In my last blog I mentioned how instrumental yoga can be in recovery from food addiction. I want tell you about some of the latest research in this area.
Have you ever found that experiential and body-based ‘therapy’ can have profound healing effects, much more so than talk therapy? One of the most renowned experts in trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, agrees. He says that to overcome trauma you’ve got to befriend your body’s sensations and your internal emotional world rather than just relying on changing your thinking.
To my delight, he’s produced scientific evidence that yoga is a physical practice that can truly heal a person from trauma. In his must read book The Body Keeps the Score – Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) he says that traumatic experiences are stored in the body as muscle tensions, feelings of disintegration and eventually turn into diseases.
Van der Kolk started experimenting with yoga in trauma therapy because he noticed yoga’s ability to regulate heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is important because when our autonomic nervous system is well balanced, we have a reasonable degree of control over our response to minor frustrations, and we can calmly assess what is going on within us. We can control our impulses and emotions, stay calm and choose how we want to respond to a situation. But when we have poor HRV (which he defines as a lack of fluctuation in heart rate in response to breathing) the body can’t respond well to stress.
Van der Kolk’s trauma patients’ HRV was usually totally out of sync. They were on constant alert and over-responding to relatively minor stresses. In an experimental yoga study van der Kolk discovered that yoga helps people enormously in regulating their HRV. He conducted classes with the yoga teacher David Emerson (read David’s book: Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga). Taking into account that many patients were uncomfortable with certain poses, did not want to be touched, and were barely aware of their breathing at all, the focus was on very basic breath and movement exercises. They found that yoga increased people’s ability to notice and befriend the sensations in their bodies and changed profoundly their minds and brains. Yoga helped people to learn self-regulation, to learn what their body needs, and therefore empowered them to look after themselves better.
Reading about this work totally validates my own experience with yoga. After years of ‘here and there’ yoga practice, in 2013 I completed a yoga teacher training course. I wanted to learn how to practice yoga by myself at home and how to calm my anxiety through regulating my breathing.
Each morning at 7:30 am we started with 1.5 hours of breathing exercises to a tape by Michael Gannon. Breathing in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and out 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. That was a daunting start to the morning. But it did teach me how to breathe deep belly breaths, to increase the length of my breathing cycles and to calm down my heart rate at will.
One of the hallmarks of addiction is an overactive mind that just doesn’t want to shut down. It’s constantly seeking more of the next hit with the intention to numb chronic states of restlessness, irritability and discontent. It cycles through substances such as food, alcohol, drugs or through processes such as keeping busy, working, gambling, googling and so on. The default mode of the addictive brain is ‘the world is not safe, there’s not going to be enough for me, I need more now, how can I get it’. Addiction wants us to numb out. It wants everything but the present moment. It hates stillness.
Yoga, on the other hand, is all about cultivating awareness and stillness. Yoga is about accepting the present moment just as it is. Without looking for a way out or wanting to change anything. Just noticing, focusing on the breath and trusting in the safety of the present moment. So, when I’m practicing a challenging pose (for example holding a warrior two for a long time) I can stay present to the sensations of burning in my thighs and endure them without needing to change the situation. This concept of tapas (discipline) has become a way for me to practice discipline not only on the mat but also in life generally. When I’m in a challenging situation that I’d prefer to run from, it’s easier for me to accept and stay.
It has taught me to replace instant gratification (the ultimate desire of my addiction when it gobbles down the cake because it wants more now), with pursuing longer term goals (waiting until my next meal just as my body needs).
I’ve gained a huge amount of body and emotional literacy through yoga. I can feel where my body is holding tension and can breathe into that area and help relax it. I can dialogue with my body and ask it what it needs and send it loving and kind words, sensations and images. I can more clearly articulate the emotions and sensations I’m experiencing and accept them and stay with them.
Yoga also has enabled me to communicate with my heart. Being able to listen to my heart rather than the chattering mind has brought me a great deal closer to making decisions more suitable to my needs.
Ultimately, what yoga has done for me has been summarised by the founder of Iyengar yoga, BKS Iyengar: ‘yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured’. If you’re struggling with understanding what you are feeling and sensing, a weekly yoga class is a great place to start.