Research Shows Trauma-Informed Yoga Helps Girls in the Juvenile Justice System Heal

An extensive new report from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality shows that yoga programs that are both trauma-informed and gender-responsive can be transformative for girls in the juvenile justice system.
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An extensive new report from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality shows that yoga programs that are both trauma-informed and gender-responsive can be transformative for girls in the juvenile justice system.
Girls practice yoga as part of The Art of Yoga Project.

A new report from Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality finds that trauma-informed yoga can help girls in the juvenile justice system heal, especially if the yoga program is designed specifically for girls.

The report, titled “Gender & Trauma — Somatic Interventions for Girls in Juvenile Justice: Implications for Policy and Practice,” cites evidence that trauma-informed yoga can help girls in the juvenile justice system boost self-esteem and self-regulation, among other benefits.

“Increasing girls’ access to trauma-informed yoga offers an alternative path to reach girls who have experienced trauma, and an alternative path to healing,” says study lead author Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality, who is also a yoga teacher at Ashtanga Yoga Studio DC. “Some girls aren’t ready to talk about or think about what’s happened to them. An approach to healing that begins with the body (somatically) is an alternative way of addressing the symptoms.”

See also Let It All Go: 7 Poses to Release Trauma in the Body

See also 5 Ways to Create a Safe Yoga Space for Trauma Survivors

What Is Trauma-Informed Yoga?

Trauma-informed yoga has three main components: regulated and focused breathing, mindfulness/meditation, and asana. Another core quality is using invitational language that gives trauma survivors choices and options, such as, “If you like, tilt your head to the side.”

“In mainstream yoga classes, the teacher-student relationship is typically hierarchical,” Epstein says. “Trauma-informed yoga puts the student is in control of her own participation, with an emphasis on becoming aware of what she is feeling as she goes through the practice.” By increasing self-awareness, trauma-informed yoga can help rebuild the mind-body connection that trauma may have impaired, she explains. “Girls have been shown to be more likely to engage in dissociation (separating the mind from the body) to survive trauma. It’s an effective method of coping, but challenges can arise when survivors get 'stuck' in that mode. A lack of integration between mind and body can affect the ability to engage in self-care and to form intimate bonds with others.”

In trauma-informed yoga, there is also an emphasis on gentler pacing of the class, and creating a safe environment. One pilot study conducted within a residential facility found an increased rate of disclosure of prior experiences of sexual violence after participating in a yoga class. “It may be that girls increased their disclosure rates because they felt safer and had an increased sense of agency after participating in the class,” Epstein says.

See also 5 Ways to Establish Safety, Trust and Boundaries in Your Yoga Classes

The Benefits of Trauma-Informed Yoga

Trauma-informed yoga equips girls with tools they can use off the mat in daily life whether they’re in a [juvenile justice] facility or even a courtroom, Epstein says. “Experts we’ve spoken to told us stories about girls who used breathing techniques they’ve learned when they’re in front of a judge. This calms them down in a very stressful situation, and it might affect their presentation to that judge and affect the outcome of the court proceeding.”

In juvenile justice facilities, learning to slow down before reacting by using breath and mindfulness (self-regulation) has also been shown to decrease fights on wards and medical complaints (fewer requests for medicine), the report notes.

Increased self-esteem is another huge benefit of trauma-informed yoga. “We conducted a pilot study with teen moms, and we found an increase in self-esteem after participation in this particular curriculum,” Epstein says. “One young woman said she used to be impatient with her daughter when the child cried. She used to respond harshly, but after participation in trauma-informed yoga, she said that she responded more calmly, with greater empathy. A lot of the work is slowing down the response to stressors, and really equipping girls with tools to do that.”

See also What All Yoga Teachers Need to Know About Teaching Trauma Survivors

What Is Gender-Responsive Yoga? 

Trauma-informed yoga should also be gender-responsive, or designed to meet the unique needs of girls, Epstein says, as well as sensitive to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

“Gender-responsive yoga values girls’ experiences and takes into account girls’ developmental stages and needs,” she explains. “It’s important for programs to be both gender-responsive yoga and trauma-informed in serving girls, because girls experience trauma differently.”

Trauma has unique physical effects on the female brain, the report notes. Girls who experience trauma exhibit decreased surface area and volume of the brain’s insula, a region responsible for emotional awareness. This response was not exhibited by boys who had experienced trauma. Girls are also at greater risk of developing negative mental health outcomes from traumatic experiences.

Girls also report higher rates of adverse childhood experiences than boys, especially girls in the juvenile justice system, according to multiple studies. They report sexual abuse at particularly disproportionate levels and are more likely than boys to experience such violence within intimate relationships.

“Boys tend to experience violence in public and by strangers. It’s inherently complicated when someone who loves you also hurts you, which happens more often to girls,” Epstein says. “Relationships are very important to girls in general, so in crafting an intervention for them, focusing on relationships is an important piece.”

This does not mean boys have not experienced trauma—and trauma-informed yoga can help everyone, Epstein notes—but programs historically have been designed for boys and expected to work for girls as well (there are more boys than girls in the juvenile justice system, but girls are the fastest-growing segment of the system, and girls of color in particular are overrepresented in the population), she explains. Meanwhile, girls of color are traditionally blamed for trauma, and their historical/cultural trauma should also be part of any approach [to healing], she adds.

“Girls have unique experiences of trauma—we need programs designed for girls and with their experiences in mind,” Epstein says. “You can’t take an intervention designed for boys and paint it pink.”

See also 5 Trauma-Sensitive Tips for Speaking to Your Yoga Students

Want to Get Involved? 

The report lists several relevant programs, including The Art of Yoga Project, which is designed specifically for adolescent girls in juvenile justice facilities and residential programs, and the Trauma Center's Trauma-Sensitive Yoga curriculum. It also includes input by national experts. These organizations and leaders can provide interested readers with further insight into how trauma-informed, gender-responsive yoga can help at-risk youth. Study co-author Thalia González adds, "With this report, we aim to broaden the understanding of the ways in which gender and trauma contribute to the risks system-involved girls face, so that greater resources can be committed to ensuring their future success. By advancing existing programs and expanding new ones, we can develop the infrastructure necessary to help provide a healthy and successful future for girls."

See also Hala Khouri's Trauma-Informed Yoga Teaching Path