Trauma-Informed Yoga

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When you say Trauma-Informed yoga..What do you mean by Trauma?

When I say I teach trauma-informed yoga, people often ask what I mean by trauma. Trauma is an experience which overwhelmed one’s ability to cope and resulted in feelings of powerlessness, helplessness or hopelessness. It may be a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood, war, a medical issue, an accident, a sexual assault, physical abuse,  homelessness, witnessing terrorism or it can be attachment-based traumas like having parents not attuned to you as a child, or inherited traumas from generations past. There may be factors of systemic oppression such as racism, sexism, homophobia, economic disparities etc. which have led to symptoms of trauma. Not having access to clean air and water or safety for your body is a highly traumatic part of some people’s lived experience. Again, in this context I’m defining trauma as anything which overwhelmed one’s ability to cope.

That means most of us have at one time in our lives experienced something traumatic. However, depending on a number of factors, for some of us, that experience continues to affect our lives either because we are still in it or because it caused physiological changes to the brain. For some people it can interfere with our ability to find  a sense of ease, peace and emotional equilibrium or pleasure in life. Trauma-Informed Yoga is directed toward emotional regulation and feeling connected and present in one’s body.

As you might imagine this is especially appropriate and beneficial for anyone who has experienced stress, depression, loss, anxiety even if she doesn’t see herself as having been “traumatized”, or meeting the criteria for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Trauma a subjective experience. Two people experiencing the same event may have very different reactions to it and trauma can be experienced in different degrees and it can be acute, temporary, short-term, or chronic. 

What qualifications or training does a teacher of Trauma-Informed Yoga have?

Over and above a basic understanding of yoga asana/postures, and familiarity with how to adjust a practice to suit students who may have a variety of physical ailments or limitations, a Trauma-Informed yoga teacher has/should have an in-depth understanding of trauma. This includes understandings of various types of trauma, how and why it develops, what possible symptoms may be identified, its impact on the nervous system, the common beliefs and struggles of folks with trauma backgrounds, and the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder. 

In addition to my own personal yoga practice, my AFAA Yoga Teacher Training, and reading and research on trauma, I also completed a 40 hour in-person intensive training- with Hala Khouri and Kyla Haglund at YogaWorks in Santa Monica, CA in June 2019.

How is Trauma-Informed or Trauma Sensitive Yoga different than “regular” Yoga? How does it differ from styles of yoga such as Ashtanga, Hatha, Bikram, Iyengar etc? 

Any style of yoga could be taught from a trauma-informed or a trauma-uninformed perspective. 

Some major components of my trauma-informed yoga class which may be different from other yoga classes are:

  • Invitational rather than prescriptive language
  • Lack of hands-on assists
  • Limited usage of props
  • Present-Centeredness
  • Moderate temperature
  • Grounding
  • More emphasis on inner connection and noticing than ideal positioning and judging

Many traumatized folks have been in situations where their choice was taken away. So in TIY, (Trauma-Informed Yoga) I offer choice about the way a pose might be expressed or how the breathing is done: eyes open or closed or softly gazing at a spot. 

I’m not pushing you to achieve the “level 3/advanced posture” in TIY nor do you get extra points for being able to do a pose in some sort of “right” way. Rather, I will be offering a few variations of a posture- all of which are equally acceptable depending on what feels right in that moment on that day to you. I’m less concerned with breathing on cue than I am with you having a fully embodied present experience. 

I do this so survivors can become empowered to be in control of what happens in and to their bodies and be respectful of what messages the body is sending to themselves. 

Some survivors don’t know what their bodies feel because they have become so disconnected to them by pushing away the body’s feelings and needs. Reconnecting and listening to those messages, whatever they are-calm, agitated, painful, on guard, etc  through a sense of curiosity and compassion helps us connect to and trust our intuition. 

I personally love a fast paced ashtanga based vinyasa flow. Moving so quickly from one pose to the next forces the ongoing chatter in my brain to stop and my focus solely upon on making sure I don’t fall on my face. It can be a way de-stress from my own rumination and perseveration and in that sense it brings me a sense of peace. However once I started to do more mindful based TIY I noticed sometimes using fast yoga as a way of numbing out and not being attuned to my inner feelings or that sometimes I felt rushed to catch up and do the sequence correctly.

While Vinyasa classes are more active, Yin and Restorative are passive practices where we are mostly still. Some positions are held a long time- 5-8 cycles of breath. It can be a way to access the parasympathetic nervous system calming and restoring. It could be an experience of immobilization without fear. However holding poses a long time could evoke more sensation than one can cope with. In my TIY we are not seeking sensation nor seeking to intensify sensation. 

Bikram and hot yoga are held in rooms 80-100 degrees or more. Sometimes folks are in very little clothing. Sometimes the rooms are crowded and people may be forced to be close to one another or the exit might be obscured or blocked. 

My TIY class is held at a more moderate temperature comfortable to the participants. Class size is limited. Entry and exit points are not blocked. 

Sometimes in other LA area yoga classes, teachers touch students for a variety of reasons relating to the practice. Even so, many teachers touch without asking permission. I don’t think attending a yoga class should be misconstrued as an invitation to be touched by the instructor. I think there’s always an inherent power differential when there’s a student-teacher relationship and consent therefore is somewhat questionable. I could see someone feeling too uncomfortable to decline touch in a class setting, so I generally don’t touch unless there’s a safety issue that couldn’t be solved another way.

Sometimes instructors in other classes ask participants to hold poses beyond mild discomfort. Sometimes there are sequences which must be performed in exactly a certain order or the student is reprimanded. Can you see how this might be very uncomfortable for some survivors?

Iyengar is focused on proper alignment and uses many props. In my TIY class, I am somewhat concerned with proper body mechanics and alignment but far more concerned where students are emotionally in the practice noticing if they are dissociated, experiencing activation, anxiety or emotional overwhelm. I may occasionally offer props like a block to help someone find ease in a posture if that feels right to them but generally don’t use straps, eye masks or scented oils because I recognize they may be triggering.

When we take what is happening on the mat in the psyche and the nervous system and begin to notice when symptoms of overwhelm manifest and how they manifest in the body, this awareness often begins to take place off the mat and into life. From awareness without judgement we can increase the window of tolerance. Its possible to find more ease and peace on the mat gradually and hopefully throughout the day. 

I also think that humans are social beings and that healing happens in community. What is so wonderful about trauma-informed yoga sessions is that nobody needs to discuss what their particular challenges are but to know that they are sharing space with others who are also coping with challenges is itself a comforting validation. We focus on taking care of ourselves in the postures to allow our practice to become an expression of self-compassion which tends to expand into compassion in general..

Why Are YOU teaching TIY?

I have personally suffered from a variety of overwhelming events in life and I have taken trauma-informed yoga classes. Some were transformative. For a while after those first few classes, I felt at peace, focused and like myself before the trauma. 

After a short-term regular practice, I started to notice changes in my life off of the yoga mat- more equanimity, more capacity to love and accept and a greater threshold for stress. I developed less tolerance for feeling crappy and more agency to do something about it.

I think mental health is as important as physical health. There are many benefits to talk therapy. Traditional cognitive based psychotherapy addresses the reasons for suffering which stem from thoughts and interactions with others. It doesn’t generally address the body. Yet research indicates traumatic memory is stored in the amygdala- a non-verbal part of the brain referred to as the reptilian brain thus there are some limitations to the degree talk therapy can help some people. Doctors Peter Levine and Bessel Vanderkolk believe addressing the needs and feelings within the body is another way to access the non-verbal sensations the amygdala remembers, to help release and resolve trauma. 

 I see my role as a personal trainer as someone who facilitates women having a good relationship with their bodies-feeling confident and strong with the energy for the tasks of daily living. 

Many clients have, over the years, voiced concerns over what parents said about their bodies, or challenges they face with fibromyalgia, depression, eating disorders, cancer, sexual assault, traumatic births, grieving the loss of a loved one, caring for infirm parents, being a daughter of a holocaust survivor, being the victim of an accident or crime and life changing sports or other injuries. Some of my clients not only face challenges of proprioception (the ability to know where you are in space or have your mind tell your body to move the left arm and the left arm moves) but also interoception (how your body feels- agitated, calm, pleasant\unpleasant or if you have to go to the bathroom or if your heart is racing). 

In many of these situations, we feel like (a lot like we did as little kids) its just not fair. TIY is a form of movement which can help lower stress and lead to greater self acceptance.

 Trauma is the root of a lot of injustice, crime, violence toward others and toward the self in the form of depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms. If one person can find a little more equilibrium, a little more inner equanimity, wise-mind, it affects others. It helped me and I want to use it to make things a little more fair. Everyone deserves to feel good in their body.

The word trauma is so scary and stigmatizing, so why not just call it mindful movement or yoga for stress relief?

  I have an opportunity to de-stigmatize mental health issues by calling it what it is and using the right terms allows people to find the most appropriate care for their needs. 

For instance, our community has a unique set of needs. Science confirms that inherited trauma from expulsion, pogroms, genocide (like the holocaust) can make changes to one’s DNA that can appear for 4 generations. We have no trouble acknowledging the symptoms we as children of these circumstances face such as hypervigilence but we’re reticent to call it trauma and that unfortunately has meant that we haven’t had access to appropriate healing modalities. In many cases when someone is able to access a professional who is trauma-informed (physicians, therapists, dentists and others who are specifically trained in dealing with trauma) they can more quickly access healing and those specific tools and techniques shown to help without wasting time and money needlessly suffering and thinking they can’t be helped simply because they didn’t know what to ask for. 

Folks who do already know they are dealing with trauma and want to heal in community can’t find an appropriate teacher or class because so many teachers or studios are calling it something like mindful movement or yoga for stress relief —which says nothing about their lived experience so they don’t attend. 

Yoga classes can be expensive and someone has to have the time to get to a yoga class. This means yoga has often been accessible to those with privilege. To serve the under-privileged, properly labeled trauma-informed yoga classes have been given in prisons, refugee camps, non-profits, domestic violence shelters on military bases, or college campus rape centers. 

Ironically, access to trauma-informed yoga classes is very limited for regular working, middle, and upper class folks who would be able to attend one at a yoga studio simply can’t find one because everyone is so afraid to use the word trauma or its seen as only affecting certain populations. Trauma affects all segments of society! 

Furthermore, on the topic of access, my trauma-informed yoga classes are donation-based. In other words, you pay what you can afford or think it’s worth and (at this time) the money is 100% going to charity.  

I hope to share a class with you that leads to greater self-acceptance and peace