At least half of all people within the U.S. report experiencing at least one trauma in their lifetimes. The psychological effects of trauma are becoming more well-known, but what many people don’t realize is that it can have a major impact on the body.
That’s why more clinicians are using body-based approaches, like yoga, to treat trauma survivors.
Trauma and the Body
Research shows that when we experience or witness trauma, our body activates a fight, flight, and/or freeze response. For example, if you are walking down the street and someone comes towards you to attack you, your brain and body will instinctually react by either fighting back, attempting to flee the situation, or freezing in place. Our animal-like instincts react automatically, assessing the situation and responding in the way it thinks will most help us survive.
Trauma expert Peter Levine discusses how after a traumatic encounter, most animals quite literally “shake” this stress-based response out of their systems. They are then able to move forward without trauma symptoms. But for humans, sometimes we aren’t able to fight back or flee in a traumatic situation. This may lead to the stress of the situation building up in our bodies.
In, “In An Unspoken Voice”, Gabor Maté notes that when this occurs, the body becomes frozen in this instinctual survival response. We become “stuck” in fight, flight, or freeze, and feel their effects in situations with mild, non-threatening stressors. Think of how veterans who return from war often have strong reactions to cars backfiring; this is what being frozen looks like.
This response can affect overall wellbeing cause feelings like fear, anger, and hopelessness.
Fortunately, it’s wholly possible for us as humans to help our brains and bodies to know they are no longer under threat, and decrease the symptoms associated with trauma.
When working with traumatic memories, it is important to note that studies have found that while some information related to trauma can be stored in our conscious, logical brains, memories that involve trauma typically reside within our implicit memory, which cannot be consciously recalled. This is why brain and body-based approaches are necessary to heal trauma. One such approach is trauma-informed yoga.
Trauma-informed yoga is a gentle, meditative practice that creates a safe space for individuals to cultivate the connection between their minds, bodies, and spirits. It reflects the ways in which trauma affects the body and enables individuals to explore the relationship between trauma and prana – an individual’s vital energy or life force – safely.
How Does Yoga Help?
Based on research, trauma-informed yoga combines the mind and body impact of trauma with spiritual health and consciousness. It is a way to safely connect with your body, regaining any control, love, or acceptance that may have been threatened during a traumatic experience.
The practice of trauma-informed yoga can free the system from this ongoing stress-response in various ways. By cultivating mindful awareness of the connection between our body, mind, and breath through yoga, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system. This process reduces the ongoing stress response induced by trauma. Two yogic practices have been shown to create this response includes breathing techniques (pranayama) and body postures (asana).
Trauma-informed yoga expands on a westernized understanding of trauma by addressing its’ physiological, psychological, and spiritual effects. From this perspective, trauma not only affects our physical and mental health but our spiritual well-being. According to yogic perspectives, every human possesses a spiritual, bioenergetic system of seven chakras. Scientifically, the chakra system follows the same path as the vagus nerve, which connects to major glands in our bodies to control how we respond to stress. This system begins at the base of our spine, ascends upwards to the crown of the head, and includes our root, sacral, solar plexus, heart, throat, brow, and crown chakras which all correspond to major bodily organs.
When we experience trauma, our chakra(s) can become uniquely unbalanced due to stress. This can lead to various physical and emotional symptoms that impact one’s functioning, sometimes similar to those discussed earlier within this article. Expanding our understanding of how trauma impacts our spiritual selves through the chakra system creates space for both individuals and healing professionals to explore and address these concerns.
Things to Consider
Before practicing the techniques outlined below, please consult with your doctor and remember to honor your body, mind, and spirit where it is at this moment. If an exercise does not feel right for you or brings about any form of pain, discontinue and seek out appropriate support.
If you would like to deepen the impact of these techniques, feel free to take a moment after each practice to shift your awareness to your body. Spending some time here to act as a curious, compassionate observer of any physiological sensations, emotions, cognitions, or impulses that may have entered your awareness. Writing down your experience can help with the reflection and digestion process.
Pranayama is defined as the movement of an individual’s energy, prana, through breath. It helps to regulate our breathing and disperse oxygen more steadily and evenly throughout our bodies.
Whenever we experience a stressor, our bodies tend to hold or quicken our breath. This response reduces oxygen in the body and triggers the sympathetic nervous system, increasing our distress.
When we cultivate our ability to regulate our breathing, we are able to bring our system back into balance after trauma. Moreover, by regulating our oxygen intake through our body, we are able to oxygenate and heal areas within our body that are in pain.
By intentionally breathing and directing oxygen to these areas through pranayama, we can not only relax but decrease the pain and tension we feel and hold in our bodies.
Ujayi (Ocean) Breath
One pranayama technique to steady the breath and create a sense of calm is Ujayi, or “ocean breath.” To practice Ujayi, begin breathing with the mouth open as if you are trying to fog up a mirror. Now, use the same breathing mechanism with the mouth closed. Gently constrict the throat muscles, and inhale and exhale with the same audible breath through the nose. Continue to breathe through this technique for 30 seconds. After allowing the breath to return to normal, you may want to repeat this for another one or two rounds.
Practicing ocean breath helps us strengthen our throat muscles and vocal cords. This technique cultivates a deeper inner awareness and promotes a meditative state.
Asana is defined literally as “a seat.” It refers to any pose that uses specific positioning and alignment of the body to find a sense of strength (shtira) and ease (sukha) within the physical, psychological, and spiritual self. By practicing asanas, we can bring awareness of and connection to specific places in the body.
This is important because trauma can often lead us to feel disconnected from our bodies. During and after a traumatic event, this feeling of disconnection, also known as dissociation, serves a protective function by allowing distance from the full impact of what’s happening. However, over time this response can negatively affect our functioning.
When we give ourselves the space and time to safely engage in positioning our bodies in certain asansas, we can begin to rebuild and strengthen the connection between mind, body, and breath. By engaging in asanas that free up the spaces in our body affected by trauma-induced stress, we invite space and movement back into these areas. Moreover, by incorporating our breath into the practice of asanas, we can intentionally send breath to them.
This can increase the opportunity for stuck energy to shift, flow, and eventually dissipate.
Tadasana (Mountain) Pose
An asana that is pivotal throughout every individual’s yoga practice is tadasana, or mountain pose. Tadasana helps cultivate awareness of the body in connection with the earth beneath you. The pose guides the body into a deeper alignment to allow prana to flow more freely.
To practice mountain pose, begin by standing up tall, bringing your feet hip-width apart. Turn the outer edges of your feet parallel to one another, allowing your toes to turn slightly inward. Shift awareness to your feet, spread your toes wide, and root down through the four corners of the feet.
Ascending upwards, soften the knees and engage the thighs to lift the knee caps. Gently allow the tailbone to descend towards the floor to create space in the lower back. Bringing your awareness to your pelvis, engage the pelvic floor to guide energy upwards. Allow your heart to open and lift, while gently drawing the base of your ribs down and guiding your shoulders to draw down towards the earth.
Finally, bring your neck in line with the rest of your spine. Imagine making a gentle “J” motion with your chin. Allow the crown of the head to reach towards the sky, as if a string of light guides it upwards.
Through the practice of tadasana, we offer ourselves the chance to reconnect with the subtleties of our physical selves. We strengthen our sensation of feeling grounded and supported by the earth beneath us. Mountain pose opens and expands our bodies, starting at our feet, making our way up through our midline to create a sense of balance, and projecting outward from the tops of our heads. This helps to create space for breath to flow more freely through our body, and release stuck energy.
Healing with Trauma-Informed Yoga
Trauma has a widespread impact on the brains, bodies, and spirits of us as human beings. However, there is so much hope in our ability to heal ourselves through techniques like trauma-informed yoga. When you feel you are ready to try this practice, there are some important factors we encourage you to consider.
First, consider how you will feel most supported in this unique process of healing. Working through physical manifestations of trauma may bring about an array of physical, psychological, and spiritual changes. This may feel unsettling, especially at first. Having a trained healing professional to turn to may help you feel more secure and supported in this process. Next, consider whether you want to practice yoga in a private setting or a group setting. You can also decide if you’d prefer to work with a yoga teacher or a therapist trained in trauma-informed yoga. The next step is to identify a trained and registered trauma-informed yoga teacher whom you feel comfortable with.
Finding a Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructor
Some ways you can assess whether or not an individual is a trauma-informed yoga teacher are that they:
- Use language that allows you to have complete autonomy over your movements
- Check in with you at the beginning of every session to gauge where your psychological, physical, and spiritual needs are
- Encourage you to listen to the body and respect where it’s boundaries lie
- Consistently ask permission for or refrain fully from hands-on assists
- Offer modifications and props to accommodate all levels of individuals
- Identify and incorporate the needs and requests of individuals into every session
- Offer space for individuals to reflect more inwardly on the holistic impact of the yoga practice
- Provide clear, succinct directions for entering into and moving out of various pranayama and asana exercises
- Allow adequate time at the ending the practice for your system to integrate the impact of the practice
- Hold time at the end of each class for questions, comments, and reflections
You have the power to decide what person, setting, and path fits with how you want to utilize trauma-informed yoga.
If you are interested in incorporating trauma-informed yoga in your life, please feel free to visit our website to view our clinicians trained in this practice.
Arielle specializes in supporting adolescents and adults coping with the effects of complex trauma, sexual violence, complicated grief and bereavement, anxiety, and depression. She honors the diversity and strength of people’s individual identities and incorporates mindfulness, yoga, and Brainspotting into a psychodynamic approach.