By Kintla Striker with Sam J. Striker, PhD and Apryl E. Pooley, PhD
Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self. –The Bhagavad Gita
Early one morning in 2009, I was getting dressed for the day when I realized that my nearly lifelong PTSD symptoms were gone. It was a series of moments I’ll never forget followed by the realization that the only thing that had changed in my life was that I had dedicated myself to a consistent yoga practice.
The Seed of a Dream
It is my dream that like food, water, and shelter, mental wellness becomes recognized as a basic human need, and that across the globe every trauma survivor has access to learning simple mind-body tools from an attuned provider when traumatic stress arises.
For nearly 50 years I’ve had PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once you have it, you have it forever, but I’ve been symptom-free for nearly a decade—no more flashbacks, irrational fears, unbearable anxiety, daily stomach aches, or an off-the-charts startle response.
I’ve been interested in trauma and the wounds that bleed across generations for as long as I can remember. From an early age, I had an intuitive sense that healing was possible—that somehow generations to come could be altered for the better, forever. The older I grew, the more aware and affirmed I became in my belief that something was missing in how we as a society care for and provide treatment to the survivors of traumatic experiences. There needed to be more than just labels, medications, hospitalizations and explanations without hope.
I spent 30 years of my life trying to heal what I really didn’t understand; but what I came to recognize were the symptoms of PTSD. Beginning at age 10, I formally learned Transcendental Meditation, which only seemed to cause my head to hurt. Still, I practiced for years. Later, I underwent psychotherapy. I attended a survivor group, went to church, and began reading every book on trauma, Western psychology, and Eastern practices that I could get my hands on. In my 30’s, my-present day mindfulness meditation practice was established, which didn’t give me a headache, and I got more psychotherapy. I attended a Buddhist sangha. I received body work, exercised, and tried hypnotherapy; but my PTSD symptoms didn’t disappear until I blended the mindfulness practices and breathwork I learned in Buddhism with consciously moving my body in my yoga practice.
The seed of a big dream was planted that morning in 2009. I wasn’t trying to heal at that point. I just discovered and loved yoga, but heal from my yoga practice I did, because there was no other impetus for that kind of change.
I noticed that my PTSD symptoms were gone around the time I completed my first yoga teacher training; during which I made endless notes that were mostly about what didn’t feel good to me and what did (i.e, language, tone of voice, postures). I realized then that I felt really good, strong and empowered in my body; and all the symptoms that had just gotten in the way of everyday life for decades, were gone. I wasn’t looking for it, but I noticed and it was the most magnificent realization!
I continued my yoga practice with heightened awareness, focusing on observing my breath, sensations, emotions, responses, and being with all that arose. I also began to spend a great deal of time in contemplative thought with the constant question at the forefront of my mind: How could a yoga practice cause my PTSD symptoms to disappear?
The answer seemed to be that all those years of believing that my body was separate from my mind wasn’t true. It was a once needed survival skill—that old benevolent dragon part of my brain that couldn’t tell time and whose only job was to protect me. I had learned through my new practice that my body was necessary, a resource, and a gift; and I learned what it felt like to feel whole for the very first time in my life.
I began to study more about the history of yoga to better understand what I had unearthed in my practice. The lotus that eventually blossomed from my contemplative practice and the mud of my own traumatic stress is Kintla Yoga Therapy (KYT), a trauma-informed yoga method rooted in my own healing. It’s what I had been searching for to help people begin to heal traumatic stress, to help myself, my family, my community, and future generations.
I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Yoga for trauma?! I wanted evidence. I wanted the world to know that healing from trauma was possible and I knew that most would not listen without the science to back it up. In the Midwest in 2009, yoga was still just for the fringe. Interesting that today it is everywhere, but seems more about fitness than what the ancient yogis were trying to convey.
Michigan State University
In 2012, I began the search for a researcher with significant experience in the field of trauma recovery. In my own backyard I discovered Jason Moser, PhD, Director of the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab at Michigan State University. We began a conversation about traumatic stress and yoga for trauma recovery. Eventually, in 2014, Dr. Moser conducted a case study on my method with a former Marine scout sniper with PTSD, Logan Stark. Logan had been stationed in the Sangin Valley of Afghanistan, one of the most volatile places of the Afghan War. He’d recently produced a documentary I’d seen titled, For the 25, for the 25 men in his battalion that had lost their lives in Sangin.
After eight weeks of the KYT protocol there were some stunning brain changes measured through surveys and EEGs—including significant reductions in Logan’s reactions to his own mistakes as well as his distractibility, plus the more than doubling of his working memory capacity. Also, his PTSD symptomology disappeared. A follow-up assessment several months later showed the results were holding.
Last spring, I was able to spend some time with Logan at his new home in Texas. I hadn’t seen him in four years. He reported feeling that what he learned in those eight weeks of KYT provided a solid foundation that he’d continued to build upon.
Harvard Medical School
In late 2017, I was asked to submit an abstract to present at the 2018 Annual International Movement: Brain, Body, Cognition conference at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
I received formal acceptance for oral presentation from the scientific committee in early 2018, and last July I was honored to present the latest research on KYT titled: Therapeutic Efficacy of Yoga in Individuals with Varied Traumatic Stress Histories. I was in disbelief when I received the acceptance and had a few tears remembering back to the early years, 2009-2011 particularly, when many I spoke with thought yoga for trauma recovery was at best unconventional and at worst absurd.
Six years after creating the KYT method, teaching nights and weekends, and not long after the MSU case study was released, interest in KYT began to grow. In early 2015, I left my day job and began teaching full-time, including private client sessions, a weekly public group class, and a monthly self-care class for mental health professionals. It was around that time that we started to collect client data and my husband, Dr. Sam Striker, began to analyze the data. The findings culminated in the research I presented at Harvard Medical School (the manuscript is currently under peer review).
Importantly, many of the recent trauma-related studies have focused primarily on the physical exercise component of yoga and its effects on symptoms of PTSD with little attention given additional measures of health and well-being that are relevant in trauma recovery.
It has been suggested that the most effective therapeutic yoga approaches integrate practices of breathing techniques, physical movement, meditation, and philosophical principles—and that future research should include outcome measures on quality of life, relationships, pain, anxiety, and depression.
Our recent study did just that, as it centered primarily on the traditional philosophical roots of yoga that focus on the understanding of self and alleviation of suffering and employ a wide range of outcome measures to assess the effects of trauma and yoga on an individual’s whole being.
The research presented involved the impact of an 8-week individual KYT yoga therapy intervention on symptoms related to cognition, emotion, relationships, pain, and physical health and wellbeing.
We conducted the study from January 2015 to November 2017 with 15 adult participants, 4 males and 11 females. They self-reported traumatic events fulfilling DSM-5 PTSD Diagnostic Criterion-A for a qualifying traumatic event.
The self-reported traumas included: Childhood physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, child sex trafficking, chronic illness, chronic stress, combat-related trauma, domestic violence, gang rape, medical trauma, psychiatric institution abuse, rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and the unexpected death of a parent.
The study included eight weekly, 75-minute private KYT sessions led by me.
A 61-item “symptom assessment” questionnaire measuring frequency and intensity of trauma-related symptoms and behaviors was administered at Week 1 and again at Week 8.
The assessment questions were sorted into relevant categories and sub-categories. We looked at symptoms such as, memory, fear, dissociation, anxiety, panic, depression, anger, avoidance, sleep, self-harm, substance use, pain, physical health, and social relationships.
The KYT study intervention used combines curriculum elements with implementation style, believed to restore self-regulation, agency, build resilience and foster recovery after trauma as well as address the underlying causes of PTSD through effects on nervous and endocrine systems.
The method is four-fold and consists of:
- Traditional yoga elements and Buddhist principles;
- Practitioner qualities;
- Encouragements; and
- Mirroring and attuned responsiveness.
Notice the differences in the implementation styles in the photos below. Take a moment to look at the images and contemplate which you would prefer? Perhaps imagine which would be more healing to a traumatized mind, body and heart.
The photo on the left is of a veteran receiving yoga therapy for PTSD at an American military hospital. Notice the instructor is dressed in a uniform, pointing at a chart on a screen of how to do the yoga pose, standing still, looking directly at the patient, while the patient attempts to put his body into a tree pose.
The photo on the right is the KYT method with the provider dressed similarly to the veteran client, participating side-by-side in each practice, they are moving and breathing together, with the attuned provider offering choice, encouragements (i.e., curiosity), and checking-in throughout the practice.
Our research findings indicated that after eight weekly, 75-minute yoga sessions, when baseline and post-yoga scores were compared, participants reported significant decreases in the frequency of symptoms in all five domains of functioning (cognitive, psychological, emotive, relationships, and physical health).
The effect was not specific to any individual sub-category element as the frequency of all items within a category decreased after the yoga therapy.
Implications and Future Studies
The implications of this study include:
- That the significant improvements reported after yoga in this participant sample may reflect the robustness of the intervention in treating even the most severely traumatized individuals. In fact, most study participants were severely traumatized;
- That a provider and client practicing side-by-side may be relevant to symptom and behavioral changes through mirror neuron activation; and
- That the attuned responsiveness of a provider may be a key component in implementation and positive outcomes.
I would like to see a few future controlled studies, but in particular, a study on the dual benefit of mental health providers implementing KYT with traumatized individuals. Specifically, measuring secondary traumatic stress symptoms in the provider. I believe that provider and client practicing together may have a major role in the prevention or reduction of provider compassion fatigue.
Together the findings support the therapeutic efficacy of the KYT method intervention for treating individuals with varied traumatic stress histories.
The beneficial effects of this type of intervention on cognition, emotion, relationships, physical and psychological health, and overall well-being, are thought to result from a combination of building a trusting, supportive relationship with the attuned provider and from the practice itself in facilitating a mind-body connection that promotes trauma resilience and recovery.
Having worked now extensively over the years with severely traumatized individuals, it is my unwavering opinion that this type of yoga intervention is the root of all good trauma therapy.
My deepest gratitude to Dr. Sam J. Striker, who at one time not too long ago, could not comprehend how yoga could possibly help people recover from PTSD and yet, he imagined, designed, and analyzed this study; to neuroscientist Dr. Apryl E. Pooley for her enthusiastic support, for being the lead author on our journal manuscript, and for her magical ability to take my yoga therapy method and put it into a more meaningful context; to trauma therapist and my dear friend Kelly Thomas, LMSW, for naming that thing that was happening with my clients when I couldn’t—attunement; and most of all to the bravehearted yoga participants who did the hardest work of this study.
When I first set out on this yoga for trauma journey, the word trauma was a word that just wasn’t tolerable in the general discourse. When I mentioned it in public, the discomfort was palpable–people often looked down or away and many times walked away. It’s not like that anymore. There’s been a shift. People in general are more aware, interested, contemplative and most often want to talk more about it or tell me a bit of their story.
Honestly, I cannot fully express here how appreciative I am to be alive in this time of profound discovery, reflection, inquiry, revelations, and understanding of trauma; how we process it and how we heal. It inspires in me, great hope for our world and for all humanity.
Kintla Striker is the CEO of Kintla Yoga, LLC and the creator of Kintla Yoga Therapy®. Kintla currently maintains a private and group client practice in Lansing, Michigan, is an international lecturer, trauma educator, consultant, and researcher, published author, as well as an Advisory Executive Council member of the global Women Economic Forum. She has a decades-old active interest in seeing an end to human trafficking and is interviewed in the feature length documentary, Break the Chain, which raises awareness of human trafficking in the US.
Sam J. Striker, PhD is the founder of Hollin-Phoenix Consulting, LLC, a company that specializes in socio-cultural research in unstable areas. He is one of the foremost conflict zone social scientists in the world with extensive experience in Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of the book, The Humanity of Warfare: Social Science Capabilities and the Evolution of Armed Conflict. His works have informed policymakers at all levels of government both nationally and internationally. Dr. Striker’s vision is to bring the social science capability to virtually all cross-cultural endeavors for the purpose of protecting populations through cultural understanding.
Apryl E. Pooley, PhD is the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Systems Change for the Michigan Victim Advocacy Network where she assesses the culture, practices, and policies of institutions and systems to address the root causes of violence. She earned her PhD in Neuroscience from Michigan State University, where she studied the neurobiology of trauma and PTSD. Dr. Pooley’s research focuses on how sex/gender and early-life development processes influence the traumatic stress response, and how early-life trauma influences psychobiosocial development. She is specifically invested in researching the effects and prevention of sexual trauma and serves on the Board of the Directors of The Firecracker Foundation, a Michigan nonprofit organization serving children who have survived sexual abuse. Dr. Pooley is driven to use her expertise on the neurobiology of trauma to promote evidence-based, trauma-informed policies and practices in healthcare, advocacy, criminal justice, and violence prevention and to provide effective resources for advocates and organizations working with trauma survivors.