I recently completed a 23 hour "Trauma Informed Yoga Training for Yoga and Health Care Providers" run by Nicole Marcia, director and founder of Fine Balance Yoga.
As a yoga teacher and mental health counsellor working with children, youth, and families who have experienced trauma and intergenerational trauma, I found was already weaving many of the principles that I learned at this training into my work.
I also found that, as someone who identifies as a trauma survivor, I have naturally gravitated towards yoga classes and teachers that use trauma informed teaching methods.
After receiving this training, I am eager to share some of the basic teachings with Yogapedia readers. I feel passionate about trauma informed yoga. I consider myself to be a trauma centered mental health therapist, and will continue to focus my work in this direction.
What is Trauma?
Trauma could be defined as experiencing an event, or series of events, that threatens a persons sense of safety and overwhelms their central nervous system. Trauma is arguably a little subjective, as a “traumatic event” may result in "traumatic stress" for one individual and may not for another.
Trauma can result from a single event, whereas "complex trauma” is often the result of ongoing and prolonged exposure to traumatic circumstances - something that is seen after children have grown up in abusive or neglectful home environments.
Yoga = Union
Yoga means to join the body, mind, and spirit. Traditionally, yoga was not designed as a practice to reduce stress or promote mental health. However, in our modern world, the adaptation of trauma informed yoga does provide an opportunity for trauma survivors to reconnect and re-join with themselves.
Since trauma overwhelms the central nervous system, the result for many people is a disassociation from their mind, disconnection from their body, and a block to their spirit or Higher Self. Remarkably, this is done by the sophisticated human mind as a survival tool to keep a person safe.
However, even when the threat has passed and the person may be safe, the disconnection often remains. As part of this disconnection, the person may lack feeling a sense of safety.
So how do we practice or teach trauma informed yoga?
Getting on the Mat
For many of us, just getting on our mat can be a struggle. For a trauma survivor, that could be considered quite the understatement.
There are many potential barriers to practice yoga for all people (including trauma survivors) be them: psychological, financial, socio-economic, or physical ability. If you are teaching someone, or if you are a trauma survivor yourself and practicing yoga, you can start by honoring them/yourself for simply getting on the mat.
Start with recognizing that it's hard to show up, so that itself is a victory.
This is something different than what you might see in your average class and what teachers are taught in their yoga teacher trainings. In regular classes you will often see teachers pacing around the classroom, describing poses in great detail, giving assists, and sometimes encouraging or pushing students to "full" expressions of poses.
In trauma informed yoga, teachers practice with the student as a symbol of walking together in a shared human experience.
This can invite a sense of connection. It may also help students feel safer, less judged, and be better able to focus on their own practice.
It is not about full or perfect expressions of poses. Instead, poses are minimally described, and assists are not typically given at all unless there is prior trust built.
Arguably, the most important takeaway for me from this trauma informed yoga training is the importance of choice for a trauma survivor.
Experiencing trauma inherently takes away some choice, in that the person has had something happen they did not want and/or did not know or invite the consequences it would have in their life afterwards.
Choice in a yoga class means using the language of invitation. This could be using phrases like:
- "When you feel ready..."
- "In your own time..."
- "You might want to explore..."
Students can be reminded by teachers to consider that while practising yoga in a class, everything is an option, and they are free to move their body however they need to or leave at any time.
Choices can be offered for each pose. One important choice is the option to keep eyes open or closed. Some individuals who have experienced trauma may feel unsafe closing their eyes, or may even have vivid visions or flashbacks of traumatic events.
Though, too many options may overwhelm students. It is not uncommon for trauma survivors to experience anxiety and racing thoughts, so the simpler the instructions the better.
Trauma Informed Yoga Research
Trauma informed yoga is a tool to help trauma survivors reclaim the body and it is evidence-based. This means there is scientific research to support it. A 2009 study looked at yoga for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and found it was more effective in reducing symptoms associated with PTSD than another talk-based therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
The research article also extensively outlines other things to consider in a trauma informed yoga approach, such as: Teacher Qualities (this includes conservative attire and a gentle slow pace); Environment (considering limiting noise, mirrors, and the lighting not being too dark or too bright); and goes more in depth discussing use of language, assists, and exercises.
Knowing Yourself and Your Students
The ideas and principles I discussed are not exhaustive. Depending on the teacher and the students, a class could change substantially.
If teachers or students know the kind of things that could trigger trauma flash-blacks, they can always work with these specific things in mind and potentially change the way a class looks and the language that is used.
I use the principles in 1-on-1 therapy sessions and group settings with clients by offering options for breath, eyes open or closed, being sensitive to the language I use, and always practising alongside my clients.
Each of Us Have the Right to Reclaim Our Body
If you have experienced trauma and find yourself in a class where the teacher is directive, you may find it helpful to remember that it is your body and you can choose to follow their directions or not.
You have the option to move at your own pace, exploring your body in a way that feels natural and safe to you.
If this is not supported, it may not be the right teacher or class for you.
There are many different trauma informed yoga trainings and although some are not regulated, many yoga teachers are already taking a trauma informed or trauma sensitive approach even if they are not calling it that.
If you want to make sure you find a trauma informed yoga teacher, you can find a certified Trauma Centered Trauma Sensitive Yoga Facilitator here through the trauma sensitive yoga website.