By Katia Shulga for Yoga Medicine®.
When I started researching trauma in literature over 10 years ago, I had no idea how wide-spread the concept of trauma would become, and I didn’t think much about its influence on my yoga teaching and practice either. To me, it was just something that belonged to psychology research and cultural studies. This has all changed in recent years. We have seen a steady increase in books, articles, talks, workshops and trainings on yoga and trauma. There is trauma- sensitive yoga, trauma informed yoga, yoga for PTSD and so forth. It is becoming as important for a yoga teacher to be aware of trauma as of hypermobility or joint issues. This is great, but also complex, because it is easy to think that trauma is one thing and one thing only, when in fact it’s unique to each person and each experience. This makes it harder to say what yoga for trauma should look like. On the other hand, we also know that not all hypermobility is addressed with the same pose adjustments, so perhaps it’s the same approach we need to apply here.
So, what exactly is trauma? We can simplify trauma to say that it’s an experience, or a collection of experiences, that impact our nervous system, so that it becomes trapped in a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. Bessel van der Kolk explains it as: “something that overwhelms your coping capacities”, Peter Levine defines it as: “an overwhelm of our natural defensive responses that creates something like an injury in our autonomic nervous system, which affects its ability to self-regulate”, and Judith Herman says: “Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life”.
A good example to think of is how animals in nature respond to danger, attacking their predator, freezing so that they become unseen or running away. Animals tend to release these events from their bodies relatively quickly afterwards by shaking, but if the danger persists, they become traumatized in the same way as people do. Think of a dog that has been neglected or abused, what’s its body language like? How will it respond to a stranger coming over to it? How would you approach it? This is similar for people who have experienced trauma, but it’s often less overt. Sometimes, they may not be aware of it themselves, or that their reactions are anything out of the ordinary. This is why it is important for yoga teachers to be aware of the many ways in which trauma manifests in people’s bodies and minds, especially if we do hands on assists.
The difficulty with trauma is that it is experienced in different ways by different people, not one singular event is inherently traumatizing. As Dr Gabor Mate suggests, “Something bad has happened to you, or not enough good things have happened to you.” Some people come away from a terrifying accident completely unharmed, others carry the event within them, unable to process it. Therefore, we shouldn’t assume that trauma is expressed the same way by different people. Cultural, generational, and gender issues impact this as well, adding to the complexity. Knowing this, it becomes apparent that there isn’t one way of approaching trauma in the context of yoga – what may be soothing to one nervous system, may not be for another. Restorative yoga may be healing for some but triggering for others, same for any style of yoga. So what can we do?
Well, there are some simple things that can make any yoga class more conducive to trauma healing. The teaching space has to be one of exploration of connection, but within a safe structure. This may seem paradoxical, but the most important thing we can create in a yoga space is a sense of safety so that the nervous system can start to let go of some of its hypervigilance, and therefore start to explore what it’s like to be in the body. Simple ways to establish safety is being clear about what you will do in the class, what the sequence is, where you will place yourself in the room, whether you will turn the lights off or not during Savasana and why you may look at someone’s pose. All it takes is a couple of words stating: “We will do X, I will be walking around making sure your practice is anatomically safe, and during Savasana I will play some music/turn off lights etc.” And it’s paramount to be clear about time, always being on time and finishing on time is an underestimated technique for creating safety. It develops trust that you will do, what you say you will do.
Some other aspects of yoga may be both more triggering and more healing, and it’s a fine line to walk, knowing that we all may get it wrong from time to time. This is where it gets more complicated. One of the profoundly healing qualities of yoga is its ability to cultivate a connection between body and mind. Often, trauma separates the connection to the body, or makes the body an unsafe place to be, for a variety of reasons. As van der Kolk explains, “Trauma is actually NOT the story of what happened a long time ago; trauma is residue that’s living inside of you now; trauma lives inside of you in horrible sensations, panic reactions, uptightness, explosions, and impulses. Because trauma lives inside of you, getting to know yourself can be the scariest thing to do.” The invitation to experience the practice from within, is where the experimentation and exploration part comes in. As a teacher, you are slowly coaxing and inviting the person to connect to what it may be like to sense the body.
This doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, it may be very simple, yet profound. Some embodiment practices that we may want to incorporate, and that we may already use, are as simple as feeling the breath and the movement of ribs, with hands on ribs. This combination of interoception (feeling from the inside) and proprioception (feeling from the outside) is a simple link that can bring the person back to the sensation of being in their body. Deep breaths are always good as well! Feeling feet on the floor, inviting the students to touch their own skin to feel the boundaries of their bodies, feeling the sensations of hands pressing into each other, all of these small things can be some of manageable and digestible moments of when a person returns to their body and is able to experience the union of body and mind.
One thing that we must be aware of with trauma, beyond anything else or any training that we do, is our own traumas and how we harbor them in our bodies. Working with our own traumas as teachers, is probably the best thing we can do to provide a safe space for our students. Seeking support in holding space for our own trauma will help us in holding space for other people’s traumas.