Updated: Dec 2, 2021
This approach is the teaching of yoga to help re-connect our bodies from experiences of shock trauma, PTSD, complex PTSD and developmental trauma. It is based on the knowledge of how to provide a safe and supportive class for individuals who have had experiences of chronic stress, trauma, and/or oppression. Trauma-informed yoga (TIY) is, in easy words, "yoga neuroscience-and-cultural-sensitive-informed". The interest in making yoga and meditation more accessible is increasing, as well as the evidence and research for better practices. A quick search in google scholar shows thousand of studies about "yoga + trauma". Altho, it could be a common belief that these practices are always beneficial, developing the frameworks with an empirical base is needed when it is about vulnerable individuals. I personally use TIY always, as an adjunctive intervention in mental health, as well as a general guidelines in all my classes, to promote safety and self-regulation. Sensorial Yoga is a practice trauma-informed oriented, I have designed for regular practitioners.
Stress and Yoga
Stress happens in the body, it is a physiological phenomenon in seeking survival. We naturally respond in a somatic way to adversities and daily life challenges. When we intentionally use movement and breathing techniques we are changing our internal chemistry (a very common example is when one gets dizzy breathing different than normally, hyperventilation). Yoga affects directly the state of our body and mind because it affects our nervous system. Yoga can activate or engage either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system, both parts of the autonomic nervous system. To make a yoga practice safe, we must acknowledge how it could be a possible trigger and how it interferes with self-regulation capacities. Yoga, and other somatic techniques, works in two directions simultaneously : bottom-up and Top-down. Bottom-up from the body to brain (or from brain stem to the prefrontal cortex), doing movement, breathing, sensory awareness, and Top-down, from the thinking mind to the body, with guided attention, guided meditation, guided visualisation, using words. These are ways in which our nervous system processes responses and changes. This is why in yoga safety and language matters. In both cases, we are changing our body-mind state by influencing and affecting our brain and autonomic nervous system, ANS. The ANS works by unfolding quick hormonal reactions through the whole body through blood stream. Stress and trauma related symptoms compromise the ANS's capacities to self regulate. Yoga has been researched to improve heart rate variability, which is a measurable marker of well-balanced functioning ANS. This balance is equivalent to a healthy window of tolerance, responsiveness, mood, emotional modulation, and, broadly, to long-term health. Also, when coping with traumatic stress, the circuits inside the brain are compromised, between the amygdala (a structure in charge of detect danger or threat from sensory inputs), our emotional brain (also linked to memory), and our medial prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain responsible for executive functions, thinking rationally and planning).
Beyond the physiology
TIY might help us distinguish when the yoga practice we are providing is either beneficial or potentially harmful in terms of nervous system responses and regulation. It will also provide us resources to understand the interconnected and social nature of trauma: the power dynamics. This is important considering the prevalence of chronic stress, anxiety, and adverse experiences, and how they are intimately related to the cultural constructed dynamics we embody.
As a summary, in my own words, I will explain TIY aspects of knowledge and good practices.
trauma as a subjective imprint in the body and brain and its individual and relational nuances.
the human nervous system functions and structures, and how they are impacted by stress and trauma.
the potential triggering effect of practices related to yoga: forms (yoga postures), stillness meditation, etc.
the role of the sensory-motor systems in developing stress coping mechanisms, in emotional regulation, and in the process of learning.
the role of the body and brain in terms of self-regulation.
the importance of relationships and co-regulation.
awareness of power dynamics in the teaching setting, considering intersectionality in our space of practice and teaching.
Questioning the power dynamics, ableist practices, accessibility in the context of teaching.
To promote an experience of relational attunement, choice-making, and taking action (volition)
To create a safe practice that supports resilience, moving between activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system (eustress).
To safely enhance interoception, which is the perception of internal sensations.
To provide a safe embodied practice that promotes empowerment through agency and ownership.
To be aware of the use of language, touch cues, and ritualistic practices.
To be aware of our scope of practice.
The ideas exposed in post were informed and inspired by the following literature and articles:
- David Emerson, Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: bringing the body into treatment. W. W. Norton, 2015.
- David Emerson, Elizabeth Hopper, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga. NAB, 2011.
- Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York, 2014.
- L. Justice, C. Brems, K. Ehlers; Bridging Body and Mind: Considerations for Trauma-Informed Yoga. International Journal of Yoga Therapy- No. 28 (2018)
- C. Cook-Cottone, M. LaVigne, W. Guyker, L. Travers, E. Lemish and P. Elenson; Trauma-Informed Yoga: An Embodied, cognitive-relational Framework. International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine. Volume 9 (2017).