Yoga, science, and healing have been increasingly linked in recent years as research has shown the benefits of yoga for physical and mental well-being. One area of study that has gained much attention is the use of trauma-informed yoga to help military populations, front-line medical workers, educators, and anyone who has experienced prolonged stress and trauma. The latest research helps us understand how and why yoga works to heal our worn-out nervous systems and brains after stressful events.
One of the critical components of trauma-informed education is understanding polyvagal theory. Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, polyvagal theory explains how the nervous system systematically responds to stress and trauma. The theory states that the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the body, plays a crucial role in regulating the body’s response to stress and trauma. Under duress, our bodies act in predictable ways commonly referred to as fight, flight, or freeze. For short durations, these states are adaptive and necessary for survival. But left unresolved, the short-term and long-term impacts can manifest as mental health disorders like PTSD, severe anxiety and depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and even heart and immune conditions.
Another core scientific component of trauma-informed yoga is Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is a useful biomarker for understanding the impact of stress and trauma on the nervous system. Heart Rate Variability is a measure of the variation in time between heartbeats and is used as a marker of the vagal tone as explained by polyvagal theory. Low HRV is associated with increased stress and trauma. Nowadays, most smartwatches and wearable fitness trackers can measure and monitor HRV. This is exciting because, for the first time, we have scientific proof that yoga, breathing, and meditation increase HRV. High HRV means our nervous system functions more effectively, resulting in greater emotional resiliency and the ability to self-regulate.
Additionally, brain research facilitated by advancements in brain imaging has also shown that both physical and emotional trauma can significantly impact the brain, specifically in the areas of the hippocampus and amygdala. These areas are responsible for memory and emotional regulation, respectively. The HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) axis is a system in the body that is responsible for regulating the body’s response to stress. When the HPA axis is activated, it triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Yoga practices help to down-regulate the HPA stress response system and lower cortisol. Yoga also helps to strengthen areas of the brain in the prefrontal cortex associated with better decision-making, creative problem-solving, and emotional regulation.
Finally, Yoga can help improve the function of the lymphatic system, which is the primary driver of a healthy immune system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels and organs, predominantly in the legs and arms, that helps remove waste and toxins from the body. Unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump to make it work and instead requires movement. Yoga poses that involve gentle stretching and movement, such as inversions and twists, can help stimulate the flow of lymph and improve the function of the lymphatic system. Additionally, deep breathing and meditation practices in yoga can also help relax the body and reduce stress, which can also improve the function of the lymphatic system.
Overall, yoga, science, and healing are closely interconnected, and research has shown that yoga can effectively mitigate and even reverse the effects of stress and trauma. By understanding the impact of trauma on the body and mind and utilizing techniques such as trauma-informed yoga, individuals can learn to regulate their stress response and improve their overall well-being. YogaFit for Warriors, launched in 2013, is a proven trauma-informed yoga program with its foundational roots in the latest scientific understandings of how yoga works outlined above. This has created a new view of yoga in western medicine that embraces it as more medicinal in nature and complementary to all types of mental and physical diseases, especially those driven by stress.