Supporting People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Through Kundalini Yoga

Updated: May 29, 2018

Brain Neurons

Kundalini Yoga is a comprehensive yoga style incorporating the traditional elements of yoga practice including postures and physical exercises, dynamic repetitive movement, breathing techniques, meditation, cultivation of mind-body awareness, the practice of mantra, and deep relaxation. Although most often considered an adjunct treatment, the practice of kundalini yoga therapeutically has demonstrated efficacy as a stand-alone treatment for PTSD.

In this blog I will review how Kundalini Yoga treats the dis-regulation of the physical body to help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD as well as note the psychological changes. I will also show the positive effects of yogic breathing, certain muscular movements and yoga positions, and the use of mantra with the treatment of PTSD siting studies using the kundalini yoga protocol. Lastly, I will share the underlying yogic philosophy that supports this therapy and how it influences the success of the treatment.

This integrative approach provides tools to reset participants’ nervous and endocrine systems, as well as their beliefs and thought patterns. It specifically focuses on changing the brain, improving sleep, cultivating self-efficacy, and allowing the body and mind to remember it’s rhythmic identity. Participants gain skill in the process of being present with their sensations. This eight week course includes a weekly 1.5 hour group yoga session that includes warm-ups, breathing and movement exercises, meditation and deep relaxation. The curriculum includes four different yoga sets and six meditations taught over the eight weeks. These were selected to address the underlying causes of PTSD and for their capacity to resolve recurring images and receptive negative thoughts, restore self efficacy, rhythmic strength and the connection to original self. A meditation called “Adjusting the Brain” is recommended for homework as a daily nine minute practice throughout the eight week course.

In this Kundalini Yoga protocol, trauma and PTSD are viewed first as a physiological condition. Because Kundalini Yoga impacts the brain, the endocrine system and nervous system, its practice addresses the structural, physiological and psychological components of trauma concurrently. Many health professionals are beginning to recognize the physical and physiological effects of trauma and engage the body as a resource for treatment. The mental health field is also beginning to look at the inclusion of body-based therapies as a way to provide effective support for the treatment of PTSD.

In PTSD the brain and nervous system get stuck in flight or flight mode, an intense activation of the sympathetic nervous system designed to help us survive during emergencies. Instead of reseting once the trauma is past, the nervous system remains on high alert, making it difficult or impossible to relax, sleep well, or think clear. Many of what are considered psychological effects of trauma are actually rooted in this physiological dis-regulation. These include hyper vigilance, chronic anxiety, depression and anger outbursts. The dynamic movement and deep breathing exercises in this protocol assist to soothe and strengthen the nervous system. Neurotransmitters in the brain also become dis-regulated and low levels of the neurotransmitter GABA are found in people with PTSD. GABA opens up the nerve cells to allow chloride to move in. This slows down the cell activity and promotes a calming feeling. Studies have shown that GABA levels had a higher increase after one hour of yoga compared to one hour of walking. 1

Trauma is stored in the body particularly if the person becomes frozen in fear during the experience. The rhythmic, targeted and repetitive movement within the Kundalini Yoga exercises breaks the freeze response patterns. New patterns are formed in the restoration of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that helps us rest and digest. The shaking that is done in some of the exercises or the shaking that occurs while holding a position during yoga, allows the body to release the patterns associated with trauma by also impacting the PNS. We often tell kids or those we encounter undergoing stress to “shake it off”. What if this response, instead of being a way to encourage one to move on quickly, was a way to actually hold space or remind them to literally shake their body physically and let their nervous system move the experience through in this somatic way? I wonder if we would see less physical imbalance due to stored emotions.

Deep relaxation is practiced in every class of the course and is an essential practice to help recover from the effects of trauma as the body has a chance to repair itself and create inner balance. The practice of relaxation also has positive impact in reclaiming restorative sleep. Lack of restful sleep is often experienced by people with PTSD. Improving sleep continuity and quality has been shown to reduce PTSD symptom severity and enhance the therapeutic response. In a study with veterans using this protocol it was found that sleep disturbances and sleep quality were improved after the program with improvements maintained at follow-up. 2

Another key aspect of recovery for a person with PTSD is restoring vitality and rhythmic strength. The rhythm set by breathing exercises, practicing mantras, and dynamic movement within the yoga exercises, increases endurance and restores and resets the flow of thoughts, and aids in self regulation. As a result of trauma, negative thoughts can become repetitive and one becomes fixed in a pattern of habit and reaction. Each rhythmic movement, mantra, and breath sequence engages the brain so the chronic pattern of the trauma cycle is broken. Specific types of breath exercises such as long deep breath or breathing through an o-shaped mouth can reduce arousal caused by repetitive thoughts. The recitation of mantra has also shown great impact to break these patterns. These practices aids one in becoming mindful to observe thoughts and gain skill to confront and transform the thought. The practice of dynamic movement re-patterns the endocrine and nervous systems and the physical structure of the body so that new patterns are maintained. 

A study at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, ON, Canada, piloted an 8-week Kundalini Yoga (KY) trauma program whereby participants were randomly assigned to either waitlist control or yoga group. It was hypothesized that, through KY, physiological and psychological changes might occur, reducing PTSD symptoms. The overall goal of this study was to evaluate the impact of KY yoga intervention on symptoms of PTSD and resilience, positive and negative affect, mindfulness, insomnia, perceived stress and depression, anxiety, and stress. This yoga study demonstrated significant changes in PTSD scores and other areas of wellbeing between the yoga and waitlist control groups. The findings of this KY PTSD study suggest that KY may be an alternative intervention for PTSD. Future work may examine gender, ethnic, and physiological variables. Further research is needed in order to understand the mechanisms behind apparent impact of yoga. Research is also required to determine the potential benefits to mental health from brief training in yoga as well as from long-term training in the practice of yoga.” 3

The concept of resiliency or the ability to resist, absorb, recover from or adapt to adversity is gaining in acceptance. Post Traumatic Growth recognizes that positive psychological change as experienced as a result of adversity can bring a person to a higher level of functioning. Challenge helps one discover new resources within themselves. One of the main philosophies of yogic science is to find the depth of your original identity. PTG is aligned with the yogic understanding that we are first a soul and that we can draw on resources of our original self. Carl Jung has stated “I am not what has happened to me, I am what I choose to become”. The yogic perspective holds that individuals can shape their responses to experiences and environments and are not merely subject to them and by starting with what is right within, individuals restore their original identity and resiliency.

It is this emphasis on PTG and original identity that seems to touch my students the deepest. Even ones that may not have a spiritual inclination, they begin to reawaken and remember their core strengths and rhythm as a result of the practices in this yoga course protocol.

1,2 Staples JK, Hamilton MF, Uddo M. A yoga program for the symptoms of post-traumatic stress

disorder in Veterans. Mil Med 2013;178:854-860.

3 Jindani FA, Khalsa GF. “A Yoga Intervention Program for Patients Suffering from Symptoms of

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A qualitative Descriptive Study.” J Altern Complement Med. 2015

Jul;21(7):401-8. doi: 10.1089/acm.2014.0262. Epub 2015 Jun 2

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