Yoga to Heal Trauma: Soothing Poses Calm the Nervous SystemAug 31, 2021 ● By Marlaina Donato
Getting on the yoga mat can be a powerful stress-buster that lowers blood pressure and excessive cortisol, but yoga can offer an added boon for those living with the lasting effects of traumatic events. Trauma-informed yoga (also called trauma-sensitive yoga) is a promising therapeutic branch of the yogic system designed to quell the body’s programmed “fight-or-flight” responses.
Founded on yoga, psychology and neurobiology principles, the approach is in harmony with the ancient yogic concept of samskaras, or memories imprinted on our cellular consciousness. People from many walks of life can benefit from trauma-sensitive yoga including bullied teens, women rebounding from abuse and anyone impacted by pandemic turmoil. Research published in the journal Military Medicine in 2018 reports that U.S. veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that participated in a one-hour vinyasa-style yoga session for six weeks showed significantly lowered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, as well as less insomnia, depression and anxiety.
Yoga performed with trauma sensitivity can pick up where talk therapy leaves off, targeting the amygdala, the danger detector in the brain, and the vagus nerve that runs from the brain to the abdomen, which plays a vital role in processing trauma. “Somatic processing and treatment methodologies like yoga are now being used to help repair and rebuild distressed nervous systems, which in turn helps the brain integrate and ‘file’ distressing memories,” says Beth Shaw, founder of YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide, the largest yoga teacher training school in North America, and the author of Healing Trauma with Yoga: Go From Surviving to Thriving with Mind-Body Techniques. The Fort Lauderdale-based yoga therapist and entrepreneur highlights the body’s role in trauma and stress. “The brain rewires itself around the traumatic event and memories stored in the tissues throughout the body. Yoga can help to free those memories, alleviating troubling emotions and thought patterns, as well as chronic somatic tension and hypervigilance.” Shaw draws upon new psychological and neurological discoveries, including polyvagal theory, that help explain the full impact of trauma and most importantly, how and why yoga helps to lessen these impacts.
Trauma-informed yoga keeps the nervous system in mind, excluding poses and breathing techniques that might provoke a sense of vulnerability or overstimulation. Trained teachers adhere to non-touch assistance methods and often opt for well-lit studios to avoid a possible triggering atmosphere.
A trauma-informed yoga teacher knows the inner workings of the nervous system,” explains Mandy Eubanks, a trauma-trained yoga educator and certified yoga instructor in Tulsa. “We have respect for the variety of responses that our clients have to yoga, meditation and breathwork practices. For example, we understand deep breathing will be calming to one person and agitating to another. We normalize clients’ responses and work with them to find an effective technique for that individual.” Teachers with specialized training and access to props can also support people on a yoga journey that are limited physically. Eubanks emphasizes, “Yoga truly is for everyone and every body.”
The Power of Choice and Individuality
Lisa Danylchuk, the Oakland-based author of Yoga for Trauma Recovery: Theory, Philosophy, and Practice, underscores that in a trauma-informed environment, everything a teacher instructs is an offering or invitation. “This is important because people who have endured trauma have often not had a say over what happens to their bodies. A good trauma-informed class cultivates somatic and psychological resources, and focuses, above all, on cultivating a sense of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual safety.” The founder of The Center for Yoga and Trauma Recovery believes it’s important to be responsive to individual needs. “Trauma affects so many different individuals and groups of people and in such a variety of ways that it is impossible to give one prescription. Some people might benefit from a weekly, 60- to 90-minute vinyasa-style class. Others might benefit from a short, five-minute daily restorative practice.”
Shaw also stresses a tailored approach. “How one wishes to practice is up to the individual, but I suggest a combination of both one-on-one instruction and class format. If someone is in the throes of trauma, they will need a private session to start.”
Eubanks adds the importance of consistency. “In my experience, it is about finding which yoga practices work best for the client and then encouraging them to find time to practice every day. Yoga for PTSD is not a one-and-done deal. It takes time, effort and belief in oneself.”
Marlaina Donato is a body-mind-spirit author and recording artist.