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The impact from trauma can range from subtle to destructive, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It can make you feel tired, sad, or anxious—or simply numb or disconnected. Some people experience nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive memories after a traumatic event. Others sink into depression or find ways to avoid emotions, sensations, or activities associated with the trauma. Symptoms can last for years or resolve much sooner.
“Almost anything can be a sign of trauma,” says author Hala Khouri, a teacher of trauma-informed yoga. “A trauma-informed perspective asks us to first assume that the behaviors we see are an attempt to regulate a dysregulated nervous system.” For example, a student may not want to close their eyes in Savasana (Corpse Pose) because they don’t feel safe doing so, or someone may need to be near the door during class because they feel safer there.
Khouri says it’s just as important to understand our individual relationships to trauma as it is to build practices that support our well-being.
Yoga’s Effect on Trauma
If you’ve experienced trauma, incorporating the pillars of yoga can help. A 2015 study found that yoga may help reduce PTSD symptoms. And Dr. Gail Parker emphasizes yoga’s ability to relieve stress and support recovery from race-based traumatic stress (RBTS). Pranayama practices can help calm your nervous system next time you feel a panic attack coming on. Svadhyaya, the practice of self-study, can help you identify when your body goes into a trauma response. Here, other practices that can help you regulate your trauma response.
Bring yourself to the present moment. Pause to notice what you can see, taste, feel, hear, and smell. Focus on what is happening here and now, rather than on memories of the past. Remind yourself that in this moment, you are safe.
Try: A guided meditation or body scan.
Give yourself time to process the situation. When we experience a trauma, physical or emotional, our knee-jerk response may be to react right away or find ways to numb the feeling. Instead, give yourself a meditative pause to reflect on what provoked the emotions, rather than finding ways to deflect them.
Try: A Yoga Nidra meditation before you settle down at bedtime.
Listen to your body. What physical cues do you notice in your body when you think about the traumatic situation? Is your breathing rapid and shallow or deep and rhythmic? What areas of your body are especially tender or tense?
Try: A gentle Yin practice with longer asana holds. Or have a solo ecstatic dance party to shake those jitters away.
Release your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel your emotions. Cry, yell, or sing. Write, draw, or paint your feelings on paper.
Try: A solo walking meditation—outdoors if possible—to give yourself time and space to collect your thoughts.
If you teach yoga, remember that anyone in your class may have experienced some form of trauma—and you never know what might be triggering for them. Watch for students who seem agitated or upset, and without calling attention to them, offer permission for them to pause or take a restorative pose.
What Is Trauma-Informed Yoga?
In many yoga and healing circles, “trauma-informed” has become somewhat of a buzzword, referring to practices that are sensitive to the needs of—or specifically address the symptoms of—trauma survivors. The foundational intentions of a trauma-informed yoga practice are to help you find a sense of grounding and support in your body, to connect to sensations in a safe way, and to use the practice to help you trust your body’s signals again. This way, you can learn to self-regulate and find a sense of physical, emotional, and psychological safety, as well as presence and balance.
Trauma-informed methodology is less about specific poses or sequences and more about focusing on each pose and how it is inhabited. Ultimately, the practice is meant to help create a sense of support so practitioners can feel sensations and emotions without becoming overwhelmed. Unresolved trauma can leave you in a constant state of disconnection; trauma-informed yoga is about learning to tolerate discomfort so you can move through it rather than run away from it. Yoga can help free you from the grip of the past so you can be truly present in an authentic and embodied way.