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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Creating Safe Space for Practice and Healing

Apr 01, 2017 04:09AM ● By Michael Schwarzchild

Although there is increasing awareness about the benefits of yoga for students who have experienced trauma, it is often difficult to find ongoing classes outside of institutions such as veterans’ facilities.

Trauma can be defined in a number of ways. The American Psychological Association defines it as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.”

Esther Gidran, of the Sidran Institute, defines trauma as, “extreme stress that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope…It includes responses to powerful one-time incidents like accidents, natural disasters, crimes, surgeries, deaths, and other violent events. It also includes responses to chronic or repetitive experiences.”

A modality such as trauma-sensitive yoga is designed to address the unique needs of students who have been traumatized, to provide them with the skills that may be necessary for participation in yoga, and to offer them the potential healing from trauma that yoga can provide.

Research demonstrates the efficacy of trauma-sensitive yoga as a healing modality. In their “Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” article, Bessel A.Van der Kolk and her co-authors (Kolk, B. A. et al., The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2014) demonstrated that 52 percent of the traumatized women in the study who did yoga, and only 21 percent of a talk therapy-only control group, showed a significant reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Over time, those involved with yoga maintained the improvement, while the control group lost the initial gain. Research done by the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, has shown that the center’s trauma-sensitive yoga model significantly reduced symptoms of PTSD, as described by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper in their 2011 Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body book and a “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research” article (Emerson, D., International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 2009). The available research also includes a number of pilot and small studies which, although not reaching statistical significance, trend in the same direction. Further, there is a great deal of anecdotal information available from scientists and yoga teachers that supports the healing potential of yoga modality.

In the broadest sense, the yoga helps trauma survivors return their nervous systems from sympathetic dominance—also known as fight, “flight or freeze”—to parasympathetic dominance, or “rest and digest”, when triggered. In sympathetic dominance, there are elevated heart rate, depressed heart rate variability, increased muscle tension, hypervigilance, reduced neocortical function, loss of verbal ability, feelings of fear and anger, increased overall arousal, and reduced ability for social connection. By its nature, yoga promotes normal heart function, muscle relaxation, a normal level of vigilance, clear thinking, normal verbal ability, calm feelings and compassion for others.

Trauma-sensitive yoga enhances parasympathetic nervous system dominance in trauma survivors through a variety of teacher-suggested adjustments to standard yoga practice. The following list of such modifications is by no means exhaustive; it includes the types of changes which can allow these students to participate in and gain the maximum benefit from yoga classes.

• Options to keep the eyes open, or to have “soft eyes” and or a drishti (focus point), are offered.

• Focus on pranayama is very helpful. However, breathing that is too deep or too fast can bring on a panic response. Students are told that they can always return to normal breathing.

• Students are not told to “work at the edge,” which can cause them to ignore the body’s emotional feedback and can increase the denial, shame and disconnection which is frequently characteristic of those with post-trauma issues.

• Choices are offered for open postures that expose the body as such poses can make trauma survivors feel extremely vulnerable.

• Trauma survivors are not always aware of their limits and sometimes feel numb. In such a state, they can push themselves too far and trigger a stress reaction. Teachers will set appropriate limits.

• The pace is slow enough to allow for body and emotional feedback to be processed.

• Trauma survivors are frequently reminded that they can always back off from any posture at any time, regardless of what the teacher is saying, if they are experiencing negative body or emotional feedback. They are encouraged to do it their own way.

• Silence does not always work for trauma survivors, especially when emotional material is surfacing. An easy exchange is allowed within the parameters of general class decorum.

• Relaxation poses, such as savasana (relaxation pose) and badda konasana (bound angle pose), can make trauma survivors feel very exposed and vulnerable. Alternatives, such as balasana (child’s pose), supported balasana, and alternative side, head-supported and open-eyed savasanas can be suggested.

• The protocols for safe practice are reviewed often, and always when there’s a new student. Teachers discuss stopping before pain; allow stopping for water or leaving for the bathroom; and provide protocol for declining touch, saying “no”, opting out of essential oils, creams or sprays; and remind that practice is not competitive.

• Teachers never touch students without permission and then describe what’s going to happen.

• Teachers are available after class for discussion.

• Teachers are aware that guided imagery can guide trauma survivors to a place that they don’t want to be.

• There is no description of how a pose should make students feel. If they don’t feel it, they may instead feel shame, denial and disconnection.

• Specific students are not overpraised, since this can also result in feelings of shame, denial and disconnection in trauma survivors.

• Teachers are light, engaged, welcoming, approachable, adaptable, open to feedback, safe, predictable and consistent.

• The space is well-lit with no mirrors, or with mirrors covered.

• Warm-up is longer than usual.

• Physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual mindfulness are encouraged.

• The rhythm of the class is relatively slow. Instructions are repeated frequently and as exactly as possible.

• The cool-down phase is at a slow pace.

• Language is important. Cues are supportive, permissive and gentle rather than imperative, authoritarian or insistent on precision. Invitations are issued, not commands.

• Straps are not used or visible in the studio.

• Music is absent or chosen carefully to avoid potential triggers.

Michael Schwarzchild, PhD, RYT-200, is a registered yoga teacher and psychologist with 40 years of clinical experience. He will be offering a weekly, trauma-sensitive yoga class at ah Yoga and Wellness Center in New Preston. For more information, visit