Yoga can have many benefits: quieting your mind, strengthening your body, and providing a much-needed break from your phone. One lesser known advantage is that yoga can be a powerful method for healing trauma.
Trauma is not lacking in our society. The recent #metoo movement has shone a spotlight on just how many have experienced traumatic events. Nearly 1 in 5 of women have experienced rape at some point in their lives, while 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner (CDC, 2012 and 2010).
Trauma also can take many forms beyond sexual assault and violence. From my experiences in clinical social work, I’ve learned that nearly everyone has experienced distressing events that have stayed with them through the years. Perhaps this is one reason why yoga has become so popularized — it’s cathartic to show care to our bodies, which have been through emotional pain.
However, yoga can also be triggering. Studios that use loud music or pushy instructors might have the opposite effect of relaxation and self-acceptance. Before I did my yoga teacher training a few years ago, I often felt frustrated and embarrassed when I wasn’t as bendy as other students. I pushed myself further than was safe. Now, I feel comfortable listening to my body and using modifications accordingly. But I continue to notice others attempting challenging poses without proper alignment, which could lead to injury. For these reasons, I believe that trauma-informed yoga can be beneficial for everyone, whether you take a specifically trauma-informed class, or you integrate trauma techniques into your own practice.
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Bessel Van der Kolk, in his bestseller The Body Keeps the Score, explains that the very nature of trauma can make it difficult to heal and move on. People remember traumatic incidents differently while in fight, flight or freeze mode, which means that the memories are not stored and processed in the same way. When people are triggered, they find themselves back in that moment, re-experiencing the trauma as if it’s happening again. To avoid this, many trauma survivors begin to dissociate or feel numb. With this protective measure, they cut themselves off from their bodies and emotions, both negative and positive. Survivors also remain in a state of constant vigilance in order to apprehend new dangers, which can become exhausting.
One of Van der Kolk’s chapters focuses on yoga as a groundbreaking way to help survivors reconnect with their bodies and feel a sense of safety once again. The New York-based organization Exhale to Inhale has taken Van der Kolk’s findings and translated them into free trauma-informed yoga classes they provide to shelters and community organizations. Through research and a lot of trial-and-error, its founder and early teachers designed a specific type of yoga class designed to help survivors heal, even if they had never practiced yoga before.
A few months ago, I took the 2-day teacher training Exhale to Inhale offers. I was fascinated to learn of the strategies the teachers use, which begin the second students walk in the room and are encouraged to pick their mat and face the door if space allows. Teachers remain on their mats throughout the class and don’t provide hands-on adjustments so that students don’t have to be on guard for someone touching them. Teachers offer straightforward instructions and use supportive phrases (“I invite you to…”) instead of demanding or triggering ones. Classes are slower and simpler than most yoga classes, and also avoid poses that might make students feel too vulnerable (e.g., happy baby).
While many in the training wanted to begin teaching trauma-informed yoga (myself included), others were interested in integrating trauma-informed techniques into their regular yoga classes. If you are interested in getting more healing power out of your yoga classes, try the tips below.
Focus on your body
Instead of admiring your awesome teacher, trying to place the song playing, or comparing yourself to the person next to you, go inward and try to keep your focus on how your body feels moving through space. Pick a certain body part (e.g., your feet on the mat), or your body as a whole. Whether your body feels loose, tight, grounded, or flighty, take note with light awareness.
If you often push yourself to attempt the hardest modifications, try easing back and be curious about what you feel. Often, a more easeful practice will give you space to focus on what’s coming up, physically or emotionally,
Open to emotional processing
You may have experienced emotions bubbling up during class before, whether sadness, anger, or joy. Uncomfortable emotions, in particular, can cause us to push them away by ignoring them or distracting ourselves. If it feels safe, allow the emotion to be there, and view it with kind acceptance. You may notice a feeling of lightness or calm descend.
To learn more about trauma-informed yoga, check out The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk. To learn more about Exhale to Inhale’s classes and training, visit their site at https://exhaletoinhale.org/.
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