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Using Yoga for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder


When I mentioned to a patient I was writing a blog on yoga for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she poured out her story to me. Her ex-husband had been abusive, first verbally and emotionally, and then came the day he shook her. Violently. She considered taking her own life in the dark days that followed. Yoga, particularly the meditation aspect, as well as other counseling, brought her to a better place over time. Decades later, she is happily married and has practiced yoga faithfully ever since. Sometimes a therapy’s anecdotal evidence is so powerful academic research is merely icing on the cake.

Walker and Pacik (2017) reported 3 cases of military veterans showing positive outcomes with controlled rhythmic yogic breathing on post-traumatic stress disorder. Yoga has been theorized to impact the body’s reaction to stress by helping to modulate important physiological systems, which, when compromised, allow PTSD to develop and thrive. This particular study focuses on 3 veterans with PTSD and their responses to Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), a type of pranayama (controlled yogic breathing). Over the course of 5 days, the participants engaged in 3-4 hours/day of light stretching/yoga, group talks about self-care and self-empowerment, and SKY. There are 4 components of breathwork in SKY: (1) Ujjayi (‘‘Victorious Breath’’); (2) Bhastrika (‘‘Bellows Breath’’); (3) Chanting Om three times with very prolonged expiration; and, (4) Sudarshan Kriya, (an advanced form of rhythmic, cyclical breathing).

This study by Walker and Pacik (2017) included 3 voluntary participants: a 75 and a 72 year old male veteran and a 57 year old female veteran, all whom were experiencing a varying cluster of PTSD symptoms for longer than 6 months. Pre- and post-course scores were evaluated from the PTSD Checklist (a 20-item self-reported checklist), the Military Version (PCL-M). All the participants reported decreased symptoms of PTSD after the 5 day training course. The PCL-M scores were reduced in all 3 participants, particularly in the avoidance and increased arousal categories. Even the participant with the most severe symptoms showed impressive improvement. These authors concluded Sudarshan Kriya (SKY) seemed to decrease the symptoms of PTSD in 3 military veterans.

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Benefits of working with the breath


In his famous book Light on Yoga, B K S Iyengar describes pranayama as “extension of breath and its control”1.  Pranayama includes all aspects of breathwork: inhalation, exhalation, and breath retention.  As clinicians treating pelvic floor dysfunction, we emphasize the importance of breathing as a critical component of rehabilitation.  Physical therapists Paul Hodges (et al) and Julie Wiebe describe a piston-like relationship between the diaphragm and pelvic floor2,3.  Pranayama, or conscious breathing, can enhance this relationship, especially if there are holding patterns in the pelvis. On inhalation, the pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm move caudally. On exhalation, the pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm move cranially4.  As physical therapists, we instruct patients to use the breath in coordination with the pelvic floor muscles to obtain optimal stability and continence.  Pelvic organ prolapse and urinary/fecal incontinence are often caused by a lack of tonic support and muscular strength of the pelvic floor, core and surrounding pelvic girdle musculature5.  Optimal pelvic floor support from adequate strength, core stability, and neuromuscular control allows for continence and organ support. For optimal core stability, there must be coordination and strength of all components of the deep core musculature – pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominals, multifidi, and diaphragm6. The “Soda Pop Can Model of Postural Control”, conceptualized by Mary Massery, illustrates how the pressure system of an aluminum soda can maintains the stability of the structure7. Loss of support can happen at the top (i.e. tracheotomy), front (i.e. diastasis recti abdominus), back (i.e. disc herniation), or bottom (i.e. pelvic organ prolapse or incontinence). A “leak” in the structural integrity could affect postural control, core stability, and continence.  This concept underlines the importance of breath retraining as one aspect of our treatment plan. Pranayama gives your patient a strategy to decrease sympathetic nervous system overactivity and encourages the parasympathetic response. According to Diane Lee, common areas of rigidity of movement/holding patterns include lateral and posterior-lateral expansion of the ribcage during inhalation8.  Mindful pranayama encourages the student to explore diaphragmatic breathing without gripping in the chest and ribcage.   Examples of pranayama DirghaDirgha is the Three-Part Breath. Inhale, allowing the belly to fill.  If your patient finds this challenging, try a book on the belly when supine or try breathing in quadruped. The second part of dirgha is expanding the ribcage, followed by the collarbones to floating up. After trying this for 10 breath cycles, stop and recognize any new sensations or softening in the body. I recommend my patients set an alarm to go off every hour to remind them to move and breathe. 

Ujjayi

Ujjayi is known as the Ocean breath. It sounds like you have one ear to a giant seashell. Raise one hand in front of the mouth and pretend to fog a mirror with an inhalation and exhalation.  Recreate the same action at the back of the throat, but now with the mouth closed. This breath should sound similar to the signature sound of the Star Wars villain Darth Vader.  Perform this breath with any warm-up or asana while layer this breath onto Dirgha.

 

Letting Go Breath

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