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Published February 20, 2013, 11:36 PM

Yoga class caters to PTSD sufferers

Instructor hopes to replicate study results in Fargo
FARGO – Trying to follow orders in a hot, humid room crowded with scantily clad yogis can be more nerve-racking than relaxing. “It can be pretty intimidating if you’re walking into a yoga studio for the first time,” says Staff Sgt. Amy Wieser Willson, a registered yoga teacher and certified yoga wellness coach.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

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For more information, call HeartSprings Executive Director Jan Nelson at (701) 261-3142 or go to www.heartspringscenter.com.


FARGO – Trying to follow orders in a hot, humid room crowded with scantily clad yogis can be more nerve-racking than relaxing.

“It can be pretty intimidating if you’re walking into a yoga studio for the first time,” says Staff Sgt. Amy Wieser Willson, a registered yoga teacher and certified yoga wellness coach.

For someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it might be worse. Certain poses and words or an instructor’s guiding touch could trigger flashbacks or nightmares.

“Our bodies hold trauma, and that’s the key,” says the 35-year-old West Fargo woman, who’s served nearly 18 years in the North Dakota Army National Guard.

Traditional therapy addresses memories of trauma, but it doesn’t address the physical reactions created by trauma. Trauma-sensitive yoga does, and Wieser Willson says it can help people positively reconnect with their bodies.

And anybody can do it, no matter their fitness level.

“These are mat classes but quite gentle, so as long as you’re able to move onto a mat and back up again without significant struggle, you’ll be fine,” she says.

In trauma-sensitive yoga, there’s no pressure to achieve the full version of a posture, no sexual-sounding metaphors, and no touching between instructor and student.

The practice has helped some women break free from years of suffering.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk headed a study at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Mass., that found dramatic improvement in women’s trauma symptoms.

After 10 one-hour yoga classes tailored to trauma sensitivity, 52 percent of study participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” says Wieser Willson, who hopes to replicate the results with a pilot study at Fargo’s HeartSprings Community Health Center.

HeartSprings, a nonprofit located inside north Fargo’s Messiah Lutheran Church, also offers adaptive and chair yoga classes, T’ai Chi Chih and a variety of support groups.

Wieser Willson completed a 40-hour certification in trauma-sensitive yoga therapy at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass., with van der Kolk, who’s studied post-traumatic stress since the ’70s.

Participants must complete testing with a HeartSprings counselor before the 10-week pilot study starts March 7. Instructor Wieser Willson won’t know their specific backgrounds or trauma experiences.

The testing and classes are free, but space is limited. The first session is open to 10 women ages 18 or older who have been affected by trauma. The class was about half-full as of Feb. 7.

“Priority will be given to women veterans, although no combat deployment is necessary since we realize that other traumas, including military sexual trauma, are common,” says Wieser Willson, an Iraq War veteran.

Each class combines physical postures, movement, breathing exercises, relaxation and mindfulness.

The Trauma Center says “body-based work, such as yoga, may act as a treatment bridge, increasing a sense of awareness, safety and mastery over one’s body.”

Using a calm tone of voice, Wieser Willson gave participants “options” rather than instructions in a sample class Feb. 7.

“Experiment with drawing your crown toward the ceiling … Perhaps you’d like to try rolling your shoulders this time … It’s your choice; do whatever feels more comfortable to you.”

When the classes conclude, students will receive a DVD of Wieser Willson leading a class to use at home, and they’ll be retested six months later.

Individual responses will be kept confidential, but overall quantitative data and any allowed qualitative data will be used to petition the North Dakota Legislature for funding to support additional classes.

“Based on all the research that we’ve seen and all the reading I’ve done, I feel really optimistic that we’re going to see some very positive results,” Wieser Willson says.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

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