Yoga for Trauma Therapy: What Clinicians Need to Know

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Trauma is a full-body experience, and people store trauma in their bodies. So it makes sense that yoga for trauma therapy can be an effective tool for helping people process trauma and move forward in their lives.

What is a trauma-informed approach to yoga? And how can behavioral health professionals incorporate yoga into their clinical practices?

What Is Yoga?

Yoga is an ancient practice of breathing and physical poses that began in India and has spread throughout the world as a way to promote physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. 

There are many different forms of yoga, with different approaches and techniques. However, certain yoga practices might be triggering for people who have experienced physical or sexual trauma. 

Trauma-informed yoga practices have been developed in order to create a safe space for people with post-traumatic stress disorder to address the disconnect they often feel between their bodies and minds. 

Yoga and Trauma

Trauma doesn’t just affect our minds; it is stored in our bodies. The most widely cited research on this phenomenon is Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. The book explores the way trauma reorganizes our brains and bodies and interferes with the human ability to trust and experience pleasure. 

Trauma-informed yoga (TIY) is an approach that takes into account the need that trauma survivors (more than 60% of the population) have for physical safety and self-regulation. 

Trauma-informed yoga focuses on awareness of the body and addresses feelings of dissociation or disconnection, which is common after traumatic experiences. This approach to yoga also takes into account the fact that trauma survivors are often reacting to actual or perceived threats with the stress response, also known as fight, flight, or freeze. This is a physiological reaction that includes pumping adrenaline, increased heart rate, pulse, and blood pressure. Breathing becomes faster, and our brains get extra oxygen. 

Some forms of yoga or certain poses may actually trigger that fight, flight, or freeze response, so it is important to avoid triggering trauma and to provide a full sense of control and agency for clients. 

Potential Triggers

Everyone is different, of course, and triggers will vary for people who have experienced trauma. But some mainstream yoga practices might be more likely to trigger a stress response. In general, trauma triggers may include:

  • Holding poses for a long time

  • A teacher touching someone without permission

  • Some types of breathwork

  • Heated rooms that raise the body’s temperature

  • Language that excludes people or encourages them to “push” themselves

  • Poses that aggressively open the hips and spine 

Yoga teachers can help people who have survived trauma by encouraging an organic connection with the body and breath and suggesting poses that feel safe.

Poses to Try

Jivana Heyman, a yoga therapist in Santa Barbara, California, says that the poses themselves are less important than the safety and grounding that yoga can offer. Conscious breathing is often a staple of yoga practices, and is sometimes more important than the shape the body makes. 

Some poses that are more likely to feel safe for trauma survivors are:

When teaching incarcerated people, teachers should avoid having people put their hands behind their heads or having them face a wall. And survivors of sexual assault may not feel safe in poses like Happy Baby or Child’s Pose, where they feel exposed. 

When teaching yoga, it is important to be aware of signs of distress or disassociation like a flushed face, lots of sweating, or uncoordinated movements.

Learn More about Healing with Yoga

Using a trauma-informed approach to yoga offers many potential benefits for clients who benefit from the gentle reconnection between the body, breath, and brain. 

Clinicians who want to learn more about yoga for trauma therapy can register for the Connecticut Women’s Consortium’s on-site training: Clinical Applications of Yoga Therapy for Trauma.

The course helps behavioral health professionals learn ways to tap into the ancient wisdom of the body to help clients develop practices that can benefit and support recovery.

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