In yoga and other “alternative” healing methods, it is widely known and accepted that trauma leaves its mark on both the mind and body. Various theories exist in modern psychology that attempt to explain the mind-body connection (or disconnection) resulting from a traumatic event. We know that yoga and mindful movement serve to increase strength and release physical tension, but there is also evidence that the practice has a deeper, more nuanced effect on relieving residual trauma. Here, we’ll explore a little bit of the relationship between trauma and the body, as well as how to use yoga for trauma release.
What is Trauma?
I like definitions. So, what is trauma? Well, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is:
"Any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place."
In this not-so-concise definition, the APA takes an explicitly mind-centered approach to explaining trauma. Yet instead of criticizing their lack of mind-body acknowledgement, perhaps defining trauma in this way offers even stronger support for yoga’s astonishing ability to heal and release such “mind-based” traumas through physical avenues of the body, breath and subtle energy channels.
Another word on trauma: it doesn’t have to be caused by an event so cataclysmic as “rape, war, industrial incidents” or “earthquakes.” Although major traumatic events like these are likely to impact a large proportion of the world’s people, trauma can also result from subtler experiences, like dealing with death, ending relationships, losing a job, moving to a new place, feeling persistent loneliness and -- one we’re all familiar with -- navigating a global pandemic.
Trauma and the Body
Most people recognize that yoga and other ancient healing practices go deeper than purely physical exercises. Perhaps you’ve heard a yoga teacher or two nonchalantly bequeath the benefits of pigeon pose for releasing the trauma we store in our hips. Is this simply yoga talk? A phrase tossed around to help yoga teachers sound more intelligent, in tune and experienced? (As a former yoga teacher, I’ll be the first to admit that I myself have repeated such phrases before really understanding the underlying mechanisms.)
Odds are, none of that matters. It doesn’t matter whether or not your teacher can explain to you why or how we store trauma in the body -- and can thus release the trauma through various stretching and strengthening poses. What matters is that yoga allows us to bypass logical thought to make real, lasting changes within both the body and entrenched roadways of neurons that keep us stuck in the effects of trauma. Yoga empowers us to tap into a deeper wisdom -- the natural wisdom built into our muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, fascia and other connective tissue. And, in case the innate body wisdom concept is still too abstract to grasp, this idea also happens to make sense logically: if the body can store trauma, then surely the body can release trauma.
Described in this Psychology Today article by Dr. Jennifer Sweeton, the main reason why trauma gets “stored,” or encoded, in the body is because the acute stress that causes trauma triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response. Dr. Sweeton explains that the amygdala (which activates fight or flight reactions in the body) “cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional danger.” Therefore, any experience or situation that elicits fragmented memories of the traumatic event will often also trigger similar fight or flight responses in the body.
Such responses are residual and affect the body at a subconscious level. This means that your body may be responding to stress signals without your awareness… hence the storing of trauma in the physical body. It is important to remember that this does not mean that your body is working against you. On the contrary, your body signals stress responses to protect you and keep you safe. The purpose of yoga and mindfulness in post-traumatic life is to help remind your body and mind that the traumatic experience is over and you are no longer in danger -- a process that requires gentle care, patience and nurturing from both the trauma survivor and trauma-informed yoga teachers.
How Yoga Releases Trauma
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to healing trauma. The variety of causes for trauma are as broad and nuanced as each individual’s healing process. However, various studies and research articles support the use of yoga for trauma release. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a widely known mental health issue often caused by an acute, severe traumatic experience. This randomized control trial looked at the effects of an eight-week kundalini yoga intervention for PTSD patients. With a daily practice of 15 minutes, participants with the yoga “prescription” fared better than a control group by reducing several PTSD symptoms, such as “insomnia, perceived stress, positive and negative affect, resilience, stress and anxiety.”
This kundalini yoga program followed a set of guidelines, outlined in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy’s Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research. This guide was created by folks at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. This style of trauma-sensitive yoga (TSY) synthesizes information from neuroscience, trauma theory and attachment theory. According to their research, yoga in accompaniment with other clinical therapies, works to increase self-regulation, reduce physical stress symptoms and facilitate attunement to one’s body.
Summarized from Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research, here are the five focal points of teaching a trauma-sensitive yoga class:
- Environment - Create an environment that emphasizes safety, minimizes interruptions, external noise and exposure to mirrors, and is already equipped with ample props and any other equipment required for class. Essentially, teachers should be extra conscious to have everything readily available to meet their students’ needs.
- Exercises - As with any yoga class, structure and sequencing can vary widely. Take account of who will be attending the class. Starting with grounded, stable postures (such as child’s pose) and allowing students to keep their eyes open are helpful for building trust and ensuring safety. Offering postures in a “cascade” fashion (starting with gentle variations, then working into something deeper while allowing students to stay in whatever pose variation they prefer) can also be incredibly helpful, especially with hip openers, backbends and other vulnerable postures. Allow students to gain control over their practice and choose which experience feels safest to them.
- Teacher Qualities - This is perhaps the biggest factor in facilitating a trauma-sensitive yoga experience. As a teacher, try to reduce distractions, minimize “pacing” or moving about the yoga room throughout class and, most importantly, don’t claim to be a “trauma expert.” Slower paced instruction is generally better, and keep a light, welcoming tone throughout the class.
- Assists - Physical assists are a tricky subject and are generally off-limits in a clinical setting. Instead, offer gentle, verbal assists. Remember, the focus is on nurturing a reconnection between the practitioner and their own body.
- Language - In TSY, “how” you say something is just as important as “what” you say. Instead of issuing demands or urging students to push harder, offer invitations to try something (called “invitatory language”). This patient kind of language is key in assisting trauma survivors develop a friendly relationship with their body.
Yoga Poses for Trauma Release To Try On Your Own
First things first, these yoga pose suggestions are merely suggestions. If you are experiencing or have experienced severe trauma, please seek the professional help you may need.
However, if you feel comfortable enough to try a few yoga poses for trauma release on your own, here are a few basic postures that can help bring some stability, groundedness and a sense of security to your body and mind:
- Child’s Pose
- Supported Bridge Pose (just like traditional bridge pose with either a block, bolster, pillow or blanket under the hips)
- Supported Viparita Karani (or “Legs-up-the-wall Pose”)
- Supported Twists
The spectrum of trauma and its effects on the body is altogether too broad to draft a definitive list of trauma-releasing yoga postures. What’s most important is feeling safe and gently cultivating connection with your body.
Sound Therapy for Trauma
The power of sound permeates to heal us on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Sound healing, or sound therapy, can be a highly effective form of treatment for trauma-related anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. Ample research exists -- like these articles on binaural beats and the intersection of music and technology in sound therapy -- to support the use of sounds and natural vibrations to promote healing and brainwave entrainment. Many of the Sonic Yogi recordings are geared toward trauma release and provide an excellent complement to a trauma-informed yoga practice. Please give them a listen here!
article by Taylor Goodin