What is trauma-informed yoga?

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,” Bessel van der Kolk explains, “is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”

Traumatic events involve “inescapable shock”: threats to physical survival and/or psycho-emotional integrity experienced in circumstances that prevent safe escape. Traumatic events may be one-time occurrences, such as a car crash, or part of an ongoing pattern, such as chronic domestic violence.

Though single-event trauma and complex, developmental trauma differ, both evoke the nervous system response that involves the body’s instinctual fight/flight/freeze pattern, which is hardwired into the human nervous system to help protect us from harm. Normally, this provides the energy needed to propel us to safety. Trauma occurs when we are unable to take effective action to stay safe, and remain trapped in a physically threatening and/or psychologically overwhelming situation.

What types of trauma would benefit from this form of yoga?

If we do not consequently have the opportunity to process and release the resultant sense of shock experienced throughout the body-mind system, we may remain stuck in a state of severe physiological and psycho-emotional disequilibrium. Often this manifests as hyper- or hypo-arousal.

To be hyper-aroused is to remain in a hyper-vigilant state of “high alert” regardless of actual circumstance, acutely anxious and obsessively scanning the environment for potential threats. Conversely hypo-arousal is a state of being “shut down,” feeling lethargic, apathetic, depressed, disassociated, or otherwise numbly disconnected from life.

Either way, “traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies. The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort,” says van der Kolk. This chronic sense of dis-ease commonly produces or exacerbates additional problems, such as substance abuse, disruptive relationships, and excessive or even dangerous over-reactions to otherwise minor events. Over the long term, chronic stress and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may cause other serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

In addition to finding ways to discharge incomplete impulses related to nervous system activation, an important part of trauma recovery is to support survivors in recognizing and responding healthfully to their current physiological/psychological state. When taught and learned from a trauma-informed perspective, yoga can be a vitally helpful resource on each of these fronts.

Yoga can have both stimulating and soothing effects. This is true on both the physical and psycho-emotional levels. Yoga teachers can encourage balance in the nervous system through classes that incorporate both stimulating and sitting postures, and by encouraging students to notice when they feel safe, soothed, and secure. Part of the skill of a trauma-informed teacher is to emphasize present-state awareness and offer opportunities for students to choose what brings them balance. Over time, students can build coping skills and make choices that support their transition from hyper- or hypo-arousal to a balanced state.

Is specific training needed to facilitate trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga classes?

There is a difference between leading trauma-sensitive classes and trauma-informed. There are basic and impactful steps that yoga instructors can take to create safe, non-judgmental and trauma-informed spaces, for those who have experienced trauma. This article can explain how to do that. For instructors who are wanting to lead specific trauma-sensitive classes, then specialized training, mentorship and class environments are needed.

How can I find a trauma-informed yoga class in my area?

A simple Google search of “trauma informed yoga” may lead you to some options. Before attending a class, there are a handful of questions you can ask the studio about their philosophy and instructors:

  1. What type of trauma-informed yoga training do the instructors have?

  2. What style of yoga is taught in trauma-informed yoga?

  3. Are physical assists provided in class? If yes, is there a way to opt-out of receiving touch?

  4. Are instructors open to receiving feedback after class?

  5. Are instructors trained to support students if they are triggered during class?