Mental Health trauma patients reconnect with themselves, find peace through yoga therapy

Each Wednesday and Friday at Peterborough Regional Health Centre, mental health inpatients and outpatients gather in a group room to participate in an unusual form of therapy: yoga class.

The yoga therapy program was brought to PRHC in 2008 by Julie Brundle, a Psychological Associate with the regional Health Centre.

“It’s been a very beneficial option for patients coping with trauma,” said Brundle. “The number of patients has been growing steadily over the years, as patients advocate the program to new people.”

Through mindfulness, breathing and gentle yoga exercises, trauma-sensitive yoga encompasses four key characteristics: experiencing the present moment, making choices, taking effective action and creating rhythms. It differs from regular yoga in that instructors have specific training to recognize the environmental, physical and health sensitivities of trauma victims, which allows them to provide participants with the “safe place” they need in order to reconnect with their bodies through yoga.

Patients are referred to the yoga treatment program from a variety of other areas and within PRHC’s Mental Health Services department, including  the 12-week Mindfulness program, which incorporates a session on “mindful movement” that often helps to identify patients who might benefit from participating in yoga therapy.

Patients experiencing mental health trauma – ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to addiction to schizophrenia – are frequently anxious during their first yoga class, said Brundle. But those who persist and return on a regular basis become the program’s greatest advocates.

PRHC outpatient Lindsay Norman was referred to yoga therapy from a mental health crisis group about 18 months ago. She said she was initially skeptical about whether the program would work for her, but two classes were all it took to turn her into a regular participant.

“It’s difficult for me to slow down, mentally and physically. I have high anxiety, and my outlet for 15 years was dance,” said Norman. “I thought this would be too slow for me, that it would make my anxiety worse.”

Instead, those first two classes had a tremendous positive impact on her, and now she attends every week, and frequently recommends yoga therapy to other patients.

“Working with Julie, she said I was a quick student,” added Norman. “More than just going through the physical movement, the yoga helps me become more in tune with my mind and my body.”

Many people understand the traditional physical and mental health benefits of yoga, but trauma-sensitive yoga treatment has been a much more recent development, emerging in the U.S. about 15 years ago.

Brundle brought the idea to the Health Centre four years ago after learning about the flagship program, implemented by psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Boston.

“There was a great deal of support for launching this program at PRHC, which was wonderful,” said Brundle.

In addition to her Masters in Psychology, four years of supervised practice and certification, Brundle completed trauma training in Toronto and visited the Boston Trauma Centre for 40 hours of specialized training. Already a yoga instructor, the additional training helped her to prepare a modified “trauma-sensitive” approach for mental health patients.

“This is a way for patients to reconnect with themselves, to bring the mental and the physical back together,” said Brundle. “I’ve seen people finish class with tears streaming down their faces because of the relief they feel. The experience can be truly life-changing.”