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One of yoga’s primary aims is to bring us squarely into the present moment, which is especially important and especially difficult for trauma survivors. Present-moment experiences offer trauma survivors a chance to live "without feeling or behaving according to irrelevant demands belonging to the past," according to Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., author of The Body Keeps the Score. But it's also more challenging for traumatized people than non-traumatized people to be present, says David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga. The good news? We can all get better at it with practice. “Over time through a mindfulness practice, we can build a map of the mind, notice our habitual thought patterns, and develop patience and compassion for our minds,’ says Christopher Willard, PSYD, author of Growing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience. Here, a few key strategies for helping trauma survivors—and everyone else—in your yoga classes get grounded and present.
1. Anchor the mind.
“All practices that strengthen concentration or mindfulness use an anchor,” Willard says. He recommends inviting students to rest their attention on something—the body, the breath, movement, the senses, an image, numbers, a word or phrase—to anchor them to the present moment.
2. Cultivate mindfulness from the ground up.
“Start with simple things that can help students feel grounded and centered,” says yoga teacher Marcia Miller. She likes to start class by rolling the feet over massage balls to create heightened sensations in the feet that make it easier to feel grounded. “Then, I might ask questions like these throughout the class, ‘Can you feel how your feet are touching the floor? Can you feel the weight of your hips on the chair? Can you feel the texture of the fabric on your arms? What are the sensations you are feeling right now because of the pose we just did? Where exactly are they? Do you enjoy these sensations?’” See alsoWhat All Yoga Teachers Need to Know About Teaching Trauma Survivors
3. Be sure to include breath practice.
We are seldom taught how to breathe and yet, a number of studies “cite evidence that yogic breathwork may be efficacious for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder and for victims of mass disasters,” says Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management. She suggests using three-part breath and breath retention among other techniques, adding that "control of the breath not only enables language but gives us a measure of control over our mood." Ancient yogis knew that breath regulation could help manage and regulate feelings and moods. Studies have shown that breathwork may be helpful in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and for victims of mass disasters. “Finding and experimenting with new ways of breathing may be a way for folks to feel better in their bodies,” Emerson says. Breath practice is an effective tool all students can take home and use to help with anxiety outside of class. Try the 7-11 Breath, as taught by Christopher Willard, PSYD. He suggests breathing in for a count of 7 and breathing out for a count of 11, suggesting that this practice can reset the breath to “regulate, shift, and stabilize energy and mood.”
4. Give a nurturing Savasana.
For some, Savasana is the most welcomed pose of a yoga class. For others, it can be a difficult and uncomfortable experience. Offer choices for resting by providing suggestions on how to set up for Savasana or encouraging students to do what feels comfortable for them: sit up, lie down, use a bolster under their legs, a folded blanket under their head, a folded blanket over their belly, or a blanket to cover up with. Encourage students to close their eyes or soften their gaze, knowing some may only feel comfortable keeping their eyes wide open. Remind students that Savasana will only last a few minutes and that they can come out whenever they like.
5. Take it to the next level with Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra is “a sequence of meditation practices that help you feel connected to yourself, with others, and to the world around you,” according to Richard Miller, PhD. Miller has adapted this practice, calling it Integrated Restoration, or iRest. He describes it as a guided progressive scan of the body incorporating the tools of intention, body-sensing, breath-sensing, awareness, and more. Miller has had great success treating populations suffering from trauma and PTSD with his research-based method. He says these self-care tools help students “experience self-mastery, resilience, and well-being.” Don’t be surprised if your students fall asleep, as their mind is able to release and relax in this deeply grounding practice. See also5 Ways to Create a Safe Yoga Space for Trauma Survivors
About Our Expert
Daniel Sernicola, teaches yoga in Columbus, Ohio, with his partner, Jake Hays. They are committed to the empowerment of their students and specialize in creating compassionate, safe, and inclusive yoga environments. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram @danjayoga.