How yoga can help with trauma, mental health and addiction

A Q&A with yoga therapist Nicole Marcia

Name: Nicole Marcia

Occupation: certified yoga therapist

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Why she’s in the news:

When it comes to teaching yoga, Nicole Marcia is a rare find. The Vancouver resident holds a master’s degree in yoga therapy studies, and she specializes in helping traumatized people struggling with mental illnesses and addiction.

Marcia found her path to yoga after a brutal attack that changed the course of her life. A neighbour sexually assaulted and beat her in 1994, when she was just 21 years old. The trauma left her feeling vulnerable, as if the only meaning to life was survival in a dangerous world. In 2002, she began her yoga practice and found it helped as a healthy coping strategy. In 2003, she took her first training course for yoga teachers, and she’s been helping others ever since. Marcia now runs a yoga therapy program at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addictions. She also teaches at Langara College Continuing Studies, Yoga Outreach and Onsite, a detox centre upstairs from Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection centre. She also founded Fine Balance Yoga, where she does one-on-one sessions with clients.

Marcia will give a talk in Burnaby on Tuesday, Aug. 4, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Bob Prittie Metrotown library branch. Her event, which is part of the Bridge for Health series, focuses on the benefits of yoga for mental health and addictions. To register, call 604-436-5400. For more information on Marcia’s work, go to www.finebalanceyoga.ca.

Q&A:  

You suffered a very brutal physical and sexual assault in 1994. Can you tell us a bit about that and how it impacted your life?

I experienced a very violent sexual assault; the person who assaulted me also tried to kill me. I spent several days in the hospital afterwards, and then came out and went through a recovery process that included going through a court process in which he was convicted to 14 years in a prison. I came out of that about four years later pretty involved with substance abuse. Although I didn’t get it at the time, what I realized in retrospect was that I had been using drugs and alcohol and food in order to manage a dis-regulated nervous system, which manifested primarily as anxiety.

What made you change all of that?  

I started getting curious about yoga, and I started doing some classes, and really, I got engaged in a pretty regular practice, but it wasn’t until about two years into that practice that I started noticing a lot of the psychological and emotional experiences I was having seemed to be lessening. With that lessening, my need to be using also seemed to lessen. So the anxiety, the anger, the hyperarousal, all of that started to quiet down. It started to become clear to me that what was happening was the yoga was doing the work of the self-regulating, instead of bringing in substances in order to regulate.

How does yoga lessen the intensity of that emotional experience or how does it help “self-regulate” as you say?

There are a lot of things, primarily the breath. The types of breathing techniques that one uses in yoga are really helpful for activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Breath is also the primary way to control the brain stem, which is the core of all of our arousal systems. So the breath is a really big one, but there are a lot of other things happening. Yoga classes are in and of themselves a way for trauma survivors to break isolation. Isolation is a big component of post-traumatic stress. ... One of the first steps towards recovery, when we’re talking about recovery from trauma, is the reestablishment of safety, both bodily and social, and we can’t do that alone. We can only do that in groups, so yoga is an opportunity for trauma survivors to re-establish bodily and social safety. The other thing that’s really powerful about yoga as a complementary therapy for trauma survivors is it’s an opportunity to take effective action. If you consider the aftermath of trauma lives in one’s body, and that inherent in a traumatic event is the experience of not being able to take effective action with one’s body, being stopped somehow, then yoga provides a safe setting for people to choose what to do with their body. …

The other reason why yoga is helpful for trauma survivors is that there’s an area of the brain called the Broca’s area that’s responsible for translating experiences to language. For a lot of trauma survivors that part of the brain has gone offline, so the ability to engage in talk therapy becomes very restricted. What’s great about yoga, is people can process the story both on an internal psychological level and through their bodies, without any pressure to verbalize. Yoga becomes this very powerful adjunct treatment to talk therapy. It’s like yoga works from the bottom up, and psychotherapy works from the top down to the bottom. So it’s really part of a holistic treatment. It’s not a curative in and of itself. 

How do you find your classes in the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addictions? What kind of changes do you notice in them?

I have people tell me they’ve never felt safe or comfortable in their bodies untll having practiced. A lot of our people are here because of complex trauma. They’ve been repeatedly traumatized since childhood in a lot of different ways. It’s a big deal for them to have permission to be with their own bodily experience. ... There’s this sense of being part of a community that’s committed to health and well-being that feels really good. It’s good for their self-esteem; it helps to build group confidence, physically.

You’ve talked about how this can help people with complex trauma; what about addictions?

They’re linked. Under pretty much any addiction, you’re going to find a trauma story. … When I see addicts, mostly what I see is a trauma survivor. I know that from my own experience. I came out of my experience, not only psychologically - with sort of like a story about myself and my own self-worth and who I was in the world - but I also came out with some physiological dis-regulation. Substances made a lot of sense to me. They’re very easy to titrate, they’re very powerful and they’re very easy to access. The problem, of course, is that ultimately they become maladaptive. So they make sense in the moment, but they’re not ultimately healthy, and they don’t really get to the root cause. That’s how yoga and addiction and trauma are connected.

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