Everything You Need To Know About Trauma-Sensitive Yoga
Beyond being good for the body, yoga can be incredibly healing psychologically, as well. While trauma-sensitive yoga won’t take the same shape as a traditional yoga class, even a restorative yoga class, it has a similar goal of connecting with your mind and body. For many trauma survivors, being conscious of the body and being present in the body is quite a challenge. Tracey Wilkins, a licensed clinical social worker from Minnesota, explained that “for people whose body has been harmed in many ways, especially people who are sexual abuse survivors, having to focus on the body is very difficult and very scary and very triggering. They don’t feel safe; they don’t feel stable.” Trauma-sensitive yoga attempts to make your body a safe space again by allowing you the space to relearn to trust your body and by providing you the opportunity to make choices for your body.
The attempt to bring someone back into touch with their body during talk therapy is often ineffective. After all, sitting there talking about your body is much less powerful than moving it, feeling how it moves, and understanding and deciding what’s comfortable and what isn’t. “Trauma-sensitive yoga is a less threatening, less activating, and more indirect way to offer choices,” Hilary said, and therefore accomplish that goal of bodily connection and autonomy.
The main focus of trauma-sensitive yoga is interoception, which is the innate ability to sense what your body feels and needs: does this feel good? Do I want more of this? Is this too much? This process of interoception is more a gut feeling than a cognitive understanding of the body’s limits, and it can start to rebuild the trust and understanding between you and your body.
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What is trauma-sensitive yoga?
Trauma-sensitive yoga is not a traditional yoga practice. Each practitioner starts with the trauma-sensitive yoga principles of choice and adds a form of gentle yoga; for Hilary, this is yin yoga. “The yoga is slow. It’s more of an introspective process,” Hilary described. “There’s also always an out.” When a choice is presented to us, it’s often in the form of ‘this’ or ‘that’. For some people, neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’ feels right, and they need a ‘neither’ or ‘none of the above’ option. Trauma-sensitive yoga includes this choice. Participants always have the option to come out of the position or even leave the class if it doesn’t feel right to them, and there are always multiple modifications to the position provided to accommodate each individual’s mobility and needs, as well as their ability to make choices for themselves.
The inclusion of choices and an opt-out acts as the bridge between trauma-sensitive yoga and a traditional yoga class. In a traditional yoga class, there’s a structure and a flow, as well as a right and a wrong way to do the poses. An emphasis is placed on flexibility, strength, and holding the poses. In trauma-sensitive yoga, the emphasis is placed on noticing what’s going on in your body and making decisions based on that information. In some traumatic circumstances, such as abusive relationships, submitting to the perceived expectations can be a trauma adaptation mechanism. Trauma-sensitive yoga removes that expectation through the inclusion of choices, both to do the form or not to do the form, but also in how you do the form. The invitation is to feel what feels right to you instead of forcing yourself to fit the expectations of your environment.
What are some added benefits of trauma-sensitive yoga?
Meditative states can be scary for many trauma survivors because of their intense hypervigilance. Shutting their eyes, being still, and turning inwards makes it impossible for them to be aware of the dangers and threats in the world, and it can even cause dissociative states in some individuals. Trauma-sensitive yoga can act as a first step toward mindfulness for trauma survivors. “It’s a way for them to approach [mindfulness], but also knowing that they can come out of it whenever they want,” Hilary explained. The non-directive nature of trauma-sensitive yoga allows for each individual to be where they are in their healing process without forcing them to take steps or enter spaces that are not safe for them yet.
Trauma-sensitive yoga also acts as a way for individuals to work through the freeze response that’s so common in trauma survivors. A trauma-sensitive yoga class provides the opportunity to freeze, recognize what’s happening in your brain, and work through it to remind yourself that you’re safe. Neurobiologically, it moves the emphasis from the trauma-activated brainstem to the cortex of your brain, where logic and higher powers of reasoning reside. It’s there where you’re able to talk yourself down from that freeze response, recognize that you have a choice, and decide how to proceed from there. Going through this process can actually rewire your brain so your automatic reaction is no longer to freeze, but to think and respond to the situation.
How do I find a trauma-sensitive yoga practitioner?
Finding a trauma-sensitive yoga practitioner can be somewhat difficult, depending on how you approach it. There are two parts to the name: “trauma” and “yoga”. If you start with the “yoga” piece and try to find a trauma-sensitive class in a traditional yoga studio, you can’t be certain that the individual instructing that class has had mental health training and will be able to preserve the specific trauma-sensitive nature of the program. If you start with the “trauma” piece, though, then you’re much more likely to find a class with a trained instructor. While there are many certifying organizations, the term “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga” was coined by The Trauma Center in Massachusetts. A list of trauma-sensitive yoga practitioners trained by The Trauma Center can be found here.
If you’re uncertain whether a local yoga studio offers qualified trauma-sensitive yoga, look closely at the name of their classes. Trauma-sensitive yoga, while the common term for the practice, is actually specific to programs at or programs taught by individuals instructed at The Trauma Center. If the class is called something like “Yoga For Healing Trauma”, then it’s likely not conducted by someone trained by The Trauma Center, and it warrants more investigation into the practitioner’s qualifications.
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