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Trauma Sensitive Yoga

April 04, 202410 min read

There is a lot of talk about trauma sensitive yoga these days, and with good reason, as in my experience, it is so effective for understanding, and for getting to the other side of traumatic experiences that can play out in the body, mind and spirit, long after the event has passed. I have been implementing the principles of trauma sensitive yoga in my own home practice for a few years now and have noticed the effects both on and off the mat. Recently however, I was abruptly placed back in the presence of people who forced me to learn this process from experience, while witnessing the illness and passing of a family member. It was a reminder of just how far I had come on the journey of trauma recovery, but also how traumatic stress can return at any stage of your journey. This time however, I had the benefit of the space that I have created  around the intense stress responses in my body. So this is my attempt to piece together what trauma sensitive yoga actually is, what are the main principles, and how it can support you or someone you know who may be stuck in a loop of stress and ineffective action leading to more stress. Some parts of this might be triggering for some people, so if you are not feeling like it today, please do something else that feels kind, and come back to this on another day, or never if that is better for you. 

So firstly what is yoga? There are many definitions and understandings, but I like to think of yoga as union and connection with ourselves, with our world, our environment and our relationships. From a yoga philosophy perspective, we are inherently whole and inherently well, and avidya prevents us from having a sense of clarity around our innate wholeness. Avidya is described as an obstacle of the mind and it is directly translated as ignorance. It is when our true nature of innate wholeness becomes hidden or veiled, or coloured by past experiences. We see it threaded through every aspect of our lives - in our habitual patterns, our relationships, the things we hunger for or fear. Yoga lays out practices that enable us to see ourselves more clearly, and to move closer to that experience of union.

However, the experience of yoga and the experience of trauma are so disparate. Trauma is any experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope, leaving us feeling helpless or hopeless and severs this connection to our innate wholeness. Trauma sensitive yoga is designed to meet in the middle of these two experiences, and helps to remove the barriers that might block us from the experience of yoga,  and widens the window of our capacity to choose our responses in the present moment. In the book The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk describes yoga as a bottom up process that viscerally contradicts the helplessness, collapse or rage as a result of trauma, and that with practice we can feel more empowered and have more capacity to move through our days with openness and curiosity. Through trauma sensitive yoga, we can experience freedom from the habitual stress responses that can feel so disempowering and so disconnecting. This can show up in our day to day lives as things like emotional or stress eating, drinking to take the edge off, explosive outbursts or shutting down. 

There are 4 main Principles Of Trauma Sensitive Yoga, which aren’t necessarily linear, but rather weave together in response to our day to day experience. 

The first principle is Experiencing The Present Moment. Traumatic stress can sever our relationship to the present moment. Trauma sensitive yoga is  a  continuous  process  of  re-establishing  power  in  the  body  and  mind  of  the practitioner, rather than the teacher assuming the role of expert by directing others as  to  what  to  do. Of course there is some element of direction, especially if someone is new to yoga, however it is the relational and invitational language that enables the practitioner to develop interoception, or a  felt sense of being able to notice how the body feels in this moment from the inside, and the spaces where the edges of the body meet the environment.  This invitational tone can  encourage  an enriched  inner  enquiry  for  both the teacher and the practitioner,  and  enhances  the process  of personal empowerment, through beginning  to  befriend  the  self  and  the body  in  the  present  moment,  rather  than  acting on the direction of outer  teacher, (which  can  mimic  or  reinforce power dynamics  associated  with interpersonal trauma). When we feel sufficiently safe, we can begin to use interoception or body sensing as a gauge through which to make decisions on the yoga mat. Only through interoception, the curious gentle felt sense of the body can we begin to move into making choices and taking effective action. 

The second principle is Making Choices. It may seem obvious to know that we have choices about what to do in each moment, however this is such an important part of managing the stress responses during trauma recovery. When we are practising yoga using interoception, then we begin to remember with our bodies that we have choices, and that we can make choices that can influence the outcome of our experience. In a trauma sensitive yoga practice we are deliberately reversing the pattern of lack of control where we may not have had a choice. We are reintegrating our relationship with personal choice and personal control by gaining access to our window of tolerance, which is a space within which we can respond to the present moment from a grounded and balanced place, rather than reacting to traumatic stress loops that are still running in our nervous system. When we are outside this window our space to make choices is very small, and we can react with addictive patterns, however practising yoga regularly can widen our window of tolerance and create more space to choose our response. We are invited to experiment with curiosity on the yoga mat to simply create an awareness of choices, knowing that there is no right or wrong action that we can take in this process. We build interoceptive awareness by facing small challenges of choice with curiosity and kindness, which can re-establish a sense of agency as we explore and relearn how to feel safe in this body. This can reverse patterns of criticism, violence or shame that we may be carrying towards ourselves, or have experienced from others in the past. When these patterns are revealed we meet them with curiosity and kindness as they show us where the pathway to healing lies. 

The third principle is Taking Effective Action. All forms of trauma can lead us to feel that we have no capacity to take effective action in that moment. There is a strong impulse to take action that emerges in the body through the flight/flight responses, or the immobilisation responses of freeze/submission/fawn. So we have these big surges of responses in the body, and yet we don’t have the capacity in the moment that the trauma occurs to take an effective action on our own behalf or that of others. This is one of the things that can lead to the ongoing sense of traumatic stress being activated in the body, as this energy has nowhere to go.  During the trauma sensitive yoga practice we are gently unwinding our relationship with that sense of powerlessness, or taking action that was ineffective.

If we are living with traumatic stress in our bodies, our nervous system will be constantly trying to come back into our window of tolerance, but we can do that in really ineffective ways. Our attempts to soothe our inner experience can be ultimately damaging like addictive behaviours or through actions that are violent towards oneself or others like self harm, food restriction or bingeing. Whilst on our yoga mat we can start to play with the actions that feel empowering and spacious, versus the actions that feel restrictive or stressful, so that we can realise, not only do we have choice but we can actually start to move in the direction of the kind of empowered life and empowered embodiment that we would like to experience but don’t necessarily know how to feel in the present moment. It is a body based interoceptive approach, not a cognitive decision that we make and then implement. Taking effective action is also not always about ease and relaxation in the yoga practice. It can also be about playing with our capacities, especially if prone to immobilising or shut down responses. When we decide to stay, breath by breath, with something that is difficult with curiosity and kindness it can be incredibly healing. The key here though is choice and a sense of play, rather than being directed, or even encouraged to stay by a teacher. Practising this regularly helps us to take it off the mat more easily, and the best part is that we can’t do it wrong, as it is our own internal experimentation. We are simply making choices, taking action and noticing on repeat. 

The final principle of trauma sensitive yoga is Creating Rhythms. The rhythms of nature can be a wonderful guide to finding our own internal rhythm by rising and sleeping with the sun, eating with the seasons, or even just paying attention to how nature’s rhythms  always find a way to create beauty. These natural rhythms can deeply support a sense of belonging in our lives, and that we are part of something bigger. I was in the shower the other day after talking with a friend who was experiencing a lot of pain, and I thought what do we do with all this pain? And the answer that came was that we Put Attention In Nature. Notice how nature regenerates and heals time and time again through natural rhythms.

Also, the actual physiological practice of moving with the breath helps to establish rhythms within the body, helps us to re-establish a subtle relationship with somatic messaging. Then through agency and choice, we can start to feel like this body is home, someone is here listening in and taking care of the needs of this body.

Trauma sensitive yoga also uses deliberate practices that help us to know that things have a beginning, a middle and an end - this is important to get that sense of recalibration with rhythm because when we are saturated in traumatic stress, we can really start to feel that the stress itself doesn’t really end. So we can start to feel through the body based experience on the yoga mat, that this experience does begin, it has a middle, and now it is over, and in that way we can start to feel a relationship with another aspect of our life that is rhythmic, and that is on the yoga mat and that can help to feed into a sense of rhythm in other aspects of our lives. 

So in summary, I will leave you with a paragraph from one of my favourite books, Yoga and the Quest For the True Self by Stephen Cope:

As a result of sustained practice, the yogi begins to see that beneath what we usually think of as “the mind” - restless, craving and clinging mind, as well as the rational, logical, deliberative mind - there is an intuitive, awake intelligence that sees clearly into the nature of reality. Even momentary experiences of this subtle sheath of mind leave us irrevocably altered. Each time we experience this, one small root of avidya loses its grip. In an instant, we know that we are not who we thought we were. We are not separate from the whole field of mind and matter: we are not our minds, or our personalities, or our bodies. We are pure seeing or witnessing consciousness.

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What should I wear to yoga class?

You should wear comfortable, breathable clothing that allows you to move freely. Some people prefer to wear loose-fitting clothing, while others prefer to wear more fitted clothing. It is also a good idea to wear shoes or socks that have good traction, as you may be moving on a slippery surface.

Do I need to be flexible to do yoga?

No, you do not need to be flexible to do yoga. Yoga is a practice that is suitable for all people, regardless of their fitness level or flexibility. There are many different types of yoga, and you can find one that is right for you.

What are the benefits of yoga?

Yoga has many benefits for both the body and the mind. Yoga can help to improve your flexibility, strength, and balance. It can also help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Yoga can also help to improve your sleep quality and boost your mood.