The recent development of trauma-informed yoga (or trauma-sensitive yoga) has shed light on the meaningful benefits of yoga when specifically tailored to help trauma survivors. Long after a traumatic experience has ended, trauma reverberates throughout the mind and body in ways that can lead to mental and physical depletion, as well as a desire to dissociate from life. With the goal of helping traumatized individuals regain a sense of safety and self-regulation through heightened body awareness and re-engagement, trauma-informed yoga explores the specific sensitivities harbored by people suffering from the effects of trauma. Recent studies have illuminated the efficacy of treating people with trauma-informed yoga classes in populations such as girls in the juvenile justice system, survivors of sexual abuse, and veterans.
What is Trauma-Informed Yoga?
Trauma-informed yoga is a modern style of hatha yoga that’s been adapted for people who have experienced previous traumatic events. The specific teaching techniques of this type of yoga allows an individual to do yoga in a class with minimized trauma triggers and use mindful and grounding tools provided to cope with the aftereffects of a trauma. The practice creates a sense of safety, comfort and peace to help process and release traumatic memories. A trauma-sensitive yoga class is carefully structured to create a sense of safety, comfort and peace to help process and release traumatic events.
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Trauma-informed yoga proposes that traumatic memories lurk in the physical sensations of the body. The dissociation that often accompanies trauma can feel strategic and vital to the traumatized individual, forming a protective layer that serves to obscure the fear and vulnerability of an experience. Someone who is sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, for instance, may cut themselves off from any feeling of connection or intimacy with another individual for fear of bringing back the confusion of their betrayal. Dissociation becomes a secret weapon against manipulation and abuse; a trick to stay in control so something like that never happens again. Trauma-informed yoga attempts to address the dissociation embodied in these individuals and provide a means to overcome it.
A trauma-sensitive yoga teacher has a deep understanding of trauma and is aware of the possibility that students may experience traumatic reactions during class. The teacher focuses on the breath and encourages students to connect to their physical body in order to center themselves. Teachers are mindful of their words and language and give students a sense of control over their experience.
Principles of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Classes
- Creates a safe, trusting and non-judgmental environment
- Honors and listens to the body and breath
- Grants permission for self-exploration
- Strengthens the mind-body connection
- Connects with the breath to help slow down and relax
- Deepens awareness of the physical body
- Encourages self-regulation, self-calming, and self-soothing
- Teaches how to release and let go
- Builds motivation, curiosity, and self-esteem
The Healing Power of Trauma-Informed Yoga Practices
In a recent report by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, trauma-informed yoga unveiled the potential for profound neurological and physical transformations among traumatized girls incarcerated into the juvenile justice system. The trauma-informed yoga teachers guided the girls through focused breathing, yoga poses, and mindfulness practices, all in the context of heightened sensitivity to their traumas. Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report and executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, explained that these tools have the potential to slow the girls’ responses to stressful situations and rewire their brains so that they pause before having a destructive reaction.
Missy Hart, a survivor of sexual abuse and gang-related street trauma who was incarcerated into the juvenile justice system in Palo Alto, CA, told NPR how trauma-informed yoga helped with her healing process from sexual abuse. Hart appreciated the modifications in the trauma-informed yoga sessions that aimed to address specific sensitivities.
“They always ask you if you want to be touched,” Hart said about the instructor’s adjustment in a pose. “I see now that really helped me.”
“Being asked to be touched, it gave us a little power back in a place where all our power is taken,” she explained.
Trauma-Informed Yoga Creates a Safe Space
A person who has been sexually abused may not feel comfortable with another person’s touch or closing their eyes within a group of people. Trauma-informed yoga instructors make an increased effort to help students feel empowered and safe enough to let down their barriers and reconnect their mind with their bodies.
Likewise, veterans returning from war who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) learn to suppress sensation as a way to avoid the horror of their memories and have also found relief through trauma-informed yoga. Recent studies at the Trauma Center and the Department of Defense, have offered evidence that trauma-informed yoga has the potential to bolster the recovery of veterans suffering from PTSD.
Reports by individual veterans also suggest promising results. Marine Sgt. Senio Martz told the Huffington Post how trauma-informed yoga has helped him with his PTSD after returning home from Afghanistan, following an explosion of a deadly roadside bomb that knocked him unconscious, and killed Marines under his command.
In the Huffington Post article, he recounts the constant feeling of anxiety and hyper-vigilance that won’t let him rest since the blast; the sense of guilt and responsibility that keeps him poised for danger at all times, while remaining locked in an emotional numbness. Thus, a wave of relief overtakes him during his yoga practice. As he engages with his own sensations in a safe context of guided movement and breathing, he can finally let his guard down and relax.
“I gotta push myself to try some of these techniques,” Martz said in the article. “But last night after yoga, I had a good sleep. That’s a place I haven’t been in a long, long time.”
Benefits of Trauma-Informed Yoga
- Encourages a sense of belonging and trust
- Fosters a sense of empowerment and control
- Decreases the overall effects of PTSD
- Increases energy and concentration
- Builds mental and emotional resiliency and stability
- Reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia