Yoga Sequences

Learn About Trauma-informed Yoga with Hala Khouri

Start to feel safe and centered with practices that emphasize grounding and breathing.

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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 the focus of each pose and how it is inhabited. 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. I often say that it’s about learning to tolerate discomfort so that you can move through it rather than run away from it; unresolved trauma can leave you in a constant state of disconnection. Yoga can help free you from the grip of the past so that you can be truly present in an authentic and embodied way.

See also A Yoga Therapist Shares The Truth About Trauma

Traumatic events (car accidents, abuse, natural disasters, violence, death) can overwhelm your capacity to cope and respond. So can high levels of 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.

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

Trauma-Informed Methodology: Feeling grounded, Centered & present in your body

Focus on the following in each pose: Feel the parts of your body that make contact with the ground, engage your core muscles to support your lower back (avoid gripping or trying to flatten your stomach), and 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.

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. 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.

See also Here’s How We’re Using Our Experience of Trauma to Help Others

1. Tadasana

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Mountain Pose

3–5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Ground down through your legs and feet. Feel the lengthening upward that can come from grounding. Look for this sense of rooting to rise in all the poses.

2. Sukhasana

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Easy Pose

5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Use any props that help you to feel supported. Keep a long spine. Notice your breath as it is.

3. Easy Pose, variation

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2–3 rounds

CUE: Cross your arms, then 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. Simply notice your breath.

4. Easy Pose, variation

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3–5 breaths, or as long as feels good. Breathe deliberately or spontaneously—Whichever feels best.

CUE: Root down through your sitting bones, and rise up from that grounded position. Don’t force anything. Repeat on the other side.

5. Janu Sirsasana

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Head-of-the-Knee Pose

3–5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Lengthen your spine, and fold forward until you start to feel a stretch in the back of your extended leg. Then breathe, and stay grounded while you observe the sensations in your body. Repeat on the other side.

Always be looking for something that feels supportive. This can be in your body—or an image or mantra.

6. Rest Pose

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3–5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Lie on your back, then bend your knees, placing your hands on your torso (or wherever is comfortable). Feel into all the parts of your body that are touching the mat. Let the ground support you from below.

7. Supta Matsyendrasana

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Supine Spinal Twist

3–5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Stack your knees, then drop them to one side. Bend the arm that’s farthest from your knees, looking in whichever direction feels best. Repeat on the other side.

8. Ankle-to-knee pose

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5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Move into this pose slowly. Once you feel a stretch in your hips, pause. Try to feel your sensations without judgment. Repeat with legs switched.

9. Balasana, Variation

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Child’s Pose, variation

Stay here as long as you like

CUE: Your head can be lifted or on the mat (notice which feels better).

10. Mountain Pose

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3–5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Notice the impact of your practice so far. Does anything feel better?

11. Mountain Pose, variation

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3–5 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Reach your arms up and out as wide and high as you’d like—you determine your range of motion. Try inhaling as you expand and exhaling as your arms come back in.

Inhale as you expand. Exhale as your arms come back in.

12. High Lunge

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3–4 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Make sure you feel supported and grounded. Engage your core (centering muscles), and lengthen your spine. Repeat on the other side.

Find a level of intensity that allows you to breathe comfortably.

13. Utkatasana

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Chair Pose

Up to 8 breaths

CUE: Make sure your neck feels spacious and you’re not straining it. Release the pose if it gets too intense.

14. Plank Pose

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2–4 breaths

CUE: With knees up or down, push the floor away from you, feeling your centering muscles engage.

15. Bhujangasana

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Cobra Pose

3 breaths

CUE/Inhale as you lift your head, shoulders, and chest. Exhale as you lower them back down.

16. Tabletop

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2–3 breaths

CUE: Feel your hands on the floor, and keep your centering muscles slightly engaged.

Observe your self-talk. If it is unkind, try shifting your judgment to curiosity.

17. Anjaneyasana

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Low Lunge

3 breaths

CUE: Move only to where you feel a stretch in either thigh or both. Make sure you feel supported in your lower body and abdominals. Repeat on the other side.

18. Plank Pose

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2–5 breaths—longer if you love this pose

CUE: Repeat this pose if you found it centering.

19. Adho Mukha Svanasana

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Downward-Facing Dog Pose

3–4 breaths, or as long as feels good

CUE: Keep your knees soft 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 is elongated. 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.

20. Virabhadrasana II

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Warrior Pose II

3–5 breaths

CUE: Stand with your legs wide. Externally rotate your leading leg, bending the knee up to 90 degrees. Turn your back toes in a little, and keep your back leg strong. Slightly engage your core to see if that gives you more space to lengthen and breathe. Repeat on the other side.

21. Mountain Pose, variation

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1–2 minutes

CUE: Shake it out. Let it go! Imagine shaking off your stress.

22. Mountain Pose

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Stay as long as you like

CUE: Stand and breathe with one hand on your heart, one on your belly. Do this until you feel settled.

23. Final rest pose

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Stay as long as feels comfortable

CUE: You are welcome to take Final Rest Pose on your side or your belly, whichever feels more supportive. Remember, eyes can be open or closed, whichever is more settling.

About the author

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.