We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain and body. ~ Bessel van der Kolk
Experts estimate that more than 50% of Americans will go through at least one traumatic event in their lives. The event might involve childhood abuse or neglect; war or other forms of violence; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; accidents and natural disasters; grief and loss; the witnessing of acts of violence; medical crisis; cultural and intergenerational suffering and more.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in April, nearly half of Americans report that the coronavirus is harming their mental health. That same month, a federal emergency hotline run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported nearly a 1000% increase in calls compared to a year ago.
The National Council for Behavioral Health identifies trauma as a risk factor in nearly all substance abuse, and it finds a direct correlation between trauma and physical health conditions such as diabetes, COPD, heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure.
To combat this mental health crisis, researchers have been turning to approaches that are more innovative and holistic. David Emerson, founder of the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, has been documenting the ways that yoga can help to heal embodied trauma for years. In his book, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming the Body, co-authored with Elizabeth Hopper, Ph.D., he notes that through yoga, “practitioners are able to cultivate the ability to remain present, to notice and tolerate inner experience, and to develop a new relationship with their body. This body-based practice then has a ripple effect on emotional and mental health, on relationships and on one’s experience of living in the world.”
Among their many studies at the Justice Resource Institute, in 2017, Bessel Van der Kolk, psychiatrist, author and leading researcher in the field of trauma, tested the efficacy of a 10-week trauma-sensitive yoga program with a sample of 64 women with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. Results indicated that, compared to women who completed women’s health education classes, participants who practiced yoga exhibited significant decreases in tension and depression and were more likely to no longer meet criteria that imparted a PTSD diagnosis. Other test groups have shown similar results.
In these unprecedented times, with a global pandemic, heightened racial tension, political polarization and economic instability, it’s likely that many more people are experiencing some trauma—from mild cases to more severe. Emotional symptoms can include helplessness, sadness, grief, anger, shame, fear or disbelief. Physical symptoms might manifest as trembling, shortness of breath, racing thought, changes in sleep patterns or changes in appetite.
Calming the Mind and Retraining the Body
Traumatic experiences change the way the mind and body manage perceptions. Survivors often get stuck in “fight or flight” mode—the activation of the sympathetic nervous system—causing the release of adrenaline and cortisol and resulting in hyperarousal and hypervigilance.
In contrast, the breath awareness and elongated exhalations emphasized in yoga help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the mind and allows the body to regulate heart rate, digestion and rest. Because traumatic experiences are often stored viscerally, working with the body is critical to releasing the tension that reinforces stress.
Yoga helps to retrain the body and rewire the brain to help it feel safe. As practitioners learn to observe what is happening in the mind and body, awareness increases, emotional responses become easier to regulate, and a feeling of safety may begin to return.
While every student who is healing trauma will respond to yoga in their own way, many report profound shifts beyond reducing anxiety. Students surveyed in studies conducted at the Trauma Institute by the Natural Institute of Health report a variety of benefits, including the newfound ability to sleep without any medication, to talk about what had happened to them, to stop binge eating, to give up drugs or alcohol, to be intimate again, to seek other methods of healing and more.
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Classes
Not all yoga classes are trauma-sensitive classes, and not all yoga teachers have been trained to navigate trauma. A trauma-sensitive class would include several foundational components, such as the following:
Inquiry and choice are emphasized. Students are empowered to explore forms that feel comfortable and safe in their bodies. They have choices about how to embody the postures with plenty of modifications and assurance that no form is better than the other; each is just an invitation to feel and explore.
Breath awareness is prioritized over breath technique. Because many trauma survivors experience shallow breathing or disrupted breathing patterns, restoring awareness of breath can invite awareness back to the present moment and invite a sense of ease.
Instructors offer no physical adjustments. The Trauma Center considers physical adjustments to be a clinical issue and recommends that teachers of trauma-sensitive classes don’t offer them. When adjusted, students sometimes feel that they are doing something wrong or that they must demonstrate the form in the way the teacher prefers. Many trauma survivors are not ready to be seen, and assists distract from their personal practice experience. The Trauma Center’s research found, in classes that offered physical adjustments, 50% of students did not return.
The environment prioritizes safety. Trauma classes are generally held in well-lit spaces without mirrors. Windows are often covered so that students don’t feel exposed and vulnerable, and outside stimuli are minimized to eliminate any startling effects.
Teachers are self-regulated and approachable. Teachers should be open to feedback and be predictable, consistent and friendly. Classes employ simple, repetitive posture sequences and avoid music that could be provocative so that students know what to expect.
TRAUMA-SENSITIVE YOGA TEACHERS
To find a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher in the Atlanta area, visit IAYT.org
and search by region or consult one of the following certified teachers:
✧ ✧ ✧ ✧ ✧ ✧ ✧ Sheila Ewers, ERYT500, YACEP, owns Blue Lotus Yoga with locations in Johns Creek and Duluth. A former professor of writing and literature, she leads group and private lessons, yoga philosophy workshops, yoga teacher training and retreats. Contact Sheila at [email protected]