one’s fundamental beliefs and systems of meaning
  • decreased cognitive ability
  • high autonomic arousal (which means elevated levels of cortisol) which can impair the immune system, contribute to ulcer formation, damage bodily tissues, and cause muscle tension
  • heart palpitations
  • high blood pressure
  • negative alterations in thoughts and mood
  • avoidance
  • intrusion
  • flashbacks and reliving the event
  • hyperarousal and hyperactivity (i.e. reduced pain tolerance, startled responses, insomnia, fatigue, chronic state of fight or flight)
  • difficulty putting thoughts into words (due to impact on Baroca’s area of the brain responsible for communication)
  • impaired interoception or the ability to feel activity of our interior self
  • feelings of isolation

It is easy to see how the mind-body can be significantly impacted by adverse life experiences and trauma. Our bodies are strong and resilient, and there are many ways for us to heal, including yoga therapy.

Trauma, the Brain, and the Autonomic Nervous System

Before discussing how yoga can support those who experience traumatic stress, we need to discuss how the brain and nervous system respond during and when triggered after a traumatic event.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and Trauma: PolyVagal Theory

Trauma dysregulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is responsible for our fight, flight, and freeze self-protective responses (Bortz, 2021). Ideally, our brain and our ANS want there to be balance in order to maintain homeostasis in the body (Abram, 2018); however, traumatic stress can negatively impact this balance.

The ANS is composed of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and according to Polyvagal theory, the PNS has two subsystems: the ventral vagal complex (VVC) and the dorsal vagal complex (DVC).

Why is this important? The ventral vagal system is critical to an individual being able to rest, restore their body, and have social engagement. The dorsal vagal system is what causes an individual to shut down or freeze during a dangerous situation. Bortz (2021) explains that when someone experiences a trauma response, a few different responses happen.

The SNS becomes overactivated, which means the person has a fight/flight response and experiences hyperarousal. Hyperarousal can feel like the following examples:

  • irritability
  • becoming aggressive or angry
  • sweating
  • feeling tense
  • becoming paranoid or hypervigilant
  • having trouble focusing
  • difficulty sleeping
  • trouble controlling the bladder

The VVC becomes underactivated, the body is unable to rest or restore and social engagement is impacted. The following are examples of what this looks like:

  • having trouble relaxing or sitting still
  • higher blood pressure
  • increased breathing and heart rate
  • trouble with digestion
  • difficulty with social contact and pleasure, such as maintaining eye contact, smiling, eating, talking, and kissing

Lastly, the DVC becomes unpredictably activated, which means entering the freeze response or going into a hypoarousal state when it is unnecessary. This can look like the following:

  • Feeling cold, numb, or empty
  • Feeling heaviness in the body, such as the limbs
  • Experiencing stiffness and getting stuck in the body
  • Feeling exhaustion, fatigue, and “brain fog”
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Holding the breath or difficulty breathing
  • Feeling a sense of dread or hopefulessness
  • Lacking motivation
  • Unable to make decisions
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feel disconnection with your body

Yoga and specific body movements facilitate the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us back into a state of “rest and digest” or as PolyVagal Theory suggests, a Ventral Vagal state. We will discuss how this works later on.

The Brain and Trauma

The brain is the boss of our nervous system, and plays a primary role in our response to traumatic events. There are three key areas of the brain involved in a response to trauma:

  • the frontal cortex: our thinking area responsible for rational thought
  • the limbic system: our emotional area responsible for emotion and memory
  • the brainstem: the instinctive, survival, and reproduction area, which is responsible for self-protective action

When someone who has been traumatized is triggered, the following happens in these three brain areas:

  • the medial prefrontal cortex becomes underactive and it is hard to remain self-aware and problem solve
  • the alarm systems in the limbic system become overactivated which causes emotional reactivity even if there is no physical danger present
  • the brainstem reacts to the perceived threats detected by the amygdala in the limbic system, which triggers the fight, flight, and freeze responses (Bortz, 2021).

The Computer Analogy of the Mind-Body and Trauma

The brain and nervous system’s response to threatening events is optimized for survival. Let’s consider that our brain is a computer and the traumatic event is a virus. The processor (i.e. logical part of the brain) is no longer responding, no matter how many times you click the mouse or keyboard. The power supply and motherboard (i.e. the ANS) are redirecting energy to focus only on the virus, and the graphics card (i.e. the emotional and memory part of the brain) is flashing on your screen creating an alarm so that you are aware that something is wrong. Then the programs and all other computer parts (i.e. the brainstem in this situation), are like, okay, I hear the alarms! Let’s react! The cooling system might sizzle, internet tabs might start to close out to flee the virus, or the computer might completely shut down. The computer senses a virus, or threat, and it takes whatever means necessary to protect the computer system as a whole.

Trauma and Its Triggers

This is a great system in the brain and nervous system if the threat is present and real, but if an individual becomes triggered by an event that is actually safe and not a threat, then many of the mental health symptoms described above may occur. We may not realize that we are responding to a threat that happened previously. Over time, the body is negatively impacted by feeling a high level of stress and fear too frequently, which can impair the immune system, damage body tissues, alter mood states, and more.

Yoga is a wonderful and versatile tool to support both the mind-body connection and facilitate good psychological health. Keep reading to learn more specific benefits of yoga on mental health.

Yoga Benefits Mental Health and Trauma Recovery

Yoga is a powerful resource that benefits mental health. Yoga is good for facilitating trauma recovery, managing depression and anxiety, and reducing stress (Brown & Gerbarg, 2005; Kessler et al., 2001; Kinser et al., 2012; Streeter et al., 2010).

Unlocking the Body with Yoga

People who have been traumatized need sensory and physical experiences to help them unlock their bodies. When using yoga to unlock the body benefits include:

  • increased tolerance to unpleasant physical sensations
  • the development of effective fight/flight responses
  • positive impact on being able to process thoughts and feelings
  • create new patterns of behavior for the future, such as developing new ways to respond to stress or triggers  

(Emerson & Harper, 2011).

Rebalance the Nervous System with Yoga

Whether you are in a yoga for beginners class, dedicated to hot yoga, or doing yoga poses for 10 minutes in the middle of the work day, it can help rebalance your nervous system and positively affect the functioning of the three brain parts mentioned above. There are positive effects of yoga on physical health, which can be seen in the following:

Yoga postures can create safe mobilization:

  • if you feel nervous or stressed that you will fall out of a balance pose (i.e. tree pose), you are able to practice “falling” in a safe space
  • going into any new pose while in front of a large class can create anxiety and stress, and doing things like focusing on the breath can help you respond in a more positive, confident way

Yoga postures can create safe immobilization:

  • resting your body in a restorative class, such as laying your legs and feet on a bolster and placing sandbags on other parts of your body, leads to deep relaxation and gives your body the ability to restore and feel safe

The hyperactivity of the SNS can be dampened:

  • Your hyperarousal and fight/flight response is being told to cool off
  • Example: You arrive to your yoga class flustered and late, but moving through a flow of yoga postures and placing your focus on the breath helps you slow everything down

The unpredictability of the DVC is able to be soothed:

  • You are able to physically work through freezing or shutting down
  • Example: As you bring your hands from mountain pose to your feet in forward fold pose, you bring your focus to each muscle being stretched, all the way from your head through your core and to the bottom of your feet; you feel that your whole body is connected and able to slowly move

The functioning of the VVC is increased:

  • Your body is learning how to relax and restore instead of jumping into a tense, stressed out state
  • Example: Practicing breath work, a body scan, and meditation at the beginning and/or end of a yoga class creates a sense of awareness of how your body feels and helps your identify what you need before reacting (Gothe et al, 2019).

Reduce Overall Trauma Symptoms with Yoga

There is research supporting that taking yoga classes can reduce trauma-related symptoms. Individuals with PTSD have benefited from trauma-informed yoga programs and in a study by van der Kolk (2014), some study participants no longer met the criteria for the diagnosis of PTSD after participating in a yoga program. Different yoga-based interventions have helped participants decrease symptoms of re-experiencing and anxiety, as well as improving sleep, affect, perceived stress, and resilience (Jindani et al, 2015; Mitchell et al, 2014). There are approaches, such as bottom-up approaches, and a few styles of yoga that can be nourishing and help address a wide range of health issues, such as yin yoga, restorative yoga, and trauma-sensitive yoga through specific physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation.

Healing Approaches -Styles and Types of Yoga

Bottom-Up Approaches

Individuals who practice bottom-up approaches, which focus first on the body sensations and gradually work towards the emotions, perceptions, and cognitions (i.e. breathing, mindful movements, relaxation, and meditation exercises) in yoga classes are able to change their physical regulation (Cramer et al, 2018), and these exercises particularly help individuals get to a calm arousal zone, or a rest and restore response. Over time, the body really does keep the score (van der kolk, 2014), and it is vital that the body can release the trauma that has seeped into it; somatic exercises, such as yoga, can assist with this. As clearly supported by different research, anyone can physically and emotionally benefit from attending yoga classes, especially those who have been traumatized and need support with reconnecting with their bodies.

Yin Yoga

Yin yoga is a gem if you are looking for a positive impact on both physical and emotional health. It is a slower-paced style of yoga that incorporates yin yang theory from traditional Chinese medicine (Cruikshank & Bismarck, 2021). Most physical yoga postures (asanas) involve some type of stretching, but the stretching goes to even deeper connective tissues in yin yoga by holding each stretch for longer periods of time. For example, instead of holding a stretch for 1 minute in a regular yoga class, you would hold a stretch for 3-5 minutes in a yin class.

The tissues impacted by yin yoga include:

  • Joints
  • Bone
  • Tendons
  • Cartilage
  • Ligaments
  • Fascia (which provides support throughout the whole body)
  • Skin and lining of blood vessels and organs

In the longer stretches, we focus on relaxing the muscles in order to target these connective issues, which allows us to actually stretch them. Applying a gentle stress to the tissues helps with tissue pliability, hydration, strength, circulation, and releasing toxins from tissues (Cruikshank & Bismarck, 2021). This style is also very meditative and introspective, which leads to mental benefits.

So, what are the benefits of this style of yoga?

  • The slower motions and meditations help with slowing down thoughts and managing our emotions
  • Helps with calming the nervous system
  • Fascial tension is released throughout the body
  • Increases flexibility of joints and range of motion
  • There is greater awareness of the body

Restorative Yoga

Similar to yin yoga, restorative yoga focuses on relaxing the body, is meditative, and introspective. The purpose of this practice is to reduce stress, cultivate body awareness, and slow the breathing down into deep relaxation (Cruikshank & Sedgwick, 2021). This style aims to restore the body’s natural capacity for health and supports the body in different positions to help it relax (Some poses can be held for 20 minutes!). Restorative yoga incorporates a ton of props! The goal is to help the body feel as relaxed and comfortable as possible, so imagine cocooning yourself in blankets, elevating your feet, placing blocks and pillows under your head and neck, and so many other options.

By practicing restorative yoga:

  • We help reprogram our nervous system and re-learn how to relax
  • Stimulate different organs and parts of the body
  • Reduce muscle tension
  • Learn to self-soothe and feel safe in our bodies
  • Balance emotions by using non-judgemental awareness
  • Suggested benefits for high blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, anxiety, and other issues due to regulating the PNS
  • Can help with chronic pain, high stress, and if you have low energy

Trauma-Sensitive Yoga

The primary style of yoga that will be discussed is trauma-sensitive yoga (TSY), which are classes designed to support those who have experienced a traumatic event and are traumatized from it. Abram (2018) discusses the importance of the breath, both in general yoga practice and especially in TSY, and states, “to control the breath is to control the mind” (p.47). Body-oriented therapies (i.e. yoga-based interventions) focus on making a connection at the somatic level, and individuals are able to slowly move from that entry point to addressing emotions and cognitions. Through the breath and movement, awareness of the present moment is established, which interrupts dysregulation. Even as one’s awareness moves away from the present moment (i.e. an individual with PTSD starts to think about the past event), they learn to regulate their breath and physical responses, which can bring awareness back to the present moment. When someone is able to self-regulate, they are able to develop more acceptance of the present moment experience, and this acceptance of being in the present makes it possible to become “unstuck” from the traumatic memory. Remember how those who are traumatized can experience a number of physical symptoms? This ability to self-regulate through the breath and somatic exercises is a key puzzle piece to helping this.

TSY classes also include certain criteria and framework that creates a safe experience for someone who has experienced a traumatic event (Rice, 2021).

  • There is a focus on experiencing the present moment, such as bringing awareness to the breath or feeling grounded while in a pose.
  • One cannot use the rational mind to directly control the ANS, but one can regulate their bodies through the breath. This regulation helps the body move from a hyperarousal state to an individuals’ window of tolerance.
  • There is also a focus on making choices, which can include choosing to stop a pose if it becomes too triggering or having the choice to not be physically assisted or touched by the yoga instructor.
  • TSY involves individuals taking effective action, such as having available props and being encouraged to take whichever items they personally need to feel better in class, and creating rhythms (i.e. intrapersonal rhythm, matching one’s own breath and movement in something like sun salutations), which helps with unwanted somatic dissociation, disconnection from others, and dysregulation.
  • Creating rhythms and participating in physical exercises can help an individual go from a hypoarousal state to their window of tolerance.

A yoga teacher in a TSY class also focuses on four main concepts, known as the Four R’s:

  • Realizing the pervasive impact of trauma
  • Recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • Responding skillfully to these symptoms in the yoga class
  • Avoiding re-traumatizing the students attending the class (Bortz, 2021).

Those who attend this type of class can experience a space of understanding, compassion, and the ability to work through their symptoms.

It can depend on the type of TSY class one attends, ranging from a public class to a clinical setting, but there are certain approaches that should be incorporated into this type of yoga class.

  • A yoga instructor uses a bottom-up approach
  • There is promotion of being safe and supportive
  • Focus on self-acceptance (i.e. if we cannot “let it go”, can we “let it be”)
  • Connections are fostered (i.e. “I am not alone”)
  • Classes are needs-based
  • Especially in one-on-one work or smaller classes, there is no promotion of any specific style or type of yoga; it depends solely on how the person feels and what they need
  • Yoga sequences are adaptive to different needs instead of being prescriptive
  • Focus on the physical self (i.e. avoid focusing on less tangible sensations, such as the energetic body)
  • Individual spiritual beliefs can be incorporated as a form of additional support
  • Yoga poses are focused on moving with intent to create and experience sensations
  • Reconnection is incredibly important (i.e. can re-establish internal and external connections; come to feel we belong somewhere)

Summary of the Benefits of Yoga on Mental Health and Trauma Recovery

The next time you think of the word “yoga”, consider what the poses and exercises are actually doing for the body. Sure, there will definitely, always be individuals who focus only on the physical poses in a yoga class. And that’s okay. After reading this blog, though, we can do so much more than only a physical pose. These exercises can touch even deeper levels of an individual’s psyche, and yoga has been a transformational resource for so many people. While individuals who have been traumatized often utilize therapeutic resources, such as doing EMDR work with a therapist, they would also benefit from adjunct yoga classes to address any past trauma. TSY is empowering, needs-focused, and helps individuals to regulate their breath, which results in addressing physical dysregulation issues. If you or anyone you know has experienced a traumatic event and the symptoms listed in this article, consider trying a TSY class or talking with your therapist about this kind of resource. You can also meet with a therapist at Chicago Counseling to process your trauma and discuss ways to heal through yoga in your own home. Everyone deserves to feel safe and present in their bodies- no matter the trauma, no matter the memory- and yoga can be the key to achieving this.

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Carliann Pentz, MA, LSW, EMDR-T

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