Chris Thompson-Lang spent 14 years in the military as a combat engineer, serving in East Timor and Afghanistan.
It was an experience that would expose him to great harm and leave him indelibly changed.
“In Afghanistan, I was involved in the detection and removal of improvised explosive devices – IEDs,” he says.
Each time an IED was detonated, causing damage to nearby people, Thompson-Lang felt responsible for not removing the device in time.
The trauma of witnessing injuries and deaths among the people he was there to help had a lasting impact on his psychological state.
Thompson-Lang was eventually diagnosed with PTSD, major depressive disorder, drug addiction and alcohol abuse.
“It was yoga that got me out of there,” says Thompson-Lang, who transitioned into a yoga teacher after leaving the armed forces in 2015.
How trauma affects the brain
Typical responses to trauma include fight, flight or freeze, says Thompson-Lang.
Studies using MRI imaging show how trauma – whether a one-time event or cumulative exposure – alters the brain.
Changes to the amygdala – the “alarm center” of the brain – can increase susceptibility to perceived threats.
Trauma can also decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with executive functions such as planning and decision-making.
“You have oxygen, glucose [and] blood flow being redirected from the outer cortex of the brain to the central limbic system where the amygdala is located,” says Thompson-Lang.
This state of hypervigilance has harmful consequences on health.
“You are more often on fight and on the run [modes]and that’s driven by adrenaline and cortisol,” says Thompson-Lang.
“Cortisol production decreases the body’s ability to produce testosterone and estrogen, and these are hormones necessary for health, growth, and restoration.”
All of this means that yoga can be hugely beneficial for people recovering from trauma – but it might feel a little different than you might expect.
What Makes Trauma-Aware Yoga Different
Step into a regular yoga class and you’ll often be greeted with music and the scent of essential oils wafting through the space.
During class, your teacher may gently move your body to correct your posture.
A trauma-aware yoga class is different.
“We take a lot out of trauma-sensitive yoga, [for example] strong sensory inputs like oil, incense, candles, music, and we don’t touch the participants,” says Thompson-Lang.
To lead a trauma-informed yoga class, the teacher must understand how trauma affects the brain and body, and “how these changes determine how the nervous system responds to sensory input or stimuli,” says- he.
In addition to removing potentially triggering stimuli, trauma-aware yoga helps participants recover.
“By targeting the breath and using the breath to calm the nervous system, using movements that stimulate the flow of hormones throughout the body, it gives the body the ability to heal,” says Thompson-Lang.
“Not only the physical injuries, but also the rewiring or repairing of some of the damage that may have occurred to the brain as a result of the traumatic experience.”
Like never expire
“If you were to breathe in and never breathe out, that’s what trauma feels like,” says Hannah Perkins, a trauma-aware yoga therapist who leads Love this moment in Newcastle, New South Wales.
Perkins, who offers individual sessions and group classes, says we build up stress in our bodies.
Unrelieved stress “can lead to chronic pain or psychological issues,” she says. “Yoga is a practice that continually allows us to get in touch with the body, relieve some of that stress and tension and let it go.”
Perkins is very concerned about creating a safe space for its customers.
“I very rarely get my hands on people, but if I did I would always ask for consent and check if it’s okay with the person,” she says.
Perkins says that for many, yoga is the ticket to peace and self-acceptance.
“What I see in all of my classes is people learning to love their bodies and the life they have, starting to appreciate the present moment, not being locked into their fears or thoughts about the past, but also don’t feel so threatened by the uncertainty of the future.”
Like Thompson-Lang, Perkins was drawn to trauma-aware yoga by experiencing trauma herself. She grew up in an abusive household and also underwent cancer treatment in her twenties.
“The practice of yoga has been a big part of my recovery,” she says.
Today, yoga is part of Perkins’ daily routine, “whether it’s a full hour practice or… 10 minutes of chanting in the bathroom.”
She says she feels better than she has ever felt, even after two years made difficult by the pandemic.
“I couldn’t live without this practice in my life because when something stressful or difficult happens, I have tools and I’m aware enough to know that I have to do something to counterbalance this energy that is blocked. in the body.”
Triggered by a child’s cry
Upon returning from Afghanistan, Thompson-Lang found it difficult to adjust to life in Australia.
The sound of her children crying triggered panic and disturbing flashbacks.
Her family life suffered and her marriage fell apart.
Living alone in Canberra, he drank heavily. “Basically I was working, drinking, sleeping, working, drinking, sleeping,” he says.
One day he walked to the pub with only $20 in his pocket before the next payday.
“I was genuinely concerned that $20 wouldn’t be enough to get me drunk enough to sleep,” he recalled. “I knew I had to try something new.”
At that time, he spotted a sign on the street advertising 10 days of yoga for $20. “I walked in and that was it,” he says.
“That first class was amazing. All I could focus on was the instructor, trying not to break my head and trying to stay balanced. In the end, I went home and I slept a little better, and I came back the next day.”
Thompson-Lang completed the 10-day trial and signed up for an additional six months. “I bought myself a yoga mat, so I was pretty serious at the time,” he says. “It got me out of such a bad place.”
life after the army
Thompson-Lang was eventually diagnosed with PTSD after a hospital stay and received an Army medical discharge.
He found the transition to civilian life difficult. “It’s a challenge for everyone,” he says. “We’re in the middle of a royal commission into veteran suicide, it’s true, and that was the reality for me at one point.”
A lack of direction and uncertainty around family and finances left him feeling dangerously low. “I got to the point where I seriously considered killing myself,” he says.
Through yoga, he learned to calm his nervous system.
“If I noticed that I was starting to get a little exacerbated because of [my kids] crying or other sensory input, yoga gave me the tools to first notice it and then be able to do something about it using my breath, using postural alignment, using gentle stretching.”
As a result, he was able to regain a relationship with his children, who are now 13 and 11 years old.
He also believes yoga has helped him overcome a cognitive impairment caused by his traumatic experiences in Afghanistan.
“I couldn’t read a sheet of paper and remember what I had read. I had to go back to the top, and that was extremely frustrating,” he says. “It kept me from being able to do anything effectively in my role as a leader in the military.”
Now, he says, “I’ve regained that cognitive ability and I’m back leading a larger medical workforce than ever before.”
Helping frontline workers
In 2016, Thompson-Lang helped start Front line yogaan organization that provides support to first responders, emergency services, and current and former members of the armed forces.
Frontline Yoga recently announced a partnership with Invictus Australia as the organization’s official yoga provider, contributing to ZERO600 fundraising and wellness campaign activities.
Thompson-Lang says yoga can serve as a valuable precursor to talk therapy for people exposed to occupational trauma.
“If you’re in this fight and flight state, the brain isn’t working the way it normally does and it’s hard to dig into complex issues…without first addressing what’s going on with the nervous system and bringing that part up. of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, back online to be able to dialogue effectively with a therapist.”
He says several of his yoga students have revealed that, like him, “they contemplated suicide because of the level of distress and unease in their bodies.
“They said, ‘you saved my life’. That’s what keeps us going.”
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