Reclaim Your Calm - and Your Body

Trauma-informed yoga can address the stresses victims and survivors deal with

Sweta Vikram

When we hear the word “trauma,” we instantly assume it doesn’t apply to us. The heaviness of the word automatically puts is in a state of denial. Several people I have spoken with said that they believe “trauma” or even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) applies to veterans, people in combat zones, and domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

The reality is that trauma is all around us, in various forms. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Has not 2020 been deeply distressing?

“Defined like that, the events which can be considered traumatic are wide-ranging indeed — from what might be considered the stuff of ordinary life, such as divorce, illness, accidents, and bereavement, to extreme experiences: war, torture, rape, and genocide,” says Dr. Stephen Joseph, a professor of psychology, health, and social care at the University of Nottingham, UK, and the author of “What Doesn’t Kill Us.”

This year has been an unprecedented one of grief and heartache for a large majority. Between losing loved ones, jobs, businesses, health, relationships and more, to the unremitting hemorrhaging of black lives, to the relentless political mayhem, we have all been impacted. At home, remote work, homeschooling, and cramped living spaces are affecting people’s physical and mental health.

I have clients who have been in a heightened state of awareness for months. As a result, anxiety, nervousness, sleeplessness, fidgetiness, inexplicable spasms of fear, all plague them. Their nervous system is continually wired to fight or flight all the time.

Sure, we have worked on our mindsets, might have found constructive ways to manage our emotions, and are leaning on optimism to help us stay afloat. But you know people are on the edge when something as simple as a cough makes us wonder if we have got COVID. Colleagues have told me that if their bodies feel warm on any given day, they obsessively monitor their body temperature. We are all coping in ways we know. But between emotional eating, over-exercising (I am guilty of this) binge-drinking, and chain smoking, are not people suffering?

Why Rely on Trauma-Informed Yoga?

Yoga’s ability to touch us on every level — physical mental, emotional, and spiritual — makes it a powerful and effective tool for trauma victims. Research suggests that yoga helps trauma survivors with self-regulation, increased positive body awareness, and better attunement with others. It also helps them connect with their bodies and feel safe.

According to the Omega Institute, “Trauma-informed yoga is based on a particular understanding of trauma, one that emphasizes its impact on the entire mind-body system, as opposed to particular mental states (e.g., troubling memories) viewed in isolation from the physical body.” Trauma-sensitive yoga helps people learn to calm their minds and regulate their physical responses, and thus their emotions. They learn to recognize and tolerate physical sensations and thereby regain a feeling of safety within their bodies. This approach to teaching and practice to victims and survivors of trauma is different from that seen in traditional yoga classes.

As a trauma-informed yoga teacher (I teach yoga to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well as incarcerated men and women), I try to create a safe and open space for all of my students, so they can reap the benefits of the practice. I have been trained to make suggestions, give students choices, and never make comments about the “accuracy” of the asanas. I invite them to practice what feels right in their body. A study revealed that participation in trauma-informed gentle yoga leads to a significant reduction in symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

In this, you move from one asana to another, slowly and deliberately, making choices that work best for you. Notice what is happening in your bodies with each pose. Stay with the sensation. Be curious about the movements, but do not feel compelled to do a pose that feels emotionally or physically uncomfortable. The simplest of poses can produce profound results. Just feeling the feet on the floor can bring a sense of balance, stability, and safety.

Some of the poses that seem to keep my students connected to their practice and release trauma from the body are Child’s Pose, Modified Cat-Cow Pose, Seated Vertical Twist, Warrior I & II, and Triangle Pose.

Trauma is complicated. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another. So, go with your instincts. As has oft been said, “Trauma-informed yoga isn’t a cure, but it can provide healing to people dealing with trauma.”