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In many yoga circles, “trauma-informed” has become something of a buzzword. The original intention behind trauma-informed yoga is an approach to teaching that is sensitive to the needs of trauma survivort anticipates and addresses the symptoms that can arise when someone experiences post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Trauma-informed methodology is less about specific poses or sequences and more about creating a safe space for the practice of yoga by focusing students on how they feel in each pose. 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.
Ultimately, the practice’s cuing, pace, and sequencing are meant to help create a sense of support so that practitioners can feel sensations and emotions without being overwhelmed. Unresolved trauma can leave you in a constant state of disconnection from your body and from life. I often say that trauma-informed yoga is about learning to tolerate discomfort so that you can move through it rather than run away from it. Yoga can help free you from the grip of the past so that you can be truly present in an authentic and embodied way.
Traumatic events such as car accidents, abuse, natural disasters, terrorism, violence, and death of a loved one can overwhelm your capacity to cope and respond. So can high levels of constant stress. Unresolved trauma affects overall mood regulation and physical health and can leave you feeling disconnected from your body. It can manifest as anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, back pain, or autoimmune illnesses. Trauma can leave you feeling dissociated, where you don’t feel much at all, or highly activated, where you feel intense emotional or physical responses to certain stimuli. The effects vary from person to person, and there isn’t one type of yoga practice that works for everyone. That said, certain basic yoga tools can be helpful for almost anyone struggling with unresolved trauma or high stress.
My training in clinical psychology and Somatic Experiencing (SE)—a body-based psychotherapy that helps people release traumatic stress energy from the body in order to restore it back to its natural, regulated state—provides a framework that can be applied to most styles of yoga in order to make them trauma-informed. It’s important to consider the work as a way to “help” you or others work through trauma and not “heal” trauma.
The tenets of trauma-informed yoga
Essentially, trauma-informed yoga seeks to help students feel grounded, centered, and present in their bodies. It is advised to focus on the following in each pose:
1. Feel the parts of your body that make contact with the ground.
2. Engage your core muscles to support your lower back (avoid gripping or trying to flatten your stomach)
3. Breathe. When we breathe deeply, it can create a relaxation response in the nervous system. You want to feel that your breath is available to you rather than forced. Sometimes we don’t have access to a deep breath, and trying to force it isn’t helpful; in those cases, focus on grounding or centering.
4. Pay attention to how each pose feels during and afterward, and not just in your muscles and joints; notice if you feel calm, anxious, tired, or alert. You want to feel regulated, even in a vigorous pose. If a pose makes you feel anxious or overwhelmed, skip it or back off.
5. Eyes can be open or closed, whichever allows you to feel more present. This can change from moment to moment.
6. Always be looking for something that feels supportive. This can be in your body—or an image or mantra.
A trauma-informed yoga practice
Try the following sequence in any order that works for you. It doesn’t matter if you practice it leading with your right or left side; just be consistent. Eyes can be open or closed, whichever allows you to feel more present. This can change from moment to moment.
1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Come into Mountain Pose. You can take your feet hip-distance apart rather than together if that’s more comfortable. Ground down through your feet and find your balance here. Feel the lengthening upward through the spine and top of your head that can come from grounding. Look for this sense of “rooting to rise” in each pose.
2. Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
Come to a seated cross-legged position. Use any props in Easy Pose that help you to feel supported, such as blocks or rolled blankets beneath your knees or seat. Keep a long spine. Notice your breath as it is. Stay here for 5 breaths or as long as feels good.
Cross your other leg in front. Root down through your sitting bones and rise up from that grounded position. Don’t force anything. Stay here for 5 breaths, or as long as feels good. Breathe deliberately or spontaneously—whichever feels best.
From here, if you like, you can cross your arms in front of your chest and use your hands to squeeze your arms up and down from your wrists to your shoulders. This action can create an even sense of grounding and containment and reminds you of what is happening for you physically in the moment. Simply notice your breath. Recross your legs and repeat.
3. Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Come into Child’s Pose. Your forehead can rest on the mat or you can take support beneath it with a block or folded blanket. Notice which feels better. Stay here as long as you like.
4. Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose)
As you come into Janu Sirsasana, lengthen your spine, and fold forward from your hips until you start to feel a stretch in the back of your straight leg. Then breathe and stay grounded while you observe the sensations in your body. There’s no need to force the stretch. Simply lean forward as feels comfortable. Repeat on the other side.
5. Constructive Rest
Lie on your back, bend your knees, bring your feet hip-distance apart, and let your lower back rest on the mat. If you prefer you can slide support in the form of a block or a bolster beneath your sacrum in supported Bridge. Rest your hands alongside your body, on your chest, or wherever is most comfortable. Feel into all the parts of your body that are touching the mat. Let the ground support you from below. Stay here for 3-5 breaths or as long as feels good.
6. Supta Matsyendrasana (Reclining Spinal Twist)
Come to lying on your back and draw your knees into your chest. Keep your knees bent as you lower your legs to one side. Look in whichever direction feels best. Stay here for 3-5 breaths or as long as feels good. Repeat on the other side.
7. Agni Stambhasana (Fire Log or Stacked Knee-to-Ankle)
Move into this pose slowly by stacking your knees over your ankles with your shins parallel to the short side of the mat. If there is space between your knees and ankles, you can take blankets or blocks in between them for support. Once you feel a stretch in your hips, pause. Try to feel your sensations without judgment. Repeat with legs switched.
8. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Come back to Mountain Pose and notice the effects of your practice so far. Does anything feel better? Stay here for 3-5 breaths or as long as feels good.
From here, reach your arms up and out as wide and high as you’d like—you determine your range of motion. Inhale as you expand. Exhale as your arms come back in toward you.
9. High Lunge
Come into High Lunge. Find a level of intensity that allows you to breathe comfortably. Make sure you feel supported and grounded. Engage your core deep in your center and lengthen through your spine. Stay here for 3-5 breaths or as long as feels good. Repeat on the other side.
10. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Step your feet together, bend your knees, and come into Chair Pose. Make sure all sides of your neck feels spacious and without strain. Stay here for at least 8 breaths or release the pose sooner if it becomes too intense.
11. Plank Pose
Come back into Plank Pose with your knees up or down and push the floor away from you, feeling your core or centering muscles engage. Stay 2-4 breaths.
12. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Come onto your front side and into Cobra Pose. Inhale as you lift your head, shoulders, and chest. Exhale as you lower them back down.
Come onto hands and knees. Feel your palms on the floor and keep your centering muscles slightly engaged. Observe your self-talk. If it is unkind, try shifting your judgment to curiosity. Stay here for 2-3 breaths.
14. Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Come into a Low Lunge and move only to where you feel a stretch in either or both thighs. Make sure you feel supported in your lower body and abdominals. Stay here for 3 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
15. Plank Pose
Come back into Plank Pose with knees up or down on the floor. Stay here for 2-5 breaths or remain longer if you like it.
16. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Come into Downward-Facing Dog. Keep your knees bent as much or as little as you need with your thighs engaged and heels descending toward the floor. Press into your hands, and try to shift your weight back toward your legs so that your spine lengthens. Focus on grounding through your arms and legs while you continue lengthening your spine.
Notice your habits on the mat. Often they will be reflected in other areas of your life.
17. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2 Pose)
Stand facing the front of the mat with your legs apart and your front knee bent. Turn your back toes in a little and keep your back leg strong. Keep your arms extended in Warrior 2 Pose as you slightly engage your core to see if that gives you more space to lengthen and breathe. Stay here for 3-5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
18. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Stand and breathe. If you like, shake it out by flinging your arms in front of you and to the side as if you were shaking water from your hands. Imagine shaking off your stress. Do this for 1-2 minutes.
Come back to stillness. If you like, place one hand on your heart, the other on your belly. Remain here until you feel settled and as long as you like.
19. Savasana (Corpse Pose or Final Resting Pose)
You are welcome to adapt your final resting pose and take it on your side, with your knees bent and a folded blanket in between them, or on your belly with your hands stacked beneath your forehead. Opt for whatever feels most supportive. Your eyes can be open or closed, whichever is more settling for you. Stay here for as long as feels comfortable.
This article has been updated. Originally published January 16, 2020.
About our contributor
Hala Khouri is a yoga teacher and somatic counselor interested in using the power of embodied practices to heal trauma in individuals and communities while addressing the impact of social injustice. She has been teaching yoga and movement arts for more than 25 years and doing clinical work and training for 15 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degrees in counseling psychology and community psychology. Hala leads trama-informed yoga trainings nationally and is a cofounder of Off the Mat, Into the World. Learn more at halakhouri.com.