Trauma, Epigenetics, and Yoga

    I’ve been learning about how trauma, and specifically PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), can affect DNA, even into future generations. Three and A Half Acres Yoga, through which I have learned about teaching yoga for trauma victims, recently held a session with Dr. Ali Seidenstein, an epigenetics researcher and yoga teacher, on this topic. I’d like to present a nonscientific summary of my understanding of how epigenetics explains how trauma can change the way our bodies function.

Many of us experience some sort of trauma during the course of our lives. This trauma may or may not affect our lives in a big way. PTSD results when we play the recording of the trauma over and over again, implanting new patterns in our brains and in our DNA.

Epigenetics is the study of how certain molecules, methane and others, attach themselves to DNA, altering the way genes are expressed. This can be helpful, or not. Trauma can induce these molecules to change, and not in a positive way, genes that determine how we process glucocorticoids, (these substances are important in controlling inflammation), how cells grow and heal, and how our immune response works. These molecules don’t change our DNA but rather the way our DNA works. But interestingly, some of these changes can be passed down through generations. There have been studies, for example, in which mice were trained to be scared of certain music, and the grandchildren of these mice were similarly affected, though their DNA was not changed. There have also been studies of Tutsi women who were pregnant at the time of the Rwandan genocide – similar epigenetic patterns were found in both mothers and resulting offspring. It is possible, then, that trauma can create a pattern of behavior that is passed down.

So what does this have to do with yoga? Dr Seidenstein has suggested that just as re-experiencing trauma creates a negative pattern of behavior, that pattern might also be altered by introducing a pattern of positive behavior. And in yoga philosophy, we speak of samskara-s – patterns of behavior that are ingrained. These can include ways we habitually respond to stressors in our environment, including things like retreating into overeating or alcohol consumption, or perhaps withdrawing into oneself or lashing out with anger when faced with aggressive behavior from a colleague, or even simply tics such as nail-biting or foot-swinging. My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, likes to ask this question: what’s stronger, your intention or your habits? If a habit is ingrained, it’s very difficult to undo it. But change is possible. One must take small steps, make small changes. And just as repetition created these negative ingrained patterns, if one repeats these small changes over and over, one can create a new, positive pattern, supplanting the old, negative one.

As we come to the beginning of a new year, with all of the usual resolutions that start January 2 and end maybe a week later (or maybe a month, if we’re lucky), it might be helpful to consider making small changes that could eventually lead to more substantial ones. 

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Seidenstein and her research, please check her website.