Yoga For PTSD

Yoga for PTSD

A lot has changed from the days when yoga burst into the West. The beloved past-time of Lululemon-sporting women now invites more diverse populations, including first responders suffering from – or at risk for – PTSD.


Sound strange?


On the one hand, you’ve got relaxed bodies drawing deep breaths in a dimly lit room, while gentle music and fragrant incense wafts over their heads. On the other hand, you’ve got emergency personnel – tough, silent, stoic – breaking down doorways and saving people’s lives without breaking a sweat.


The images don’t immediately square off.


But Yogi Roxanne Sundahl knows that they do: She has seen the power of mindfulness and meditation to change lives.

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That’s because yoga provides a contained space to reconnect to our sense of self. We’re farther away than ever from the things that humans need to thrive – movement, nature, connectivity, purpose. Yoga offers us that access. 


And for people whose jobs or living situations put them in high-stress situations as the norm, hopping off the hamster wheel of modern life is not a luxury – it’s a matter of survival. 


“The mind is like a waterfall,” Sundahl says, “You’re not going to be able to find that one ‘rock’ beneath all the rushing water.” Whatever you’re searching for, whether it’s how to have a loving relationship, healthier lifestyle, or a more meaningful career, “When you’re caught in the chaos, you won’t be able to find the answer.” 


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When initiating a new student into the practice of yoga, Sundahl uses breath as her go-to – even if she knows she’ll often get a puzzled look. First she helps them focus on the sensation of the air passing through their nostrils, down their throat and into their lungs. She wants them to feel how they can reduce stress, just by flooding their body with oxygen.


In addition to providing a signal to the nervous system that it’s okay to let down its guard, breathing also acts as an anchor to the present moment. When you’ve got to focus on your lungs expanding like giant pink balloons, you’ve got less bandwidth to agonize over that gaffe you made in the office or anguish over what you’ll say at your job interview next week. 

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People don’t always want to commit to a breath-work session. It takes humility to admit there’s more to learn about something we do 22,000 times per day, every day. The immediate buzz that comes from a familiar Zumba class often sounds more appealing. 


That’s where the incremental mindset becomes so important for anyone who practices yoga.


 Whatever type of yoga you choose, you won’t be doing handstands or pretzel yoga poses on your first day (or month!). You’ll probably fall, more times than you’d like to admit. And you’ll probably be surrounded by people who seem to know what they’re doing.


Remember, they were once in your (super awkward) position.

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No step is too small, Sundahl says, and she means it. She describes watching a student walk in the door of her studio and then vanish before the yoga class chanted its first “om.” Week after week, Sundahl would see her in the lobby, then turn and leave – until one day, the student made the decision to unroll her mat. “Just making it to the door was a step – and she’s loved yoga ever since.”


Sometimes even yoga teachers need baby steps. “There are days I don’t want to do the poses,” Sundahl confides, “I want the heat, the room, and the music. Maybe people look at me and think, ‘She can’t do a thing.’ But my mindset is, ‘Think what you want. I’m here to do this.’”

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“I remember the first time Roxanne said, ‘Flip your dog over’” – this upside down, bouncing move, on half your body – “I told her, ‘You’re an insane person. There’s no way that’s going to happen.’” Fast forward a year: “Now we do it, no problem.”


It’s about consistency. Honing the mind-body connection builds resilience and strength. This creates a positive feedback loop as you experience the buzzy pleasure of doing something that seemed impossible yesterday. 


Developing an empowered mindset makes it easier to take leaps in your personal and professional life. When you work with a therapist, say, to create a boundary with a needy friend, you’ll feel more confident to take a step towards a distant outcome. Because you know you’ve got to start somewhere. You’re not going to flip your dog on day one.


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Yoga For PTSD