Bikram Yoga for PTSD - Lori

A couple of years ago Lori was sweating through class on crutches and with her foot in a cast, not to mention coping with post-traumatic stress injury as a result of working as a detective on a serial-killer investigation. Find out why this mom of three, personal trainer and 22-year veteran of the VPD believes Bikram Yoga is truly for “every body.”

How did your Bikram Yoga journey begin?

I was 40 years old and had a lot going on: my three-year-old was in intensive treatment for a life-threatening illness, my policing career with VPD was on the rails, my body was breaking down and I felt a lot of pressure to stay healthy so I could be there for my young family. In hindsight I was about three years into a serious post-traumatic stress injury (PTSD); I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I felt desperate to find something that would help me deal with my stress and anxiety. A therapist recommended yoga to me back in 2002, but I’d scoffed at it; three years later I entered the hot room. It literally changed my life.

Tell us about your first Bikram Yoga class …

I’ve always been fit but the class was extremely challenging – I couldn’t even touch my toes! But I knew, instinctively, this was where I needed to be and how I was going to be OK. It felt strangely right walking into class at the old Cambie studio. I practised at the back (I knew I’d be all over the place), but I loved the heat and found it helped me move better. I felt fantastic after; I slept better that night than I had in years and knew that, because I wasn’t “bendy,” the only direction to go was up! I came back within a day or two and, for the next few years, tried to practise three or four times a week.

How often do you practise Bikram Yoga these days?

It largely depends on my schedule and a couple of old running injuries – including ankle reconstruction surgery – I’ve had. (Yes, I was the crazy person in class on crutches and with a cast in 2010!) My office moved, making it tougher for me to get to class, but I do at least one a week. I’ll practise more as opportunities arise, but for now I just roll with it, practising when and where I can.

What was it that really got you “hooked” on Bikram Yoga?

I’m a bit obsessive and, with PTSD, find comfort in routine. The ritual of the practice grabbed me right away, not to mention the ability to just show up and let the teacher and postures guide me. As my practice progressed I started connecting the struggle in the hot room to things outside the studio that caused me difficulty. I began to see that if I could control my breathing and hang on in each posture, that perseverance would translate to my life and help me through tough situations. I kept having these epiphanies, where I saw how every little thing in the yoga room was a metaphor for something greater. I went through all the stages we go through as yogis, worrying if the room was too hot or cold, wondering why the teacher was holding the postures so long and feeling annoyed with the person beside me until, finally, I just surrendered to it all and tried to regard everything in the room as part of the challenge to find stillness in my practice. That’s when it got easier.

The other thing that got me hooked was seeing improvements on so many levels – sleep, flexibility, strength, balance, skin health, digestive health, healing old injuries, reducing anxiety, finding stillness – and seeing them almost immediately. In addition to lower back surgery, I was a competitive skier and basketball player and have had a lot of injuries over the years. Thanks to Bikram Yoga, I feel better getting out of bed in the morning at nearly 48 than I did at 30! I find this yoga so comforting; whenever I get an injury doing something else, I know I can do yoga and will do yoga for the rest of my life. For anyone who’s ever worried they won’t be able to stay fit because of some injury or issue, take comfort in the fact you will always be able to do the yoga and stay very fit.

What are some of the main benefits you’ve received from Bikram Yoga?

I could go on and on, but I’ll tell you a story instead. I was in a class at Cambie about four or five years ago; as I held Standing Bow, I felt a sharp pain and a “snap” in my right calf and fell forward onto my mat. I lay on my back for the rest of class and limped home, certain I’d just sustained a serious injury. Danny, who was teaching, had checked on me but, rightly, didn’t make a big deal of it (I actually sent him an angry email about this). Within a day or two, however, my calf felt better. Not only that, where I’d previously felt tension in my leg, all discomfort was miraculously gone. What I thought was an injury was actually a release of scar tissue. I went back to class able to see this incident for what it really was: a breakthrough in my practice and not the horrible setback I’d feared. (Sorry Danny!) This, too, served as a metaphor: for the panic PTSD causes in a non-threatening situation.

What is post-traumatic stress injury (PTSD) and how has it affected your life?

My case is considered chronic because I suffered with it for so many years before getting proper treatment. For me the injury, which is classified as an anxiety disorder, resulted from my involvement as a detective in a serial-killer investigation and its aftermath. I was first diagnosed in 2002 after exhibiting symptoms of severe anxiety (where I never used to have any), anger and what I can best describe as a hyper-aroused central nervous system. I couldn’t sit still and was forever finding ways to busy myself. I also felt like I was under siege in very non-threatening situations; this caused my body/mind to go into fight or flight response, which is fine when you’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger but not when you’re walking with your kids on the seawall. It also causes the release of certain stress hormones into your system, which over the long term can compromise health.

Essentially, I found it hard to distinguish between real threats and those my mind was concocting. Over the past 13 years I’ve been in and out of treatment, bailing at times because of a bad therapist or one who has retired. Treatment is a really tough slog at times. I currently have a great psychologist with whom I’m doing a lot of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR, which uses electronic impulses in your hands to shake incorrect beliefs loose from your body and mind). While many treatment plans advocate for anxiety/depression medication, I’m just not a fan and think I can get better with counselling, EMDR, a healthy lifestyle and yoga. Others may find they need to make another choice, and they should do what seems best for them. I also realized I was using alcohol to try and calm my anxiety, and chose to quit drinking in 2006. This was a great choice for me and I remain a non-drinker.

Why does Bikram Yoga for PTSD work for you?

It accomplishes what almost all treatment of anxiety strives to do: get people into thinking only about the present moment. The worry and anxiety come from imagining the future (when we have no idea what that will look like) or dwelling on the past (which we cannot change). The focus on the breath in yoga is the anchor to the present and the pathway that connects our bodies to our brains right now. It also helps with sleep, which is a difficult area for me because of the nightmares I continue to suffer through. What I love most about Bikram Yoga is how much it continues to teach me and how great it makes me feel. I love sharing it with everyone I meet!

What do you find most challenging about the practice?

Just getting to class! I’ve played every head game in the book on days I’ve thought of skipping, but once I’m in the hot room I’m never sorry I came and always feel better. I’ve internalized this to the point that I just remember how good it feels to practice, skip the drama and the battle in my head and just go to class. Also challenging for me is basically everything from Pranayama Breathing to the end of Standing Bow; I’m always pretty happy when that part is behind me for the day!

What’s your best advice for others suffering from an anxiety disorder like PTSD?

Beyond finding a good therapist who specializes in trauma, knows the various treatment options and with whom you connect, just fight that urge to stay stuck and get up, get moving and come to a Bikram Yoga class. I know how hard it is to push past the depression and fear, but you have to save your own life. No one else will do it for you. I promise: you will not look back if you embrace this yoga and treat yourself with the kindness and caring you so deserve. If you’re already practising, don’t give up! I’ve had so many ups and downs with my practice, and every down has led to a far higher up.

In your opinion, is there anyone who should NOT do Bikram Yoga?

I’m an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist and plan to go full time with my own personal training business when I retire in two years. In this industry, we often talk about “exercise prescription” when assessing fitness. I tell everyone I deal with that Bikram Yoga should be an integral part of every person’s fitness regimen. I also tell them that, no matter what their issue is, they can do Bikram Yoga and will be able to do it for their lifetime. Bikram Yoga is the ideal exercise and you really don’t need anything else; I might go out of business one day, but I’m happy to take that chance!

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