Yoga's Effects on the Nervous System: Science-Backed Benefits for Trauma Recovery

Aug 24, 2023

Trauma inflicts deep wounds that linger beyond the mind's comprehension. When overwhelming events strike, the body remembers what the conscious brain tries desperately to forget. Trauma takes up residence in the web of nerves, tissues and synapses animating our mortal frames.

Fortunately, the emerging science of trauma treatment reveals that we can access healing through that same doorway—the bodymind. Ancient practices like yoga contain profound wisdom for resetting our nervous systems after shock. By consciously working with the body, we can repattern the senses, motions and rhythms that trauma has disrupted.

Research on yoga’s physical and chemical impacts validates its ability to counter regulate key areas thrown off balance after traumatic experience. Let us explore this data, friends. For in the grace of evidence we may find hope for mending trauma’s lingering hurt.

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

First, studies show yoga stimulates the vagus nerve which controls the parasympathetic nervous system—our relaxation response. Trauma locks the nervous system into fight-or-flight overdrive via the sympathetic branch. Heart rates stay elevated. Breathing grows rapid and shallow. Digestion shuts down.

By triggering the vagus nerve through pranayamas, chanting, and movement, yoga interrupts the sympathetic loop. The parasympathetic activates, signaling safety. Breath deepens, heart rate variability increases, muscles release. We emerge from overwhelm.

In essence, a yoga practice massages the vagus nerve, sending cues through the body that the danger has passed. The larynx, pharynx and diaphragm relax through modulated breathing. Anxiety and hypervigilance find counterbalance.

Neuroendocrine Changes

Studies also reveal yoga reduces hormones like cortisol while increasing calming neurotransmitters like GABA. Cortisol spikes during acute trauma, then remains chronically elevated, interrupting healthy sleep cycles and digestions patterns.

Yoga’s capacity to lower cortisol through myofascial release, inversions and meditation thus proves vital for trauma recovery. GABA, our brain’s primary inhibitory compound, also increases, improving emotional regulation.

Together, these neuroendocrine changes reset the body from turbid waters into a window of homeostasis where recovery can occur. Yoga provides the sacred space for nervous system recalibration that traumatic events preclude. Those ravaged by trauma rarely remain still long enough to find sanctuary. Yoga grants them this grace.

Photo credit: Joshua Wilson @Unsplash

Increased Mind-Body Awareness

Another hallmark of yoga’s therapeutic potential involves mindfulness—reconnecting to the here and now of embodiment rather than reliving trauma in memory. When we lose connection to our physicality, we become adrift in nebulous fears.

Yoga acts as a vessel back into the body. The poses root practitioners firmly into sensations, releasing trauma’s mental clinging. And the breath, ever-present, keeps attention anchored into the immutable now. We regain agency through this inner union.

By purposely inhabiting the bodymind, we cultivate resources to manage symptoms when they arise. Trauma patients frequently report feeling detached from their bodies, unable to sense warning signs of distress until too late. Yoga renews this connection.

Reconnecting with the Present Moment

Similarly, yoga trains ability to stay grounded when memories threaten to pull one back in time. Through the constancy of poses held, then released, one learns to soften around suffering rather than be swept away.

Traumatic memories often feel inescapable, the past replaying on a loop. Yoga offers respite, replacing rumination with the simplicity of inhales and exhales. In stillness between movements, one discovers sanctuary.

When vertigo hits, we return to the breath, illuminating a way through the dark. The steady lighthouse of presence leads us back to safety one inhalation at a time. We remember we are more than the wounds seeking to define us.


Science now confirms what trauma sufferers have known intuitively: that yoga soothes the bodymind where other remedies fail. Through research we gain confidence that ancient practices contain precision medicine for modern afflictions.

Yoga is no panacea, but neither is it simply stretching. Properly applied, it recalibrates nervous system regulation disrupted after threat. It awakens agency over the senses and self. It grants those held hostage by their physiology the code to escape.

May all beings who yet struggle to reclaim dominion over traumatized terrain find renewal through yoga’s patient wisdom. For inside each of us resides a compelling grace - the resilient breath ever rising, the heartbeat's drum marching steadily onward. Forward. We step forward together.

Photo credit: Kike Vega @Unsplash

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