What is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional, psychological, and physical experience resulting from a stressful event. Trauma can be experienced as a single event or an ongoing series of traumatic encounters. The severity of the event itself is not as important as the way the brain processes the event, and the support offered to/received by the individual experiencing the impact of trauma following the event.
When the physical expression of trauma (fight or flight) cannot be expressed in the body (freeze), that response remains in the nervous system until it can be expressed. Often causing what seems like emotional disturbance and disruption of daily activities when it is triggered.
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?
A Trauma-Informed Yoga class can vary widely from a more traditional class that is sensitive to common trauma-triggers, to a non-traditional class that is designed to build tolerance to sympathetic nervous system activation (the same response one has during a stressful or traumatic event) and help build resources to return to a more balanced state.
What Do Your Trauma-Informed Classes Entail?
My classes focus on titrating between sympathetic nervous system activation and parasympathetic nervous system “cool down”. Rather than a typical “bell curve” style class with a warm-up, building to a peak pose, and then a cool down; my classes “zig-zag” between active, dynamic movement and more restorative poses.
I offer lots of options and prompts for exploration to give my students the choice to do what is best in their bodies while we work on noticing physical sensation in each pose/movement.
I keep my classes small because, sometimes, big emotions come up! I’m trained to support students through these releases and help them navigate toward regulation. However, I do encourage students to seek the support of a licensed clinician before taking my class (please contact me if you need a list of reources). Often, these emotions have been stuck in the body/avoided for a long time and need to be released. It is not uncommon for students to cry in my class because a safe and supportive container is created for them to do so.
This style of Trauma-Informed Yoga is based heavily on Polyvagal Theory as well as Somatic Experiencing Therapies.
Do I need to have experienced trauma to benefit from a Trauma-Informed class?
No! However, most people have experienced trauma in some way, shape, or form. It is important to remember that trauma has nothing to do with the severity of the event, but everything to do with the way the brain processes the event.
Trauma-Informed yoga isn't just for those who have experienced significant trauma. This modality will give students resources that they can take with them off the mat and better equip them to deal with the stress of every-day life.
What is a Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher?
There is no standard certification for Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructors. A Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructor may have received 3 hours of training, or over 100 hours of training. There is no regulating body quantifying the necessary amount or content of the training received. Depending on what you are looking for, you may want to contact the studio/instructor and ask them about their training and certification and what a typical trauma-informed yoga class entails.
What About Your Training/Certification?
I have taken multiple training/certification courses in Trauma-Informed Yoga. The first was a 12-hour training through Child Light Education Company in Trauma-Informed Yoga & Mindfulness for Children as part of my 95-Hour RCYT (Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher) designation. The second was 110-hour advanced certification course through Collective Resilience with a registered psychologist, a licensed clinical therapist, and certified yoga therapist (C-IAYT). You can learn more about my training, certifications, and experience here.
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 easier access to resources 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. Bodily 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.
I teach small, group classes at Rolling Brook Yoga in Catonsville, Maryland. These classes are offered in-person as well as live-streaming/recorded through Zoom. I teach private sessions in-person at Rolling Brook Yoga, and virtually through Zoom. I also work with Thrive Emerge, which offers clinical therapy, as a group leader for neurodivergent youth in Catonsville, MD.
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. Please contact me if you're struggling to find a licensed mental health clinician. 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.
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
Polyvagal Theory in Therapy by Deb Dana
The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van Der Kolk
Trauma Sensitive Yoga Center (TCYC) traumasensitiveyoga.com
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
Yoga Alliance - Trauma Informed Yoga Teacher Search https://www.yogaalliance.org/Directory-Registrants?type=Teacher&name=trauma
Yoga Journal: Learn About Trauma-Informed Yoga with Hala Khouri https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/trauma-informed-yoga-with-hala-khouri
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