What is Trauma?
Trauma, as it will be discussed in this article, is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” Trauma can be experienced as a single event or an ongoing series of traumatic encounters. It is important to emphasize that, when an individual experiences trauma, it is the brain’s interpretation of the event that dictates its impact. Not the actual severity of the event itself.
While much of this interpretation has to do with the way the brain processes the information at the time of the event, what follows the event can also greatly impact the long-term effects of trauma on an individual and whether or not they will develop disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, panic disorders, or phobias. Having the opportunity to express emotion soon after the event and allowing the body’s natural physiological response to take place, as well as the reactions and support of others can greatly decrease the likelihood of developing long-term side-effects of trauma.
What are Symptoms of Trauma?
Symptoms of trauma often manifest when a person's natural fight or flight response is unable to be expressed in the body. In these cases, the reaction the body would have had is disrupted. It may be that the person is trapped or physically unable to move, they were forcibly restrained, or they went into a freeze response and were rendered unable to manifest a fight or flight response to the threat posed to them. Without proper support the fight or flight response that was not expressed can then be stored within the nervous system and can later be triggered, producing emotional disturbances and physiological reactions similar to what was experienced at the time of the original event.
Children can manifest symptoms of trauma differently from adults. Some symptoms of trauma in children include:
Difficulties with self-regulation
Problems relating to others
Regression/loss of previously acquired skills
Attention deficits and academic difficulties
Behavioral issues and outbursts
Unexplained aches and pains
Repeating the event in play
Some of the overlapping symptoms in children and adults include:
Intense and ongoing emotional upset
Depression or anxiety
Avoidance of things that trigger memories of the event
Hyper-arousal (being "on-guard" all the time)
Dissociation (feeling as though what is happening is unreal or a bad dream)
Hyper-vigilance (being acutely aware of threats or perceiving everything as a threat)
What is Trauma-Informed Yoga?
Trauma-Informed Yoga involves tapping into the physical, energetic, emotional, and mental states and learning to resource by titrating between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system with somatic experiencing, dynamic movement, restorative postures, meditation, and breath-work. Students are encouraged to explore the poses to whatever extent they feel comfortable, learning to approach each posture and sensation with curiosity, in an effort to honor individual emotional and physical needs.
What is a Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher?
A trauma informed yoga teacher is trained to offer breath work, mindfulness practices, and yoga postures with modifications suitable to their students' unique needs, and support and guide them through the experience in a way that respects the students' individual boundaries and comfort-level. These instructors are able to use gentle verbal cues, rather than hands-on adjustments, and selective props to assist their students with correct alignment. Trauma-informed yoga teachers are cognizant of language or postures that could be triggering, and are aware of signs that their students may be experiencing anxiety or discomfort. They are experienced in offering support and techniques to help their students navigate and explore these uncomfortable sensations in a safe and encouraging environment.
How Does Trauma-Informed Yoga Help?
Yoga engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS):
One of the most beneficial practices yoga has to offer survivors of trauma is pranayama, or breath work. Prana literally translates to “life” or “breath” and Yama means “control”. Scientific research has found that the diaphragmatic breathing and prolonged exhalation encouraged by certain styles pranayama activate the parasympathetic nervous system, moving the body from a “fight-or-flight” state to a “rest-and-digest” state. Deep, slow breathing techniques have been proven to calm the limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response) and move the response into the prefrontal cortex, or executive functioning center of the brain.
Many trauma survivors suffer from mild to severe dissociation from their own bodies. They become unaware of and/or uncomfortable with many of their own physical sensations and reactions, making it difficult to self-soothe or self-regulate. For some, this may even produce an “auto-pilot”-like response as a subconscious effort to avoid intensely uncomfortable sensations.
Yoga gently draws awareness to the body by focusing on sensation and alignment. Trauma-Informed Yoga invites practitioners to explore these sensations in a way that feels safe and supported. This increased awareness encourages better self-regulation.
When experiencing symptoms of trauma, our fight or flight response is triggered as though we are facing a physical threat. Our heart rate is elevated, our lungs take in more oxygen, our muscles engage as our body prepares to either run or face our opponent. We're not casually looking around, taking in the view. We have tunnel vision. Slowly orienting our senses to our environment tells the brain to calm down by indicating to our nervous system that there is no threat.
Titration Builds Resilience:
A combination of drawing awareness to discomfort both in the emotional and physical body, and then resourcing into the parasympathetic nervous system with breath-work, grounding, centering, and/or orienting establishes, strengthens, and reinforces neurological pathways in the brain that help build emotional resilience to trauma and trauma triggers. Like hiking a trail again and again, these pathways become easier and easier to take until they become habitual. This allows us more access to resource in when we encounter stressful situations in daily life.
Yoga Can Be Empowering:
Trauma survivors often become stuck in a feeling of paralyzing fear and helplessness during precipitating events. This is a feeling that can persist long after the event has passed, and it can be triggered repeatedly by reminders. These emotions can cause individuals to feel a loss of control of their own lives and diminished self-esteem. As practitioners of trauma-informed yoga progress, building increased self-awareness, mastering postures, and building confidence in one’s own body can help boost self-image. Trauma-informed yoga also offers practitioners the freedom of choice to do what feels comfortable or right for their body. Body autonomy and disrupting power dynamics can be extremely empowering for anyone who has been through a traumatic experience.
How can I find a Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructor?
As discussed previously, a Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructor is a certified yoga teacher with additional training in offering yoga that is sensitive to the needs of trauma survivors. These instructors will usually have an RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) designation and and should be able to show evidence or certificate that they have taken a trauma-informed training. Some instructors may also have Yoga Therapy (IAYT) certifications.
You can view my schedule to see when my trauma-informed yoga classes are offered, or contact me directly for a private session. While I am personally trained and certified in advanced trauma-informed yoga, geographic location, scheduling differences, and other logistical challenges can make finding the right teacher difficult. To find a trauma-informed yoga teacher in your area, you can research local studio websites or call to inquire if their instructors have trauma-informed training or certifications. You can also search Yoga Alliance’s website (www.yogaalliance.org) under “Teachers” for “trauma informed” or “trauma sensitive”.
Trauma-Informed Yoga and Traditional Therapy:
It is highly recommended that you pursue trauma-informed yoga in conjunction with traditional therapy. Trauma-Informed Yoga is not a substitute for traditional therapy with a licensed mental health professional. While trauma-informed yoga teachers are highly trained individuals, unless your instructor also has a degree and licensure, we are not qualified to administer traditional therapies. Always ask your doctor before starting a new exercise.
The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van Der Kolk
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
Yoga Journal: Learn About Trauma-Informed Yoga with Hala Khouri https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/trauma-informed-yoga-with-hala-khouri
Trauma Sensitive Yoga Center (TCYC) traumasensitiveyoga.com
Yoga Alliance - Trauma Informed Yoga Teacher Search https://www.yogaalliance.org/Directory-Registrants?type=Teacher&name=trauma
American Psychological Association, Symptoms Improve After a Yoga Program Designed for PTSD in a Randomized Controlled Trial With Veterans and Civilians by Louanne W. Davis, Arlene A. Schmid, Joanne K. Daggy, Ziyi Yang, Caitlin E. O’Connor, Nancy Schalk, Ai-Nghia L. Do, Danka Maric, Donna Lazarick, and Heidi Knock
Clinical Psychology Review, Meditation and Yoga for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A MetaAnalytic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials, Autumn M. Gallegos, Hugh F. Crean, Wilfred R. Pigeon, and Kathi L. Heffner, Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center, United States bSchool of Nursing, University of Rochester Medical Center, United States cU.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention, Canandaigua VA Medical Center, United States
International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Bridging Body and Mind: Considerations for Trauma-Informed Yoga by Lauren Justice, MS, RYT500; Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, C-IAYT, RYT500; Karrie Ehlers, MA
International Journal of Stress Management, Trauma Sensitive Yoga as a Complementary Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Qualitative Descriptive Analysis by Jennifer West, Trauma Center at JRI, Brookline, Massachusetts, and Boston College; Belle Liang, Boston College; Joseph Spinazzola, Trauma Center at JRI, Brookline, Massachusetts