Healing Trauma (Body, Mind & Spirit) Through the Practice of Trauma-Informed Yoga
By: Cameron Klass
Brief History of Yoga
Yoga can be traced back thousands of years to the earliest writings found in Pakistan and India, the Vedas and Upanishads. These writings serve as the sacred literature of Hinduism, and influence Buddhism and Jainism as well. Yoga is not defined as a religion, but is an inquiry into being, it is a flexible practice to support all paths of life. Yoga is a way of life that changes how you relate to your inner and outer world.
Sometime between the second and fourth century BCE, Patanjali wrote The Yoga Sutras as a collection of truths, further explaining and recording the yoga philosophy. He divided yoga into an eight fold path that includes Yamas (moral code), Niyamas (personal behavior), Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (breathing techniques), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (merging with the divine). Yoga is an integrated approach of daily practices to guide one towards self realization and universal truth. (Satchidananda, Sri Swami).
As yoga has spread from the east around the world and increasingly grown in popularity in the west over the past decades, there have been countless modifications and adaptations to yoga. A variety of styles such as fitness yoga, power yoga, heated yoga, goat yoga, etc. have emerged to accommodate the needs, levels, and intentions of all students. Despite the variations to the asanas, yoga is a practice to bring clarity and connection to the body and mind. It is an ancient system meant to address human suffering, and the intent must remain the same across all practices.
As a lifestyle, “yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation, and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life.” (Emerson, David, et al). Yoga serves as a teacher of the beauty of life and sacred blessings of being human.
Yoga philosophy gives an individual guidelines and tools for optimizing quality of life and obtaining nirvana. However, having a human experience here on earth simultaneously comes with a range of emotions and experiences. Some of these experiences can be painful, cause deep sadness, leave one overwhelmed, influence mental health, etc.
“Human beings are tender creatures. We are born with our hearts open. And sometimes our open hearts encounter experiences that shatter us. Sometimes we encounter experiences that so violate our sense of safety, order, predictability, and right, that we feel utterly overwhelmed—unable to integrate, and simply unable to go on as before. Unable to bear reality. We have come to call these shattering experiences trauma. None of us is immune to them.”
—(Emerson, David and Elizabeth Hooper).
Trauma has a wide scope of definitions, but is commonly described as a sudden or gradual occurrence that overwhelms an individuals resources. Trauma can be physical or psychological. Examples of trauma can include, but are not limited to, natural disasters, violence, rape, sexual assault, physical assault, emotional abuse, domestic violence, war, torture, child abuse, major accidents or illness… (Telles, Shirley, et al). A traumatic event leaves the individual feeling disconnected from his/her own body and an inability to be present in the current moment (Emerson, David, and Elizabeth Hooper.)
In a research study conducted on the United States general population, it was concluded that at least half all the adults have experienced at least one major trauma (Telles, Shirley, et al). Trauma exposure is pervasive in our society, and takes its effects on the entire human organism (body, mind and spirit). Experiencing a breach of trust or a broken promise, having someone forsake their responsibilities, or being treated less than human—undergoing a traumatic event—often influences your perception on life. An individuals reality is created by perception, which is shaped by past experiences.
The way important people in your life speak and treat you influence your attitudes about yourself. Attitudes in turn shape ideas of self-concept (who you think you are). This serves the foundation for the thoughts and inner voices within the mind. Traumatic events whether dramatic or over-time can influence your attitudes and self-concept, even beyond your developmental years. (NurrieStearns, Mary, and Rick NurrieStearns).
The moment one experiences trauma, the body makes a decision to protect itself. Trauma creates a physical and emotional imprint on the body, and if left unresolved, can lead to illness and disease on a physical, mental and energetic level. Research has found that trauma can lead to / associate with further mental health issues such as substance abuse, anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and more (Cook-Cottone, Catherine, et al.).
Leaving a trauma unhealed will allow occurrences of normal daily life to trigger the past experience and activate the body and mind to replay the painful story over and over again, as if you were reliving the experience. Alarm systems in the body are turned on during trauma and then never quite turned off; the brain is constantly scanning for potential threats. The pain/initial trauma may happen once, but the suffering can last a lifetime; the suffering is what the individual clings to. The suffering from the trauma can linger in the body and mind. It is possible that the symptoms lay dormant, accumulating over time, and then show up without warning (Yamasaki, Zabie.).
Trauma Effects on Body and Brain
When an individual goes through a trauma (whether sudden or gradual) the physical body and brain respond in a number of significant ways to the threat of danger.
The body’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and Endocrine System are instantaneously activated. The ANS has been divided into two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). The SNS is responsible for the body’s fight/flight response. During a traumatic event, the SNS hyper-arousal activates the Amygdala (fear center of the brain) and deactivates the Prefrontal Cortex (control center of the brain), inhibiting the individual to respond rationally or thoughtfully, only from a place of fear and reactivity (Justice, Lauren, et al.).
Stress hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline are released from the endocrine system through the body, boosting a person’s heart rate, elevating blood supply and boosting energy. If the individual is unable to self-regulate and return to a balanced internal state after the event, a ‘freeze’ response is created in the PSNS. When energy becomes frozen in the body and accumulates, symptoms increase and one turns to coping mechanisms (healthy or unhealthy) for relief. The physical, mental and energetic functions of the body often become disrupted and trapped in a SNS reaction to stimulus.
During trauma there is a shift or change in the brain. The Insula can be damaged (the area of the brain that registers what is happening with the body). “Insula damage translates as the inability to experience joy, love, happiness, and to experience the very sensations of what our bodies are physically doing,” explains Alexis Marbach and Zabie Yamasaki in The Journey to Heal: Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Yoga. (Marbach, Alexis, and Zabie Yamasaki.).
Additionally, trauma results in low Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV measures the integrity of the brain’s arousal systems located in the brain stem. Having a healthy HRV, rhythmic inhales and exhales, allows an individual to have a degree of control over emotions and impulses. On the contrary, a low HRV, which is commonly found in trauma survivors, puts one more at risk for a variety of illnesses (Emerson, David, and Elizabeth Hooper).
Trauma has an immediate impact on how your body and brain function, and there is a negative neurological cascade that occurs as the body stays in that ‘survival’ state. Explained in the journal Trauma-Informed Yoga: An embodied, Cognitive-Relational Framework, “Living in survival mode can overwhelm the system with a high allostatic load (i.e. wear and tear on the body associated with managing chronic stress), increasing risk for physical and psychological illness and chronic dysregulation of the nervous system. Specifically, a persistent survival orientation compromises three key self-regulating centers in the brain (a) reward/ motivation system, (b) distress tolerance system, and (c) executive system involved in emotion and information processing.” (Cook-Cottone, Catherine, et al.).
After experienced trauma, the brain and body undergo a series of reactions that are often outside one’s immediate control. A certain level of closing and tightening happens as a means for the individual to protect his/her self. However, yoga, and specifically a designed approach of Trauma-Informed Yoga (TIY), can help aid in a person’s recovery back to a relaxed internal state, easing tension and stress. TIY has been proven to aid in healing on a physical, mental and emotional level by a variety of techniques used to invoke a sense of safety, inner peace, connection, and self-regulation.
Trauma Informed Yoga—What is it?
Yoga for trauma is broken down into two categories: Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TSY) and Trauma-Informed Yoga (TIY). TSY is where a teacher is specifically teaching yoga to people who have experienced trauma. There is a partnership with doctors, therapists, etc. to aid in the treatment plan of the individual. TIY is an approach where the yoga teacher has knowledge and a basic understanding of the symptoms of trauma and how to facilitate a safe and supportive class experience to individuals that have been through trauma (Cook-Cottone, Catherine, et al.).
Trauma Informed Yoga is an adaptation of yoga that centers awareness around stimulating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). It is a practice that focuses not on getting a student to do something or push to their limits, but about inviting them to try something. This style of yoga is centered around creating a safe internal and external environment for individuals that have experienced trauma.
TIY uses embodied practice to help relieve symptoms of hyper-arousal and dissociation that occur due to trauma. It uses techniques for present moment awareness to relieve symptoms of avoidance and re-experiencing due to triggers. Intentional and empowered thinking is emphasized in TIY to create more positive alterations in cognition of the individual. Another essential element of TIY is yoga teacher presence and responsiveness, which helps relieve the symptoms of relational disconnection (Cook-Cottone, Catherine, et al.).
The core components that outline Trauma Informed Yoga are creating a safe space, connecting back to the body, emphasizing an individual’s agency, revitalizing self-regulation, and cultivating compassion. Similar to traditional yoga, an individual is given techniques to learn how to respond rather than react. Integrating tools from TIY helps a trauma survivor transform physically, mentally/emotionally and spiritually.
Trauma Informed Yoga uses a “bottom-up approach”— working with somatic experience and the body as an entryway to releasing trauma and stored energy. Asanas, or the physical postures, are practiced to rebuild body connection, awareness and strength, and as a result build self esteem and trust. Loving self massage is also a physical practice that relieves tension in the muscles and body— stimulating energy meridians relieving trauma on a cellular level.
The asanas practiced and the method in which a teacher facilitates the class are critical components to distinguishing TIY. Assistance and adjustments are not recommended because it may trigger a student to feel judged or that they are doing something wrong. The language in which a teacher uses, or the cuing, plays a large role in making the student feel safe. TIY emphasizes invitational language to empower the individual.
“A few key words to utilize include: explore, experiment, and investigate.
Other effective cues include:
“This is an opportunity to practice meeting your body as it is today.”
“This form is not better than the other, just another option for you to experiment with.”
“As you’re ready, I invite you to come into child’s pose.”
“If you would like, allow your breath to flow here.”
“You can always modify to suit your experience.””
(Marbach, Alexis, and Zabie Yamasaki.)
Some other useful phrases include, “when you are ready”, “if you life”, “as you like” (Emerson, David, et al.). Language used in TIY is inviting and appropriate, not stern or pushing. The aim of the asana practice is to create a safe space for the individual to explore their body, not do exactly what the teacher suggests. Students are reminded that they are in control of their practice, that everything is optional. There is an emphasis on the fact that there is no need to try to impress the teacher or others students in the class, an individual should take it only to the limits as they feel appropriate, and release a posture at any time. It should also be noted that TIY puts a focus on calling the English asana name before the Sanskrit name, to make the class more inviting to people of all levels.
Postures in an TIY class should not invoke vulnerability or stress to the student. There are modifications to asanas to make them accessible to all levels of practitioners and in a non-triggering manor. Using postures such as supported back bends or heart openers helps to relax the mind. Balancing postures bring awareness to the present moment and invoke a sense of stability and inner balance. Warrior asanas invoke a sense of confidence, they reinvigorate the body and bring focus to movement and breath. Seated restorative twists helps to release stress and tension (Yamasaki, Zabie).
A TIY teacher should be positive, welcoming, authentic, approachable, invite feedback, dress appropriately, arrive before class, stay after class, and consider the pace of instructions to create a safe, comfortable and accessible experience for the students (Emerson, David, et al.). There should be consistency within the class structure. Teachers are encouraged to have a certain level of self-care practice to be able to extend empathy and compassion to others, and prevent burn-out.
When a safe and trusting environment is created the individual is able to feel comfortable moving the body in new ways which is a step in healing, releasing tension, and activating the PSNS. As the body opens physically, the mind is simultaneously transforming and opening.
Unfortunately, still in our modern day, there are cultural barriers and stigmas around seeking mental health services— TIY serves as an alternative or assisting pathway to healing. Traumatic memories can make it difficult to connect to oneself, others, and the present moment. When one experiences a traumatic event, the mind often clings to the pain and experience, replaying it over and over. The experience is activated by triggers, neutral events in ordinary life that spark the remembrance and feelings of past trauma. This overwhelms and creates a response on a physical, mental and spiritual level. Trauma Informed Yoga uses meditation and pranayama as tools to help redirect the energy of the mind. These practices help establish healthy coping mechanisms for living with the traumatic memories. There are many styles of meditation to cultivate a range of mental skills; the aim of these practices is to bring inner peace, understanding and acceptance in circumstances off the mat, in everyday life.
TIY suggests using guided meditations, and as a student’s practice advances, adjusting for more time of silence and self-reflection. Meditation is beneficial for activating the PSNS, reducing anxiety, building self-regulation tools, increasing attention, improving brain functioning, and boosting one’s mood and sense of connection. With continuous practice, meditation can positively alter the nervous system, respiratory system and endocrine system.
Pranayama, or breathing techniques, can also be useful when coping with trauma. The breath serves as a bridge between mind and body, is linked with the nervous system and endocrine system, reduces hyper-arousal and states of stress, and can be used as an anchor into the present moment. Pranayama is an essential element of yoga and Trauma Informed Yoga, however, there are slight adaptations to making the practice most accessible and healing for someone who has experienced trauma. There is encouragement in TIY to breathe always in a way that is comfortable while being aware to what’s happening in the body. A student can be directed to a more calm state by the language used and being reminded of the power they have over their practice. Breath is essential to yoga and many techniques are practiced to invoke a certain body response. In TIY, breath retention, pranayama exercises that are more invigorating activating the SNS, and counting is not recommended. Rather cues to notice the breath or natural breathing rhythms and observational cues to assess and adjust freely is advised.
“Trauma is like a splinter: It is the body’s response to the foreign object that becomes the problem,
more than the object itself.” —Bessel van Der Kolk
Emotional pain, such as traumatic events, are stored in the body after exposure. This process of ‘storing’ occurs as a natural protective mechanism: we remember the dangerous or threatening situation to better avoid it in the future (Emerson, David, and Elizabeth Hooper.). However, as the body holds onto these painful experiences on a cellular (physical) and emotional level, distress, discomfort, and disease are created in the body. Prana, chi or ‘life force energy’, is unable to naturally flow and the blockages are what manifest into physical symptoms.
The Vedas explain seven main chakra points, or energy centers, in the body. Each of the chakras is associated with different characteristics. The chakra system can help as a healing tool in relieving trauma from the entire human organism. Different types of trauma are associated with different chakras. Bringing awareness to where one is blocked on an emotional level will help move energy in that area and disperse stagnant energy. Opening the chakras will also help one manage symptoms from trauma as it naturally encourages one back to a harmonious state of being where energy flows naturally.
Touching on the chakra system in association specifically with trauma is described below, outlined by Jennifer Pipolo in her presentation, Trauma: A Spiritual Approach. (Pipolo, Jennifer.):
Muladhara, the Root Chakra, is associated with traumatic births, abandonment, neglect, nutritional difficulties, physical violence, accidents, surgeries, and hereditary trauma.
Swadhisthana, the Sacral Chakra, is connected with tactile sensory deprivation, enmeshment, emotional environment, sexual abuse, rape, and abortion.
Manipura, the Solar Plexus Chakra, is linked to authority, punishment, the parental child, hyper stimulation and sensory deprivation, shame, and broken will.
Anahata, the Heart Chakra, is associate with violence, loss of love, interiorized relations, distorted concepts about love, and rejection.
Vishuddha, the Throat Chakra, is connected to fear, sense of guilt and shame, secrets, lies and contradictory messages, shouting and yelling, authoritarianism, and neglect.
Ajna, the Third Eye Chakra, is reflective of shame.
Sahasrara, the Crown Chakra, is linked to denial of information and invalidation of convictions.
TIY, and yoga in general, focuses attention to the chakra system and moving blockages out of the emotional body. Specific asanas and meditations can assist the opening of different centers. Mantras are affiliated with each specific chakra and this can serve as another tool to relieve trauma.
Trauma effects an individual on all levels of his/her being: physically, physiologically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Thus, healing needs to happen on all levels as well. Taking an integrated approach to relieving trauma will be the most effective way for long-term healing and overall happiness.
Trauma Informed Yoga has been adapted from a traditional style of yoga to specifically address and assist in healing trauma and creating a safe space for physical, mental and emotional restoration. TIY is an embodied and holistic healing method that supports the individuals journey of self-discovery and transformation. Through TIY, one can heal the entire organism. New neural pathways are being strengthened on the mat, and with practice, the awareness, connection, compassion and trust cultivated from Trauma Informed Yoga will extend into everyday life.
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