A wise man once told me that few of us make it through life unscathed. He is right, of course. Childhood neglect and/or abuse, accidents, sexual assault, life-threatening illness, natural disasters, and war are examples of traumatic events that can impact the course and quality of one’s life. Most people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. For many, the effects of the traumatic event (i.e. sleeplessness, nervousness, fearfulness, and intrusive thoughts) decrease with time. Others face ongoing and persistent difficulties. These difficulties include relationship challenges, flashbacks, and substance use and can be severe enough to impede upon one’s ability to function in their day-to-day life.
It seems to me that there are two key issues around the intersection of trauma and yoga.
First, how can we make yoga more appropriate for those with a history of trauma?
Given that a large proportion of the population has experienced trauma, there is a strong likelihood that yoga teachers will have traumatized students in their group classes. With this in mind, I believe that it is prudent for yoga teachers to give careful consideration to the potential impact of both what and how we teach. There are a number of organizations offering teacher trainings in trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga as well as a number of resources (books, articles, etc.) for those who are interested in further exploring this important area. Please see the resources section of this website or contact us for more details.
Second, what role (if any) can yoga play in healing trauma?
This is increasingly becoming a focus of yoga-related research and scholarship and although the growing body of evidence may add weight to the subject, yoga practitioners and teachers (and indeed body workers of all kinds) have long recognized that the effects of trauma are found in the body. According to pre-eminent trauma researcher and clinician, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, trauma is a disease of not being able to be in the present. Through the practice of yoga, we learn to cultivate stillness and to stay present with what arises. For a traumatized individual, learning to tolerate what arises (be it feelings, thoughts or physical sensations) can be the first step in forging a relationship with their body. For some, this means rediscovering a long-forgotten relationship. Others begin to see their bodies as a safe place for the very first time. Further, through our yoga practice we come to recognize that nothing is permanent. This realization – that nothing lasts forever – is key for someone experiencing intrusive thoughts and/or flashbacks. Finally, by moving our bodies and working with the breath, we learn to regulate our emotional and physiological states as a way to calm ourselves (something that traumatized people often find difficult, if not impossible).
Eager to learn more about the intersection of trauma and yoga, I travelled to the Kripalu Centre for Yoga and Health in early April to participate in a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TSY) teacher training. TSY is an evidence-based framework that takes peoples’ experiences of trauma into account. It was developed (and continues to be taught) at the Trauma Centre at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, MA. For an thorough overview of both the TSY framework and TSY teacher training, please see Alexis Marbach and Zabie Khorakiwala’s article, The Journey to Heal: Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Yoga published by the Breathe Network