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Yoga and Trauma

By Rob Schware, Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Originally published on Gaia.com

Yoga and Trauma

The benefits of a yoga practice include building flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. However, a regular yoga practice can help anyone dealing with the stress of facing military deployment, being homeless, being in prison or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.

It is tempting for me to write a book about each of these worthy people. Instead, over the past four years, I’ve interviewed many of them for a Huffington Post blog series called Yoga: How We Serve.

In their interviews, these women and men shared the unique needs of survivors of trauma, lessons learned in doing this work and how existing resources and treatments generally do not adequately address the needs of these populations. Here is just one of many extraordinary comments from a Vietnam War veteran in a program called Mindful Yoga Therapy:

 

“As I started to practice daily, I noticed several things happening. First, I began to sleep better. Next, I was getting to know myself, for the first time ever. Slowly I came off all of my psych meds. That was big! For the first time in over 40 years, I was medication free. Over the years, I’ve been on over 23 different kinds of medications, from Ativan to Xanax! Yoga is now my therapy.”

Vietnam War Veteran

This veteran went on to say he hopes that Yoga will someday be offered to all veterans, and offered to our troops during basic training.

I very much share this hope, because the costs of treating trauma — whether it occurred 40 years ago, or in the past decade –have become a major concern in our society. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, the economic burden of trauma is more than $585 billion annually in the U.S., including both health care costs and lost productivity.

The CDC also measures “Life Years Lost,” used to account for the age at which deaths occur, which gives greater weight to deaths occurring at younger ages and lower weights to deaths that occur at older ages. It turns out that the impact on life-years lost from trauma is equal to the life-years lost from cancer, heart disease, and HIV combined.

Statistics can’t say much about the personal burdens of individuals and families, of how individual sufferers are impacted, but it’s still instructive to mention one or two more here. For instance, there is an average of 293,066 Victims Of Sexual Assault Or Rape each year in the US, with someone in the United States being sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. And roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day from the effects of PTS symptoms, one every 65 minutes.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, and means “a wound” resulting from an emotional or psychological injury or experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. According to Bessel Van Der Kolk:

“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds…The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.”

YOGA FOR RECOVERY

The lives of many trauma survivors revolve around coping with the constant sense of danger they feel in their bodies. It is typically difficult for them to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. As Yoga Of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) founder Nikki Myers puts it, “Sustainable addiction recovery is about more than the mind…the issues live in our tissues.”

Y12SR is a rich framework for integrating the wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, with Y12SR meetings available nationwide, and the curriculum quickly becoming a feature of addiction recovery treatment centers across the United States.

SEXUAL ASSAULT

Yoga helps one reconnect with the body, giving the opportunity to discharge accumulated stress and anxiety, and restoring the human organism to safety. Sabrina Seronello’s story paints this picture: she was on active duty in the Air Force from March 2000-March 2006, working as a medic in the emergency department of a Level 1 trauma center at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB. Sabrina deployed to Iraq in January 2005 to the Air Force Theater Hospital, a Level III (injured patients and emergency operations) trauma center. Given what she saw and experienced taking care of the wounded in Iraq, and being a victim of sexual assault while in active duty, she had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks. Upon returning from Iraq she was introduced to yoga and saw how it helped her deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. In 2013 she started teaching a regular weekly yoga class to incarcerated veterans at San Quentin State Prison in CA under the Prison Yoga Project.

Trauma-sensitive yoga programs are becoming more available at domestic violence shelters, and universities are offering them for survivors of sexual assault. Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college. This assault led to issues with anorexia, cutting and otherwise trying to numb her uncomfortable feelings. According to Caitlin:

“Those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn’t trust anyone, and so sad.”

Caitlin has recently pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho, area, including at a domestic violence shelter, and at Boise State and the College of Idaho. She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.

COMBAT-RELATED PTS

People with post-traumatic stress (PTS) who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and exhibit an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment. The Mindful Yoga Therapy program has been found to be especially helpful for veterans who are also participating in evidence-based psychotherapy for PTS.

“Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder,” says Paul, a Vietnam War veteran.

YOGA FOR PRISONERS

Breath work, three extended exhales, is part and parcel of the Prison Yoga Project protocol for addressing symptoms of un-discharged traumatic stress, according to James Fox, Founder and Director. “The extended exhale serves as the body’s built-in release valve to discharge stress and anxiety,” he says. This is confirmed from current and former prisoners at San Quentin State Prison who have been part of the yoga program.

“It was mainly because of the inner peace and trust that I have developed and nurtured through my yoga practice that I was able to respond to a confrontational situation with calm.”—B.B.

“I’m able to stay grounded by getting into my breathing which takes my focus off stressful, traumatic events such as flashbacks. It keeps me mindful mentally and physically and enhances my self control.” –D.B.

YOGA & EATING DISORDERS

Finally, yoga can become a game-changer in combatting eating disorders. An estimated 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Chelsea Roff took her first yoga class at the suggestion of a therapist just a few months after getting out of the hospital for eating disorder treatment.

“The short story is that yoga brought me to a place in my recovery that no form of talk therapy or medical treatment ever had before. Downward dog certainly didn’t cure my eating disorder, but the practice did teach me how to relate to my body in a more compassionate way. And more importantly, perhaps, going to yoga introduced me to community–to the people I soon came to consider family – and I suppose that’s exactly what I needed to fully step into recovery,” she says.

HEALTH CARE COSTS

What if the over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys who use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives, were offered regular yoga classes? Regular trauma-sensitive yoga classes for victims of trauma can help reduce our nation’s health care costs on a larger scale, as they address cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated with trauma. But a cultural change is required to make this happen. The current system is broken, because it overly relies on medical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are very costly without commensurate relief from symptoms.

According to Kantar Media, the heath care industry spent $14 billion on advertising alone in 2014, enough to fund over 215,000 trauma sensitive yoga classes. Especially for PTS, mainstream therapies have resulted in patients remaining significantly symptomatic after treatment, with additional problems including addiction, difficulties maintaining work, and homelessness.

The results are adding up to a national calamity that leaves human lives in ruins, particularly for men and women who have risked their lives to serve our country and need our help. According the Congressional Budget Office’s report on PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury among recent combat veterans, the average cost of treatment in the first year is $8,300 per patient and $4,100 in the following years. The average cost of treating an eating disorder is $1,250 per day, and only 1 in 10 sufferers ever receive treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Such treatment is expensive not only for patients, but for insurance companies, and society at large.

 


FURTHER READING

The evidence base for the effectiveness of yoga in addressing trauma is extensive. Here are some resources for further reading:

The Body Keeps The Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress – the textbook on trauma and body-mind practices by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper

The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From The Inside Out by Susan Pease Banitt

Intelligence In The Flesh by Guy Claxton

Introducing: Our 108 Studio Partnership Program

 

Now, there’s a new way to give back from the mat: Give Back Yoga’s 108 Studio Partnership Program. We’re inviting studios across the country to join the Give Back family and raise funds for a service program of your choice, helping certified yoga teachers and yoga therapists to bring this healing mind/body practice to those who are most vulnerable.

How the 108 Studio Partnership Program Works

Over a one-year period, partner studios give back by hosting a monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly fundraiser to help bring yoga to those who might not otherwise experience this transformational practice. This can be as simple as a donation class held on a specific day each month. Or it can be an exciting opportunity for your community to come together for special events such as a 108 Sun Salutations practice or a guest teacher, speaker or artist.

Our 108 partners also host a “Give Back Yoga Month” to jump-start the program and raise awareness for Give Back Yoga’s mission, sharing information during regularly scheduled classes and collecting donations at the front desk.

How Your Studio Can Make a Difference

With your help, Give Back Yoga can support our partner programs in expanding their reach, bringing therapeutic yoga to even more of the people we aim to serve. Through the 108 Partnership Program, studio communities can give wings to programs like:

  • Eat Breathe Thrive: Fostering positive body image and overcoming eating disorders.
  • Mindful Yoga Therapy: Helping veterans to find a calm and steady body/mind.
  • Prison Yoga Project: Teaching skills for non-violent problem resolution and healing.
  • Give Back Yoga: Supporting our operations to cover our largest areas of need.

 How the Program Benefits Studios

Becoming a 108 Studio Partner can help studios to build a close-knit community of the heart by gathering students around a common cause. It’s also a way to help students begin to explore and practice karma yoga, by giving back a gift that has touched each of their lives — the gift of a practice that can transform from the inside out.

The 108 Studio Partnership Program can also help studios to raise their online and local presence, as organizers work with community partners and Give Back Yoga to cross-promote events large and small through online and offline channels. Additionally, Give Back Yoga issues an end-of-year tax receipt to all active 108 Studio Partners, which may help your studio to offset expenses.

What 108 Studio Partners Are Saying About the Program

“It is important to extend the ancient teachings of yoga out beyond the space of yoga studios and into the world where it can reach the many people in need who may never walk through the doors of a yoga center. The time-tested benefits of a regular yoga practice are profound not just on the individual, but on all of society, essentially creating more peace for all.  At a time in human history when there is a tremendous amount of chaos, Give Back Yoga supports growth, healing and harmony for all of society.  I am happy and grateful to have my yoga studio community give back as a whole while benefitting on so many levels from the 108 Studio collaboration with Give Back Yoga Foundation.” — Annie Freedom, founder of Samadhi Center for Yoga, Denver, CO

 

Become a 108 Studio Partner or learn more: email 108@givebackyoga.org to request information on getting started.

 


Connect with our 108 Studio Partners:

 

True Nature Healing ArtsLotus House of YogaYoga Pod LoDoYoga Studio SatyaYoga Pod BoulderOutlaw Yoga

 

Main image courtesy of Merrick Chase Photography.

The State of Yoga Service: Looking Forward Through 2015

Author Rob Schware is the Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation and President of the Yoga Service Council. Each year, he issues a report on the state of yoga service — the work of bringing yoga to those who might otherwise never experience its transformational benefits. Read on for a look at what’s in store for 2015 and beyond, and a download link for this annual report.

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A Vision for the Future: Voices From Our Yoga Service Community

In my Huffington Post blog series “Yoga: How We Serve,” a number of yoga teachers on the front lines of outreach to underserved and unserved populations have offered valuable answers to the question, “What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of ”service yoga“ in America?”

Here are some of the insights that are helping to shape the ongoing growth of yoga service:

“My hope is that yoga will be more readily received by unique communities such as Native Americans, and more recognized by health care organizations as a complementary healing modality to modern medicine.” — Christy Burnette, founder and Executive Director of Conscious Community Yoga Association, Inc.

“I would like to see more science, more data, and more randomized controlled studies. In my opinion we owe it to our clients/students and to our future funders (taxpayers and private citizens) to prove what works, and to recognize what doesn’t. We need to enter into the empirical domain, as difficult and as challenging as that is for yoga teachers like me!” — David Emerson, co-author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body

“The wounds of our veterans permeate all realms: physical, psychological, and spiritual…their needs are immediate. Our imperative is to assist these brave men and women with re-integration into the very culture they have fought hard to protect.  Training for war is intensive.  Training to return to their home lives is crucial.” — Ena Burrud, certified yoga therapist working with veterans in Colorado and Wyoming

“It is my hope that we will see a far greater awareness and participation by the yoga community in service programs. This might include a required ‘trauma and service’ module in the 200-hour training requirements and a consciousness of a service obligation by every studio and teacher.  The establishment of the Yoga Service Council and the yearly Yoga Service Conference is a great way to expand yoga service nationally and spread the word on opportunities and systems for yoga service.” — Bob Altman, Co-Founder of Centering Youth in Atlanta

“I see yoga being a staple in police and fire academies. I then see recruits expecting to see it on the schedule. Once they are on the job, it would be wonderful to continue to have classes offered to them on a weekly basis, or as seminars and continuing education opportunities. This could also happen at local gyms or studios. I’d like to see yoga as an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to training and caring for our ‘domestic soldiers.'” —  Olivia Kvitne, program director of Yoga for First Responders and Assistant Editor of LA Yoga Magazine

Others expressed hope that yogis will share this gift with special populations all around the world, and provide specialized yoga classes for people who find themselves at a homeless shelter, for people recovering from addiction, and for autistic children.

How Yoga Service Organizations Are Turning Vision Into Reality

How are we doing as a community to respond to these hopes? What new partnerships and entities, profit and non-profit, are stepping up to respond to the challenges?

In research:

The Prison Yoga Project, which started at San Quentin State Prison through the work of James Fox, is a shining example of a well-studied program by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), which showed this is a cost-effective means to help with addiction recovery and impulse control. The NCCD study found that a little mindfulness training through yoga can redirect attention, increase emotional self-control and anger management. Over 800 yoga teachers are now teaching yoga and meditation in over 75 prisons around the world.

In February, the Yoga Service Council and the Omega Institute will issue the first in a series of research reports on “Transforming Education Through Yoga.” This series was produced with research, input, and onsite collaboration from 23 leaders in the field of yoga and education.

In October, the Yoga Service Council and the Omega Institute will also host leaders in trauma-sensitive yoga for veterans to produce a second report in the series, “Yoga for Veterans.” Key researchers, including Sat Bhir Khalsa and Bessel van Der Kolk, have committed to participating. The objective of this Service Week for Veterans is to co-create common goals for our community, share insight, and produce resources that will serve veterans, VA hospital facilities, and yoga service providers, producing a peer- reviewed report of best practices.

In introducing yoga to first responders: 

In February, the first-ever Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and Resiliency Training to Benefit First Responders and Emergency Personnel will occur at the Sedona Yoga Festival – the first offering of a new Give Back Yoga program called Yoga for First Responders. Our police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and their families face behavioral health issues similar to those of combat soldiers, such as depression, PTS, anxiety, addictions, and suicides. The Sedona Yoga Festival/Give Back Yoga training aims to share skills and tools to help bring therapeutic yoga to at least 4,000 first responders nationwide.

In reaching diverse populations:

In May, social workers and yoga teachers will come together for a weekend at Omega Institute for the 4th Annual Yoga Service Conference to discuss how the yoga service movement can expand its work to support broader commitments to social justice. This includes addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which channels thousands of low-income youth (particularly men of color) directly from failing schools into the criminal justice system. We will have compelling and direct conversations between social justice and contemplative practice in organizations — join me there!

In bringing yoga to Native Americans:

This year, Give Back Yoga is partnering with Conscious Community Yoga and the Sedona Yoga Festival to provide a DVD yoga resource for Native Americans, led by a Native American yoga teacher. The class will be structured for those new to yoga, and with potential health challenges kept in mind. Of primary concern are complications from diabetes, obesity, detox for drug and alcohol addictions.

In partnership with the corporate sector: 

 To reach our veterans with mindfulness practices, Gaiam and Give Back Yoga will commit to serve 100,000 veterans through mobile meditation apps.

Yoga Journal Live, Give Back Yoga and Warriors For Healing will host a special event on Sunday June 28, 2015 on the Windsor Lawn of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, CA. This distinctive and compelling event, called Warriors For Healing, is designed to bring greater awareness of the therapeutic benefits of yoga for veterans facing PTS, and will offer veterans who are seeking healing a pathway toward new meaning and empowerment in life.

YogaGlo will support the Eat Breathe Thrive™ Facilitator Training course, providing facilitators with the knowledge, skills, and mentorship necessary to lead a yoga-based program for people struggling with disordered eating and negative body image. Nearly 80% of adult women feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and three out of four report struggling with disordered eating. The rates of body dissatisfaction among men have increased from 15% to 43% over the past three decades, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

New Growth for Yoga Service in 2015

As we partner with our program directors, our Advisory Board Members and influential yoga teachers to bring this powerful practice to the world, one person at a time, we are fostering new growth in several areas.

Bringing yoga to the West Bank: 

This year, Give Back Yoga is partnering with the Farashe Yoga Center in Ramallah, 7 Centers Yoga Arts and American yoga pioneer Rama Vernon on a new global initiative to expand and harness the power of yoga in the West Bank and Gaza, supporting Palestinians’ exploration and use of yoga in everyday life.

In May, lead teachers from these organizations will travel with Rama Vernon to the West Bank and work in partnership with Farashe Yoga Center to train up to twenty teachers. Following the training, these new teachers will introduce yoga to area residents through work in urban refugee camps, schools, hospitals, and other venues.

 Yoga is largely unknown among Palestinians. But over the past two years, more Palestinians — women in particular — have embraced the discipline as a way of coping with their daily stresses of the prolonged conflict, including commuting through military checkpoints, unstable employment, restrictions on movement and access, and political unrest.

This initiative to foster yoga as a practice of peace in the West Bank will continue to grow in 2016, as Give Back Yoga and our partners host the first international yoga conference in the West Bank. Led by world-renowned yoga teachers, Palestine-based yoga teachers and practitioners will have access to hands-on workshops that will enable them to develop effective yoga programming for their students. Following the conference, there will be a one-week service opportunity for newly trained teachers to apply these principles in their lives and in the community.

Bringing yoga into more prisons:

Based on continuing growth trends, we anticipate a growing demand from prison wardens who want more trained yoga teachers working in more prisons; and want specific programs for incarcerated veterans, for the staff and officers, and increased support for restorative justice programs.

Influencing climate change:

This year, leading yoga teachers, environmental and sustainable development experts, and atmospheric scientists will be discussing “Yoga, Personal Transformation and Global Sustainability.” What does yoga have to do with global sustainability? What are we all doing to reduce your individual carbon footprint? We need to raise our consciousness of how the yoga movement can meet the climate crisis, and work to help solve what is far and away the greatest challenge of our time. There’s more and more interest in this educational process, beginning with the recent article, “Yoga, Personal Transformation, and Global Sustainability.”

Join the Yoga Service Movement

There’s a lot of work ahead of us. But eventually, we’re confident that we’ll see tens of thousands of yoga teachers and yoga therapists leaving their studios and sharing down-to-earth yoga tools with un-served and underserved communities.

As an organization, one of Give Back Yoga’s key purposes is to serve as a gateway for yoga service. If you’d like to be a part of this movement for grassroots social change and healing, we invite you to visit us on the web, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our monthly newsletters.

Here’s to a bold, transformative, and prosperous New Year to you all!

Images courtesy of Robert Sturman, Prison Yoga Project, Yoga For First Responders, Farashe Yoga Center and Niroga Institute.

 

Download the annual report The State of Yoga Service: Looking Forward Through 2015.

 

April Fools Viral Video Launches Major Fundraising for Eat Breathe Thrive

Chelsea Roff’s dream of running her non-profit program Eat Breathe Thrive™ on a full-time basis may just be coming true, thanks to Break.com’s viral video, “The Best Shift Ever.”

Released on April Fool’s Day, the Prank it Forward video features Chelsea being surprised at her daytime waitressing job by diners who showered her with unexpected gifts, from a free vacation to a professional referral for Eat Breathe Thrive™. To date, the video has received nearly 7 million hits on YouTube and 18 million views internationally.

The media frenzy surrounding the video inspired more than 300 articles online, including features by CNN, E! News, People Magazine and USA Today. Appearances on The Today Show and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams also piqued interest beyond the feel-good video, translating into an outpouring of support for Eat Breathe Thrive.

Since the video went live, Eat Breathe Thrive has received over $2,000 in donations routed through The Give Back Yoga Foundation, Eat Breathe Thrive™’s parent organization. Donation classes and tee-shirt sales through the “Don’t Just Survive…THRIVE” Booster campaign are also raising funds for the organization, which aims to bring a clinical program to a new treatment center for every $5,000 raised. And the Eat Breathe Thrive™ team has received numerous offers from corporate sponsors, requests for speaking engagements, and requests for facilitator trainings that will help to launch the program internationally.

To book media appearances, speaking engagements or trainings, please contact Britt Melton at (419) 957-9695 or britt@eatbreathethrive.org.

Download the press release: April Fools Viral Video Launches Major Fundraising for Nonprofit

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Join the movement: help those with eating disorders to move from “surviving” to “thriving” by making a donation to Eat Breathe Thrive.

Eat Breathe Thrive Founder Chelsea Roff Has Her “Best Shift Ever”

The pranksters at Break.com just stopped by Eat, Breathe, Thrive™ founder Chelsea Roff’s workplace to give her the “best shift ever”…starting with a thousand-dollar tip and ending with a surprise visit from her very first yoga teacher. Thanks, Break.com, for supporting Chelsea and the growth of Eat, Breathe, Thrive™!

Watch and smile:

 

Help Chelsea bring her clinical program to treatment centers across the country: donate to Eat, Breathe, Thrive.™