Chris Thompson-Lang spent 14 years in the military as a combat engineer, completing deployments 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, FDI,” he says.
Each time an IED detonated, causing damage to the surroundings, Thompson-Lang felt responsible for not removing the device in time.
Thompson-Lang, pictured here in Afghanistan in 2011, served as a sapper, non-commissioned officer and commissioned officer during his time in the armed forces. (Supplied)
The trauma caused by injuries and deaths among people who were there to help had a lasting impact on their psychological state.
Thompson-Lang was diagnosed with PTSD, major depressive disorder, substance abuse, and alcoholism.
“It was yoga that got me out of this,” says Thompson-Lang, who was reinstated as a yoga teacher after leaving the military in 2015.
How trauma affects the brain
Typical responses to trauma include fighting, running away, or freezing, Thompson-Lang explains.
Studies using magnetic resonance imaging show how trauma, whether a one-time event or a cumulative exposure, alters the brain.
Changes in the amygdala, the “alarm center” of the brain, can increase sensitivity to perceived threats.
Trauma can also decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with executive functioning, such as planning and decision-making.
“You have oxygen, glucose [and] blood flow is redirected from the outer cortex of the brain to the central limbic system where the amygdala is located, “says Thompson-Lang.
“Actually only the brain prioritizes survival. Rationalization, logic, thinking, solving complex problems become less important in a threatening situation.”
This state of hypervigilance has detrimental consequences for health.
“You are more often in a fight and flight [modes]and that’s driven by adrenaline and cortisol, “says Thompson-Lang.
“Cortisol production eliminates the body’s ability to produce testosterone and estrogen, and they are hormones that are necessary for health, growth and restoration.”
All of this means that yoga can be very beneficial for people recovering from trauma, but it may seem a little different than you would expect.
What makes trauma-conscious yoga different?
Enter a regular yoga class and you will often be greeted with music and the smell of essential oils coming out of the space.
During class, your teacher may move your body gently to correct your posture.
A trauma-conscious yoga class is different.
“We get a lot out of trauma-conscious yoga, [for example] strong sensory contributions like oil, incense, candles, music and we don’t touch the participants, ”says Thompson-Lang.
To lead a trauma-conscious yoga class, the teacher must understand how trauma affects the brain and body, and “how these changes drive the way the nervous system responds to sensory inputs or stimuli.” he says.
“What we know about people who have experienced trauma is that their perception of the threat is changing. We are trying to reduce the potential to trigger a stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system or the flight and fight response.”
In addition to eliminating potentially triggering stimuli, trauma-conscious yoga supports participants in their recovery.
“By directing the breath and using the breath to calm the nervous system, using movements that stimulate the circulation of hormones throughout the body gives the body the ability to heal,” says Thompson-Lang.
“Not only physical injuries, but also reconnecting or undoing some of the damage that may have happened to the brain as a result of the traumatic experience.”
How to never exhale
“If you had to inhale and never exhale, that’s what trauma is all about,” says Hannah Perkins, a trauma-conscious yoga therapist who runs Love This Moment in Newcastle, New South Wales.
Yoga therapist Hannah Perkins says her practice has been essential to maintaining good mental health during the pandemic. (Supplied)
Perkins, who offers individual sessions and group classes, says we accumulate stress in our body.
Unrelieved stress “can cause chronic pain or psychological problems,” he says. “Yoga is a practice that allows us to continually get in touch with the body, relieve some of that stress and tension, and let it go.”
Perkins is well aware of creating a safe space for its customers.
“I 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,” he says.
“I always offer suggestions instead of hints or instructions, and I’m always very welcome in my language, saying things like, ‘Maybe you’d like to do this.’
Perkins says that for many, yoga is the ticket to peace and personal acceptance.
“What I see in all my classes is that people learn to love the body they are in and the life they have, starting to appreciate the present moment, not to get caught up in their fears or thoughts about the past, but also not to feel so threatened by the uncertainty of the future “.
Like Thompson-Lang, Perkins was drawn to trauma-conscious yoga through experiencing herself. He grew up in a violent home and also received cancer treatment at the age of twenty.
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“Practicing yoga has been an important part of my healing,” he says.
Today, yoga is part of Perkins’ daily routine, “either a full-hour practice or … they can be 10 minutes singing in the bathroom.”
He says he feels the best he has ever felt, even after two years that the pandemic has made it difficult.
“I couldn’t live without this practice in my life because when something stressful or challenging happens, I have the tools and I’m conscious enough to know that I have to do something to counteract that blocked energy in my body.”
Triggered by the cry of a child
When he returned from Afghanistan, Thompson-Lang struggled to adjust to life in Australia.
The sound of her children crying caused panic and disturbing flashbacks.
“I was at a time when I couldn’t even be by my children’s side because if they were anxious, I would go into fight and flight mode, and I just needed to get out,” he says.
Her family life suffered, and her marriage broke up.
Living alone in Canberra, I drank a lot. “Basically, I was working, drinking, sleeping, working, drinking, sleeping,” he says.
One day, I was going to the pub with only $ 20 in my pocket before the next payday.
“I was really worried that $ 20 wasn’t enough to get me drunk enough to sleep,” he recalls. “I knew I had to try something new.”
At that moment, he saw a sign on the street announcing 10 days of yoga for $ 20. “I came in and that was it,” he says.
“That first class was amazing. All I could focus on was the instructor, trying not to break and trying to keep my balance. In the end, I came home and slept a little better, and I came back. The next day. .”
Thompson-Lang finished the 10-day trial and registered for another six months. “I bought myself a yoga mat, so I took it very seriously,” she says. “It got me out of such a bad place.”
Life after the army
Thompson-Lang was diagnosed with PTSD after a hospital stay and was discharged from the military.
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 on Veteran Suicide, right, and that was the reality for me at one point.”
Lack of direction and uncertainty around family and finances made him feel dangerously low. “I got to the point where I was seriously considering taking my own life,” he says.
“When I left the hospital, when I couldn’t work, the routine of going to yoga is what kept me going.”
Through yoga, he learned to calm his nervous system.
Thompson-Lang, now chief executive of Frontline Yoga, wears military service medals, while his son wears his grandfather’s medals. (Supplied)
“It simply came to our notice then [my kids] crying or other sensory inputs, yoga gave me the tools to notice it first and then be able to do something about it using my breathing, using postural alignment, using gentle stretches. “
As a result, he was able to reconnect with his children, who are now 13 and 11 years old.
He also believes that yoga 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 it was extremely frustrating,” he says. “It prevented me from being able to do anything effectively in my role as an army leader.”
Now, he says, “I’ve regained that cognitive ability and I’m back, leading a larger workforce than ever in the medical field.”
Helping frontline workers
In 2016, Thompson-Lang helped start Frontline Yoga, an organization that provides support to senior officials, emergency services, and current and former members of the armed forces.
Frontline Yoga has recently announced a partnership with Invictus Australia as the organization’s official yoga provider, contributing activities to the ZERO600 fundraising and wellness campaign.
Thompson-Lang says yoga can serve as a valuable precursor to speech therapy for people exposed to work trauma.
“If you are in this state of struggle and flight, the brain does not work as usual and it is difficult to delve into complex problems … without first addressing what is happening to the nervous system and bring this part of your brain, the prefrontal .cortex, back online to be able to interact effectively with a therapist “.
He says several of his yoga students have revealed that, like him, “they were contemplating suicide because of the level of anxiety and discomfort in his body.
“They said, ‘You saved my life. That’s what keeps us going.’