Am I a Candidate for Trauma-Informed Yoga?

By Linsey Birusingh, E-RYT 500 YACEP, for Yoga Medicine®.

My trauma-sensitive yoga clientele was very specific back in 2015: those with a diagnosis of PTSD or similar, currently working with a talk therapist. Research showed these clinical setting small groups were a safe, effective way to reap benefit from this body-based therapy, so I kept my work narrow. It worked. Beautiful shifts happened for those that came to classes regularly. Clients told me they felt less anxious, utilized tools they cultivated in yoga to help regulate their emotions, slept better, and enjoyed improved quality of life.

Over time, news of the countless benefits of this practice reached the general public through research and the media. “Trauma-informed” and “trauma-sensitive” became buzz words. Suddenly, I had both regular yoga studio clients and people without yoga experience asking if I could practice trauma-informed yoga with them. Maybe they didn’t officially have PTSD, but they craved a safe way to resolve whatever traumas they had thus far endured. They wondered, “Can I benefit from this too?” “Is my daughter a candidate for trauma-informed yoga?” “Does this pertain to me?”

“Trauma-informed yoga can benefit anyone,” says Dr. Ann Bortz, a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty in trauma, and E-RYT 500 yoga teacher. “I would say anyone who has a nervous system can benefit. Trauma-informed yoga at its heart is about recognizing and regulating arousal dis-regulation. So whether you have a diagnosis of PTSD or not, all of us experience times when we’re sympathetically activated, or we get shut down and fall into that dorsal vagal state. And these specific mindfulness practices, breath practices, and movement practices allow us to find our way into that window of tolerance.”

I shared Bortz’s view. I knew from mental wellness trainings and life experience that to be human is to be traumatized, in little or big ways. Even if a doctor hasn’t labeled it, it’s possible to still feel the unease and residue of trauma. If someone feels that an event or circumstance has left them feeling chaotic inside, disconnect outside, or has hindered their ability to enjoy life, maybe trauma-sensitive yoga could be part of their healing journey as well. And so I began threading my trauma-sensitive training in with private clients: some rattled from car accidents, others sexually harassed, others grieving the loss of a parent, simply feeling traumatized by life’s more commonplace misfortunes.

I witnessed the same positive shifts. A mother told me her daughter used breath and meditation work she learned to tame panic. A client trying to exit what she called a “traumatic relationship” was empowered by the practice’s choice-making format. Many of them mirror what Dr. Bortz says she’s seeing in her clients these days. “People say they feel a better capacity to regulate their emotion. They feel empowered to respond to what’s coming up in their body and to take action to shift that instead of just resorting to old impulsive or compulsive action. I’ve had a number of traumatized teens tell me they didn’t really feel like they could benefit from talk therapy until they had this piece, until they felt like they could really fully be more in their body and regulate their level of arousal.”

If you feel trauma-informed yoga may be for you, it’s important that you entrust your experience to a specifically trained teacher who follows a research-based approach. Breath and body work can reinforce trauma if done incorrectly.

“I don’t think all yoga classes are necessarily regulating,” says Bortz. “For example, if you have a history of trauma and you go into a class where people are doing a lot of breath retentions or breath of fire, that could be super triggering. Or if there is a lot of vigorous movement that is not intentional or mindful that could also trigger you into a hyper-aroused state.”

You’ll find other differences between a general yoga class and a trauma-sensitive session. Expect a very grounding, interoceptive experience. Hone your empowerment through more choice-making. “You would have an instructor who is really encouraging a lot of active choice, an instructor who is saying ‘Now, allow yourself to notice how this feels in your body and if there’s any kind of discomfort, feel free to shift and do something else.’ I think something that can be harmful to people with histories of trauma is when they get into a class and they feel forced into doing something that doesn’t feel okay to them. That duplicates the experience of trauma, that experience of helplessness when they’re exposed to something that feels uncomfortable or scary.”

Because science shows that trauma and the chemical imprint of our experiences are held in our tissues, this somatic therapy can be a potent way to recalibrate. As psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk puts it, trauma is not “all in one’s head”, but body-wide. “This is a practice of exploration, attunement and responsiveness,” adds Bortz. “So I think anyone who is interested should feel free to explore this as a modality of healing, a modality of regulation and just see how does this practice impact them. Not taking anyone else’s word for it but doing the practice with a qualified teacher and just seeing, how does this impact me?”

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