Trauma Sensitive Yoga For Survivors of Trauma

Posted by: Center for Growth Therapists

Trauma -sensitive yoga (TSY) has been shown to provide a safe healing process to those who have experienced trauma. Talk therapy is an important step in trauma recovery, but if talk therapy is not done right it can be re-traumatizing. Trauma-informed care is essential for a therapist to treat trauma effectively. A trauma informed therapist is trained to understand possible triggers, culture, and language to create a safe healing space for the client. If a therapist does not understand the impact of trauma, then they could say something that is triggering. Similarly, a yoga instructor not properly trained in trauma, can re-traumatize a participant who has a trauma history. Trauma-sensitive Yoga can tap into your experiences, memories, and emotions without using words. Combining Trauma sensitive yoga with trauma talk therapy is a powerful way to deepen your healing process.

What is Trauma? 

Trauma is defined as a deeply disturbing and distressing event that produces emotional and responses short and long term responses. Responses to trauma include: denial, shock, flashbacks, physical sensations, unpredictable emotions, and strained relationships. Traumatic experiences can range from car accidents to childhood abuse, rape, and natural disasters. Some people who experience trauma become constantly activated, meaning their brain and body becomes rewired to constantly be in a state of hyper-awareness. Others may become numb and dissociated. When we perceive danger, our nervous system activates the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response to react appropriately to the situation. After the event, the nervous system usually returns back to its resting state. For a person who experienced trauma, their nervous system is constantly hyper-aroused, causing them to perceive danger at all times. In order for the body to protect itself from pain, the body becomes disconnected from sensations, and awareness. This often causes the person to be unaware of when they are triggered and why they feel the constant fear and anxiety.

Trauma Sensitive Yoga for Survivors of Trauma

Trauma - Sensitive Yoga (TSY) can help people with trauma start to trust their body and become connected with their emotions, which can create more meaningful and loving relationships. Trauma- Sensitive Yoga can help people with trauma start to trust their body and become connected with their emotions, which can create more meaningful and loving relationships. Trauma-Sensitive Yoga is different compared to traditional yoga because the instructors are rigorously trained and certified to create a safe space, minimize triggers, and understand the effect that trauma has on the brain and body. It’s the idea of connecting with your emotions through your body as opposed to words. As you move through the yoga poses, you are constantly tuning into the sensations that are present in your body throughout each pose. Where do you feel muscle tension? Which poses make you feel anxious? Which pose makes you feel calm? Depending on the trauma, our body tends to hold tension and negativity in certain areas that are related to the event. For example, people who have been sexually assaulted tend to hold tension in their legs and hips. Certain yoga poses help release the tension in these areas, while others help the person become present and let go of anger, fear, and stress. Sometimes trauma can make people disconnect from their bodies and the world around them, in order to protect themselves.  The poses and breathing exercises that accompanies yoga begins to restore the nervous system to a non-hyper-vigilant state. Additionally, focusing on the poses creates mindful awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the body.

Treating Trauma

It is important to note that Trauma Sensitive yoga alone will not lead you to a full healing recovery. Talk therapy is a critical step to cope and process the details and effects of the traumatic events. Talk therapy emphasizes the mind-body connection for trauma treatment. Breathing exercises and certain yoga poses are incorporated into talk therapy to treat the effects of trauma. A good therapist will not only listen to your experiences and perspectives, but they will also guide you toward solutions. Through talk therapy, you can learn to make sense of your trauma, identify triggers, overcome fears, and look at things differently. Trauma has many levels and can be devastating to your mind and body. Treating trauma is complex, and can be a long process, especially if you have long-term trauma or multiple traumatic experiences. Here are some basic gentle yoga breathing and movement exercises that can help cultivate a more positive relationship to the bodies and minds of trauma survivors. The below exercises may or may not be appropriate for you depending upon where you are in your healing process.  Always check with your yoga instructor and / or therapist first.  

 

Pranayama: alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing helps activate the mind and calm the body. Breathing alternatively through each nostril clears the mind and balances both hemispheres of the brain. For people who are struggling with traumatic stress, Pranayama can increase their ability to tolerate distressful feelings. As you continue to practice Pranayama, your nervous systems will start to become better regulated, which helps lessen the affects of anxiety. When the physical sensations of anxiety are reduced, it may become easier to start the processing the memories of the traumatic event.

To practice pranayama come to a comfortable seated position on a chair with your feet flat on the floor or on your Yoga mat in an easy-seated position. Begin by curling your index finger, middle, and ring finger of your right hand in towards your palm, leaving your thumb and pinky extended. Raise your right hand up to the bridge of your nose and gently close your left nostril with your pinky finger of your right hand. Take on long inhale through your right nostril to a count of 5 then close your right nostril with your thumb. Hold your inhale for 5 counts. Release your left nostril and exhale for a count of 5. Repeat the same procedure on the left side. Take your time. If you are feeling anxious or breathing to a count of 5 is too difficult, back off and practice at your own pace. If it feels appropriate today, practice ten complete rounds of breathing. After you have finished this pranayama practice, pause and feel the gentle calmness pervading your body and mind.

 

2. Hip Openers

Trauma tends transcend into the body, tensing up muscles, especially the hips. The legs and hips are the most likely to carry tightness and stress. Our pelvic muscles are often neglected because they are a muscle that is often used everyday and are difficult to access. Hip openers are a great way to create space in the hips and release the tension that might be held there. Now, keep in mind that this pose may trigger traumatic anxiety. If you notice that you feel anxious in this pose, breathe into that emotion and hold for as long as you feel comfortable. If the feeling ever becomes too much, you can move out of the pose into a comfortable position and breathe. There are steps that you can take in order to feel more comfortable. For example, try placing a pillow on top of your crossed legs so you can make contact with the soft pillow when you reach forward. Another example is to also lay a blanket down over your mat or carpet or wood floor so your hands and arms fall on a comfy blanket instead. These are ways that may help you feel more protected while you are in this pose and get comfortable breathing into the anxiety that comes up.

To get started, come to a seated position on your mat and bring your right leg into center and your right leg into center. Your legs should be crossed and you want to make sure your back is upright and straight to open up your chest. Your knees might not be touching the floor, but with time your hips will become more open and your knees will drop. Once you are situated in the position, you want to take a deep breath in and reach your arms and hands forward toward the floor, and then exhale out once you come as far down as you can. As you are in this pose you can continue to press your hips open or you can remain where you are and just breathe. To come out of the position you can press your hands firmly on the floor in order to lift your body back to a sitting position.

3. Shavasana

Shavasana is one of the most important poses in yoga practice. This pose helps integrate the body with the mind, by leaving the body to recover in stillness on the floor. For this pose you lay down on your back with your palms up and your muscles relaxed. It may seem like a simple pose, but there is a lot of power in stillness. After continuous movement throughout yoga practice, it can be difficult to find comfort in stillness, especially in the mind. Since the mind has concentrated on holding body postures, lying down may cause the mind to race. People with trauma may have a difficult time being present with their body. This pose helps create awareness to the body. As you lay down in this pose, what do you feel? Scan down each part of your body and notice how you feel. What thoughts are coming up for you in this pose? Just notice the thoughts briefly and then bring your attention back to your breath, paying attention to the rising and falling of your belly.

 

Yoga will allow you to reconnect your mind and body through relieving stress and creating awareness of your thoughts and feelings. Releasing the negative energy and tension in your body will allow you to flow freely. An important aspect of trauma recovery is to apply a holistic approach to target different areas that are affected. Talk therapy utilizes your words, emotions, and thoughts to cognitively and behaviorally process your trauma. Yoga focuses on your body from the inside out; highlighting the sensations in your body and connecting them to your trauma. Treating trauma is complex and can be a long process. However, through this process you will gain your freedom back. Your trauma should not control you and should not hinder you from the life you want to live. Individual Therapy emphasizes this mind-body connection, which is one reason why yoga acts as a helpful supplement to trauma treatment. Trauma Sensitive Yoga is a great supplement to talk therapy because yoga will focus on the body aspect of trauma, facilitating and strengthening the work done in therapy.