When an individual experiences trauma, their nervous system is automatically activated, causing their brain to stop all activities that are nonessential for survival. This response is most commonly known as “fight, flight or freeze,” an instinctual reaction that places an individual in “survival mode.” While this state normally dissipates once the perceived threat has disappeared, this is not always the case. For some survivors of trauma, this “survival mode” is ongoing and can continue long after a person initially experiences a traumatic event.
Individuals who have been traumatized may be trapped in a long-term state of fight, flight or freeze. This enduring stress-based fear response perpetuates feelings of stress and insecurity, creating a constant and inescapable feeling of danger. Some individuals may experience being trapped in a hyper-vigilant state in which they are extremely alert, highly anxious and pervasively worried. In contrast, other individuals may experience a full-body “shut-down” and combat extreme depression and numbness. Further, emotional dysregulation, distressing flashbacks and dissociative episodes are all common psychological consequences that survivors of trauma experience.
While the most common form of therapy for trauma victims is cognitively based, it is certainly not the only intervention available. In recent years, somatic therapeutic approaches have gained more and more popularity in clinical settings. This is especially true of trauma-informed yoga, the most effective and prevalent form of somatic therapy.
Trauma-informed yoga is an evidence-based therapeutic practice that combines the neuroscience and psychology behind trauma to provide real psychological relief to survivors. While somatic yoga usually does not provide the foundation of a treatment plan, it can be highly beneficial when used in combination with cognitive therapy and counseling. Nevertheless, more evidence is accumulating to support the idea that trauma-informed yoga, even when used as a monotherapy, is clinically effective for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), having the potential to reduce flashbacks, dissociation and emotional instability.
Trauma severely disrupts the connection between the mind and the body, causing individuals to feel extremely detached from the present moment and lose their ability to experience bodily sensations. Trauma-informed yoga is designed to significantly help victims of trauma re-establish the mind-body connection, develop emotional regulation, regain mindfulness and calm the entire nervous system.
The purpose of somatic yoga is not to undergo an emotional experience, nor to resurface or actively process past trauma. Rather, it is meant to teach individuals to tolerate present sensations and develop a sense of control over their experiences. Most trauma-informed yoga practices are based on hatha yoga, which involves slow and deliberate movements, as well as intentional breathing and meditation exercises. Individuals who are practicing trauma-informed yoga are instructed to make conscious choices regarding their own body movements and breath, fostering a sense of autonomy in their own bodily sensations and personal experiences.
By their very nature, traumatic experiences rob individuals of their sense of control in their life; trauma-informed yoga aims to remedy this lack of control through prompted, intentional decision-making. Trauma-informed yoga operates on the principle that participants are the experts of their own bodies, and therefore have agency over their movements and breath.
Trauma-informed yoga does not focus on form, nor does it recognize any aspect of a person’s exterior appearance. Rather, it centers around the physical sensations of movement, highlighting a person’s internal experience. Practicing individuals are instructed to notice physical sensations without any judgment, expectations or criticisms. Given that trauma-informed yoga is designed to be highly inclusive, the prompted movements are not physically strenuous in any way. Furthermore, participants do not need to have any background in yoga or meditation to fully benefit from the practice.
Trauma-informed yoga aims to create safe, supportive and healing environments for participants. A key aspect of trauma-informed yoga is that it minimizes stimulation and potential distractors. In somatic yoga sessions, there is usually no music, nor are there candles or incense, which are typical in many yoga studios. These various measures are put in place to reduce the likelihood that participants will be triggered by any aspect of their surrounding environment. In distraction-free environments, individuals are far more likely to be able to focus on their internal sensations, and therefore truly benefit from the practice.
Unlike many other forms of yoga, trauma-informed yoga never involves physical contact between the participants and the instructor. The lack of hands-on adjustments is ideal for many trauma victims, who might be triggered by physical touch. Furthermore, in order to lead trauma-informed yoga sessions, instructors must undergo educational training to understand the nature of traumatic experiences and how trauma affects the mind and the body. This ensures that instructors are able to effectively curate an environment that is safe and supportive for practicing individuals.
Trauma-informed yoga sessions are also designed to be fairly predictable from one class to the next. The repetitive and consistent nature of these yoga sessions fosters a sense of control for practicing individuals. Since traumatic events are often innately unpredictable, trauma-informed yoga promotes healing by offering participants corrective and predictable experiences.
Some instructors and yoga studios emphasize the difference between trauma-informed yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga. Technically, trauma-sensitive yoga is tailored specifically to individuals who have endured deeply traumatic experiences and is often used for people who have diagnoses of PTSD or other psychological conditions resulting from trauma. Trauma-informed yoga, on the other hand, is a more generalized term and operates under the assumption that most — if not all — people have experienced stressful and potentially traumatic events in their lifetimes. This approach relies on the basic principles of support and inclusivity, aiming to promote feelings of safety. Nevertheless, these phrases are often used interchangeably. Despite the few distinctions between trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed yoga, they do not differ significantly in practice.
Scientific evidence has supported the conclusion that the mind and the body are intrinsically connected. Trauma experiences disrupt this connection, altering the body’s inner balance and resulting in a state of disequilibrium. To heal from trauma, the mind-body connection needs to be re-established, and trauma-informed yoga can be an excellent and effective tool to facilitate this. As the mind-body connection continues to be studied and more deeply understood, trauma-informed therapy will become even more evidence-based and even more prominent. In the near future, trauma-informed yoga may very well become more universally integrated into therapeutic practices.