What Is Trauma-Informed Yoga, and How Can It Help You?

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As many people become more aware of the effects trauma has on their lives, a critical next step is to seek out opportunities for effective healing. Certain applications, such as various forms of therapy, EMDR, brainspotting, and others help tremendously. Another option is trauma-informed yoga.

Yoga For Better Emotional, Mental, and Physical Health

In the past couple of decades, the medical community has shown increasing interest in how yoga helps calm the body, mind, and spirit. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes that “studies have suggested possible benefits of yoga for several aspects of wellness, including stress management, mental/emotional health, promoting healthy eating/activity habits, sleep, and balance.”

Here’s what some studies report:

  • A collective analysis of some small-sample research indicates “limited but promising findings were shown for yoga with CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] for anxiety and depression, and the integration of yoga within intensive treatment models for PTSD.”
  • There’s also an indication that yoga “is more effective in decreasing anxiety symptoms than aerobic exercise.”
  • Additional research sheds light on yoga’s impact on the “sympathetic area of the hypothalamus. This inhibition optimizes the body’s sympathetic responses to stressful stimuli and restores autonomic regulatory reflex mechanisms associated with stress.”

Various yoga postures combined with breathwork exercises reduce the reaction of the sympathetic nervous system—the “fight/flight/freeze” response—and activate the parasympathetic nervous system—the “rest and digest” response. As the body and mind work together to be more relaxed, the individual develops better resilience and a stronger sense of peace.

How Trauma-Informed Yoga Helps You Even More

When someone experiences trauma from a life event, they develop chemical and physiological defenses as a form of protection. Unfortunately, these defenses sometimes last for decades, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), if not properly identified and resolved. Researchers now understand that functional changes happen in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in the formation of emotional memories, especially fear-related memories. Over time, chronic stress and trauma can also decrease the number of neuronal connections in the brain.

Trauma-informed yoga—also known as trauma-sensitive yoga— expands on the benefits of yoga by helping people release some of their longstanding defense mechanisms. In clinical settings, this is known as a “body-first” integrated therapeutic approach that’s often a companion with other modalities, such as talk therapy, complicated grief therapy, or cognitive behavior therapy.

Yoga instructor Dave Emerson is credited with the term of trauma-sensitive yoga. As co-founder and co-director of the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, he developed a curriculum funded by the National Institutes of Health. His trauma-sensitive yoga programs appear in domestic violence and rape crisis centers, numerous veterans’ organizations, and survivors of terrorism aid services. In this video, Emerson and co-founder and co-director Jenn Turner explain why this work is important.

The intent of evidence-based trauma-informed yoga practice is to help heal the body and consequently, the person, from the impact of trauma. Instead of pushing trauma memories to the forefront, this form of yoga helps people understand how to:

  • Pay attention to cues in their bodies.
  • Tolerate different sensations.
  • Self-regulate and release triggered arousal, fear, and tension.

This isn’t the only type of trauma-informed yoga. Physician and PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk has also studied and promoted the practice, as well as notable instructors and psychologists Hala Khouri and Zabie Yamasaki.

What to Expect in a Trauma-Informed Yoga Session

While many yoga teachers are insightful and aware of their students’ individual needs, people interested specifically in trauma-sensitive yoga should seek out a certified and registered instructor. Usually, they’ll have the additional teaching credentials of:

You might also look for instructors trained in specialty programs such as Yoga for First Responders, Mind Body Solutions of Adaptive Yoga, and Yoga Warriors International.

A trauma-informed yoga session should always make each participant feel safe and secure.

  • For example, although instructors often adjust and assist students, a trauma-informed teacher doesn’t do this unless they ask permission first—or simply doesn’t do hands-on work at all.
  • The instructor might also stay at the front of the room instead of walking around and position each attendee in such a way as to give them plenty of space without anyone staring directly at them.
  • Cues such as “close your eyes” might be amended to “close your eyes, or soften your gaze, or simply look down.”
  • Certain poses that present aspects of vulnerability to a student could also be eliminated from a trauma-informed sequence in favor of those that provide more grounding and control.
  • Instruction for therapeutic breathing techniques, while always essential, might avoid held breaths within a cycle.

Most of all, instructors of this practice should always make it clear that anyone, at any time, can simply stay in a posture most comfortable to them or stop if they need to. Healing shows up differently for each person.

Healing from Trauma with Supportive Guidance

At Cottonwood Tucson, the board-certified professionals at our Arizona-based center draw inspiration from numerous holistic practices and evidence-based medical applications to design the most appropriate treatment and continuum of care plan for each individual. Learn more about what our interdisciplinary approach can do for you or someone you love.

Considering mental health treatment in Arizona? For more information about Cottonwood Tucson, call (800) 877-4520. We are ready to help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.

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