Chris Thompson-Lang came home from Afghanistan with PTSD. He says yoga saved his life

Chris Thompson-Lang spent 14 years in the military as a combat engineer, completing deployments in East Timor and Afghanistan.

It was an experience that would expose him to great harm and leave him indelibly changed.

“In Afghanistan, I was involved in the detection and removal of improvised explosive devices – IEDs,” he says.

Whenever an IED detonated, causing harm to those in the vicinity, Thompson-Lang felt responsible because he hadn’t removed the device in time.

An Australian soldier and local children in Afghanistan
Thompson-Lang, pictured here in Afghanistan in 2011, served as a sapper, NCO and commissioned officer during his time in the armed forces.(supplied)

The trauma caused by witnessing injury and death among the people he was there to help had a lasting impact on his psychological state.

Thompson-Lang was eventually diagnosed with PTSD, major depressive disorder, substance misuse and alcohol misuse.

“It was yoga that brought me out of that,” says Thompson-Lang, who retrained as a yoga teacher after he left the armed forces in 2015.

How trauma affects the brain

Typical responses to trauma include fight, flight or freeze, Thompson-Lang explains.

Studies using MRI imaging show how trauma – either a one-off event or accumulative exposure – alters the brain.

Changes to the amygdala – the brain’s “alarm centre” – can heighten sensitivity to perceived threats.

Trauma can also diminish activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of ​​the brain associated with executive functioning such as planning and decision-making.

“You’ve got oxygen, glucose [and] blood flow being redirected from the outer cortex in the brain into the central limbic system where you have the amygdala,” says Thompson-Lang.

This state of hypervigilance has damaging health consequences.

“You’re more often in fight and flight [modes]and that is driven by adrenaline and cortisol,” Thompson-Lang explains.

“The production of the cortisol takes away from the body’s ability to produce testosterone and estrogen, and they’re hormones that are required for health, growth and restoration.”

All this means that yoga can be tremendously beneficial for people recovering from trauma — but it might look a bit different from what you’d expect.

What makes trauma-aware yoga different

Walk into a regular yoga class and you’ll often be greeted by music and the scent of essential oils wafting through the space.

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