When it comes to trauma recovery, support from the community is essential. Community resources that support survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse, like trauma-informed yoga programs, can be life-saving. Not only is yoga well-known to have therapeutic benefits due to its ability to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, but yoga classes taught by trauma-informed instructors also represent safe spaces where survivors have the opportunity to rest and heal.
Calming the Nervous System with Yoga
Trauma is complex and affects everyone differently. One common after-effect of trauma, however, is feeling disconnected from the body. Trauma can leave the nervous system in a reactive state—a state in which the body is primed to detect and respond to potential threats. Remaining in this switched-on, high-alert state is exhausting and can eventually result in dissociation, making a person feel disconnected from their bodies and from reality.
Practices like yoga which combine physical and mental aspects can help support trauma survivors in reclaiming their bodies, calming the nervous system, and reconnecting to their true selves.
Yoga and meditation practices help to downregulate the nervous system and engage the parasympathetic system—sometimes called “rest and digest” mode—allowing the body to access its natural state of healing and calm. Having access to a yoga and meditation “toolkit” can be highly empowering for domestic abuse and sexual violence survivors as it provides them with techniques for self-soothing and self-regulating after dealing with traumatic or threatening situations in which they had little autonomy.
Trauma-Informed Yoga Programs
Thankfully, there are specialized yoga programs across the world supporting survivors in their healing journey through trauma-informed yoga classes. Exhale to Inhale is one such non-profit organization based in New York whose mission is to empower and support survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse through the healing power of yoga. It was founded by Zoë LePage with the intention of bringing yoga to those who need it but might not otherwise be able to access it.
Shanti Bee is another great example of a trauma-informed yoga program. It is a wellbeing space in the North East of England that offers affordable therapies for the local community, including an ongoing series of trauma-sensitive wellbeing classes organized by founder Rosie Mason.
Trauma-sensitive yoga and mindfulness teacher Sally Roach, one of the volunteers for the trauma-sensitive series at Shanti Bee, says, “I see trauma-sensitive yoga as playing a hugely supportive role in cultivating a set of skills to support this healing which brings more resilience to the nervous system.”
According to Roach, there are many specific aspects of trauma-sensitive yoga that make it more appropriate for survivors. For example, using language carefully, with suggestions or invitations rather than instructions or orders. This is an important strategy in being sensitive to someone who has often been forced to do things against their will. Roach says, “The teacher can be conscious of minimizing the unequal power dynamic between student and teacher, giving as much power as is appropriate to the other by giving them choices in expression of movement.”
Another U.K.-based charity called Rape Crisis supports survivors of sexual violence with programming that includes yoga classes. One of their instructors, trauma-informed Kundalini yoga teacher, Jerry, is a trauma survivor herself. She says of beginning her own healing journey with yoga, “It was the first time in years I’d been able to connect to my body in a way that felt good that wasn’t related to the trauma. That’s what I’ve seen as well with the survivors I work with; yoga is a way to release trauma from the body.”
How Teachers Can Support Trauma Survivors
We all have the right to feel safe in our bodies. When someone has survived the trauma of domestic abuse or sexual violence, it’s important that they have access to specialized support. If you’re a yoga teacher, there’s no better time than now to elevate your teaching and further your education by becoming trauma-informed. Read more about trauma-sensitive yoga in our article Healing Trauma Through Yoga, and consider donating to Exhale to Inhale (U.S.) or Rape Crisis (U.K).
If you yourself have experienced trauma, you may find working with a yoga teacher trained in trauma-informed yoga very helpful in reducing the intensity of your stress response and improving your ability to self-soothe. Click here to find a certified trauma-informed yoga teacher near you.