Yoga for Trauma
by Gayle Newbolt
Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event can be left vulnerable to developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma related illness. According to current research, between 50 to 60 percent of all Americans will experience trauma at some point in their life. In this post we explore Yoga for trauma, and how Yoga can play a supporting role in its treatment.
Seemingly commonplace incidents such as car accidents, burglary or even a distressing experience in hospital can lead to the development of trauma-related illness. Certain groups, such as veterans, are more at risk, due to their exposure to sustained and recurrent trauma and lack of support on their return from duty.
The science of Yoga has been offered increasingly in recent decades as a new healing modality for a multitude of conditions. Yoga should be used as a complementary practice to current treatment, and rather than simply reducing a person’s symptoms, it can empower them to regulate their body’s reactions and meaningfully increase their wellbeing during and after treatment.
Yoga and its benefits for trauma
An indigenous science of India, the perception of Yoga in the west is often associated with a body-focussed practice, but the tradition includes other often overlooked aspects that can be beneficial during trauma treatment. The work with the body involves the practice of asana that strengthen the physical body and balance the body’s systems improving overall health and wellbeing. Each movement is united with the breath, which reinforces the mind-body connection leading to greater awareness and control over our thought patterns.
Another central feature of yoga is meditation and the development of mindfulness, of striving to be present in the here and now. All three of these methods have a profoundly soothing effect on the nervous system and balance the hormonal release within the body; promoting self-awareness, a positive attitude and a significant increase in overall well-being.
When used as an in conjunction with other trauma treatments, Yoga practices will complement existing methods and are potentially more potent in their capacity to bring clarity of mind and ease in emotion regulation. Beyond this, as negative thought patterns are reduced, and emotional balance becomes more attainable, yoga has the potential to empower a trauma survivor to reconnect to their vital energy and forge their own path to healing.
A Trauma Sensitive Yoga Class and Practice Sequence
The Trauma Centre uses four, clinically informed themes that define how they offer yoga as part of their treatment programs.
1. Experiencing the Present Moment . Students are encouraged to ‘let their guard down’ and be present in their body. They are guided through breath awareness exercises and are helped to find breath awareness as they practice the postures. Students are encouraged to notice when they feel calmer and explain that breath awareness leads to body and present moment awareness.
2. Making Choices. It’s important to give students control over the situation, avoiding giving demand like instructions. The aim is to develop a self-paced, non-competitive yoga practice that helps students find bodily autonomy.
3. Taking Effective Action. This furthers the idea of students having control by encouraging them to have the confidence to action their own decisions. Using yoga props as an example: The props are made available in class, but their use is left as an open choice. If the students wish to use them they can make the autonomous decision to do so. This translates to giving them the power to choose self-care over discomfort and helping them develop the ability to self- sooth. Points 2 & 3 both emphasise taking control over our sensations without shame or judgement.
4. Creating Rhythms . Creating experiences that have a beginning and an end with a clear timing structure to each posture – using controlled counting from 3 or 5 to 0 during the postures. This helps the students to develop distress tolerance through the knowledge that the posture and therefore the experience of the moment has an end.
Use of language is extremely important within a trauma Yoga class, teachers need to recognise how students may have disassociated from their body and view it as ‘not theirs’. This affects the language of the teacher and the way they relate to the students in the room. The Trauma Centre also recommend using invitatory language, for developing a non-competitive atmosphere, and the language of inquiry, to encourage curiosity and experimentation.
Finally, it’s important for teachers and students of trauma yoga to understand that the practice of yoga is one tool on the “complex path to recovery” (Emerson and Hopper, 2012). It should always be practiced complementary to formal medical treatment and not be considered a quick fix. Practice of all the techniques must be regular to have any meaningful effect on wellbeing.
A Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Sequence
What follows is a sample trauma-sensitive class for use by a Yoga teacher. It is sequenced using the above considerations and is derived from a restorative perspective rather than a dynamic one. The idea is to gently promote movement and awareness of the body, whilst reflecting on the physical and spiritual benefits of the yoga asana themselves. There is an additional sample class made available by The Trauma Centre in the book Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson (Emerson and Hopper, 2012), which demonstrates their personal approach to trauma-sensitive yoga.
Opening Breathing Exercise:
This technique (breathing through one nostril whilst the other nostril is closed, alternating throughout) balances the nervous system and reduces blood pressure thereby promoting balance and calm in body and mind. It also has profound spiritual benefits by opening the bodies energy channels and stimulating the flow of prana. Teaching of the technique should be clear and easy to understand with full benefits given to enable students to practice independently.
Seated warm ups:
Kneeling: raise arms on exhale, lower fingertips to floor on exhale, side flexing with arms.
Encourage awareness of arms moving through space. “How does it feel to connect
movement with breath?”
Gentle shoulder and neck rolls: encouraging all the time to be conscious of how these parts
of the body feel in motion. Finding individual pace, quality of movement
Tabletop: awareness of spine long and neutral
Cat Cow: awareness of self-directed and isolated movement of spine linked with own
breath and at own pace
Extended Child’s Pose: lots of options given for placement of knees, hands and arms.
Encourage independent enquiry, what is most comfortable position for you, what sensations arise within the body from this position?
These general warm up exercises are an effective way to introduce the types of movement participants will be asked to undertake, whilst being gentle enough to not overwhelm them. They gently warm up the bodies joints and begin to awaken the body-awareness and autonomy we are striving for.
Standing postures should be grounding and steady, they should stimulate the Muladhara (root) chakra to encourage a sense of physical and emotional stability. These are strong but stable postures that could encourage a person to feel the sense of their body in the space. Postures like triangle and warrior can include lots of options for arm, hand and feet placement encouraging people to explore their bodies potential for movement.
Seated forward fold
Open seated twist
Baby cobra or Sphinx Pose
Seated bent knee twist (open or closed twist)
Legs up the wall
Final resting outstretched pose
These seated postures also activate the root chakra further encouraging a sense of grounding whilst promoting a sense of safety. They allow the student to explore the muscles and joints of the body in different ways; backbends like cobra and bridge mobilise the spine for improved posture and twists are detoxing whilst also relieving stress and anxiety. Legs up the wall and the final resting pose are both deeply calming due to their activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, they both help to relieve the overactive adrenal glands and deepen the detoxing and balancing effects of all the postures.
Taken from ‘Yoga for Trauma’ a research article by Gayle Newbolt (Himalaya Yoga Valley Graduate and Intern)