The Miracle of Yoga for Burn Survivors

Written by Blake Tedder, MSW, RYT on September 03, 2019

Active Living
Integrative Healing

Exploring Mind-Body Practices to Complement Traditional Healthcare

The National Institute of Health Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports nearly 40 percent of Americans use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine for specific conditions or overall well-being..

These unconventional strategies include mind and body practices, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery. Burn survivors are certainly among those who are utilizing these complementary approaches in conjunction with conventional medical treatments and reporting positive experiences.

Come Home to Yourself

You’ve probably heard that yoga is a great way to get some gentle exercise and increase your flexibility. I felt healthier than ever thanks to my yoga practice, which also motivated me to eat a vegetarian diet. But I could not write a piece about yoga without telling you how it healed and continues to heal not only my physical self, but my soul as well.

I will never forget lying on my back in a darkened room at the end of my first yoga class seven  years ago. I was softly weeping sweet, hot tears. I had “come home” to myself for the first time. The feeling was that of wholeness, self love, compassion, and self-understanding. 

I felt I was now okay  and I realized that I had not felt “okay” in my life until that very moment. I hugged myself and forgave my heart for being so lost and unaware for so many years. It was like I had been walking around with a heavy backpack, and I had all but forgotten about it until it was taken off of me.

Through practicing yoga a couple times a week over the next few months,  I learned all sorts of interesting, scary, and outright amazing things about my body. Mainly the fact that I knew practically nothing about it. I knew all sorts of names for parts of my body after a year or more of hospitalization and physical therapy, but I didn’t know how to live in all those parts of my body or feel them all at the same time.

Reconnecting to the Body After Trauma

The trauma of surviving a plane crash, being on fire, and the constant poking and prodding in the hospital was still holding onto me deep inside the tissues of my body. That residual trauma (PTSD) wouldn’t let me experience my body sensations and life itself. 

Through the practice of yoga, which involves deeply stretching and strengthening the body, deep breathing, and focusing the mind, I began to come back from the distancing mental fog of trauma to feel alive and awake again in my beautiful skin.

As burn survivors, it is easy for us to dissociate from our bodies and sensations. It’s how our minds initially saved us from experiencing the most intense of pains, being burned alive. When I first began yoga, I often experienced complete and utter panic—sweating, trying to escape, and a racing heart. It was the stored trauma rising out of me. 

Over time, through developing an easeful attitude toward the intense sensations of stretching and through breathing slowly and deeply, I lost the feeling of panic—not only when I stretched but also in my daily life. I still have heightened anxiety, but nothing like it was before yoga became a part of my life.

Yoga for Scars

Yoga helps immensely with scars, too. I’ll be honest though, stretching through scar tissue is often really painful, but that’s something we get to live with. It is often so rewarding to stretch through my scars when I am gentle and when I take my time. 

I have a large scar band running from my left knee up my left side to my left nipple. I found a couple of years ago that if I contorted my body in a certain way, with my left arm on the top of a doorway, I could stretch this big band. It usually takes a good five minutes for the scar to really loosen up. Sometimes I find that stretching through it is almost intoxicating—all of a sudden I can breathe deeper, my spine shifts back into alignment, I stand taller, energy flows through my body, and my thinking is much clearer. 

It’s amazing how the scar tissue can pull us out of alignment. It can make us hunch over or turn a shoulder this way or that, which can cause chronic pain and discomfort. The gentle and prolonged stretching of this tissue can bring a lot of relief. Just remember to be kind and patient with your body and your mind, they’ve been through a lot.

 Stretching my body and scar tissue immediately makes me think clearer and more lovingly because it makes me realize my mind and body are not separate things. This is one of the basic tenets of yoga and a point we burn survivors need to take to heart. 

The Importance of Emotional Recovery

Like many of you reading this, I owe my life to Western (allopathic) medicine. I would not be here if it were not for escharotomies, skin grafts, antibiotics, sterile surgical techniques, and morphine. But it isn’t the whole story of my recovery. The emotional recovery running alongside my physical healing was and is still just as important.

And so the soul-saving miracle of yoga is that I now feel in control of my own healing because I do not need someone else to do something to me anymore. Through calming my nervous system with yoga and clearing out my thoughts with meditation, I am bringing my mind and body back together and leaving my trauma behind me, layer by layer. Like I am running down the road on a summer day, stripping off heavy coats one by one. It is such a blessing. I hope you can find a similar practice and experience some of the same (or better) effects.