When an individual experiences trauma, their nervous system is automatically activated, causing their brain to shut down all activities that are not essential for survival. This response is more commonly known as “fight, flight, or freeze”, a knee-jerk reaction that puts an individual into “survival mode”. Although this state normally dissipates once the perceived threat is gone, this is not always the case. For some trauma survivors, this “survival mode” is permanent and may continue long after a person has initially experienced a traumatic event.
People who have been traumatized can be trapped in a long-term fight, flight, or stuck state. This long-lasting stress-based fear response perpetuates feelings of stress and insecurity, creating a constant and unavoidable sense of danger. Some people can be trapped in a state of hyper-vigilance in which they are extremely alert, very anxious, and deeply worried. In contrast, other people may experience a whole-body “shutdown” and battle extreme depression and numbness. Additionally, emotional dysregulation, distressing flashbacks, and dissociative episodes are all common psychological consequences experienced by trauma survivors.
Although the most common form of therapy for trauma victims is cognition-based, it is certainly not the only intervention available. In recent years, somatic therapeutic approaches have gained popularity in clinical settings. This is especially true of trauma-informed yoga, the most effective and widespread form of somatic therapy.
Trauma-informed yoga is an evidence-based therapeutic practice that combines the neuroscience and psychology behind trauma to bring real psychological relief to survivors. Although somatic yoga does not usually provide the basis for a treatment plan, it can be very beneficial when used in combination with cognitive therapy and counseling. Nevertheless, more and more evidence is accumulating to support the idea that trauma-informed yoga, even when used as monotherapy, is clinically effective for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). , having the potential to reduce flashbacks, dissociation and emotional instability.
Trauma severely disrupts the connection between mind and 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 trauma victims restore the mind-body connection, develop emotional regulation, regain mindfulness, and calm the entire nervous system.
The goal of somatic yoga is not to have an emotional experience, nor to resurface or actively process past trauma. Rather, it aims to teach individuals to tolerate present sensations and to develop a sense of control over their experiences. Most trauma-informed yoga practices are based on hatha yoga, which involves slow, deliberate movements, as well as intentional breathing exercises and meditation. People who practice trauma-informed yoga are encouraged to make conscious choices about their own body movements and breathing, thereby fostering a sense of empowerment in their own bodily sensations and personal experiences.
By their very nature, traumatic experiences rob individuals of their sense of control over their lives; Trauma-informed yoga aims to address this lack of control through purposeful and intentional decision-making. Trauma-informed yoga works on the principle that participants are the experts of their own body, and therefore have control over their movement and breathing.
Trauma-informed yoga does not focus on form or recognize any aspect of a person’s outward appearance. Rather, it focuses on the physical sensations of movement, highlighting a person’s internal experience. Practitioners are instructed to notice physical sensations without any judgment, expectation, or criticism. Since trauma-informed yoga is designed to be very inclusive, the movements induced are in no way physically strenuous. Additionally, participants do not need to have a 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, candles or incense, which is typical in many yoga studios. These various measures are put in place to reduce the likelihood of participants being triggered by any aspect of their surroundings. In distraction-free environments, individuals are much more likely to be able to focus on their internal sensations, and therefore to truly benefit from the practice.
Unlike many other forms of yoga, trauma-informed yoga never involves physical contact between participants and instructor. The lack of practical adjustments is ideal for many trauma victims, which could be triggered by physical contact. Additionally, in order to lead trauma-informed yoga sessions, instructors must undergo teacher training to understand the nature of traumatic experiences and how trauma affects the mind and body. This ensures that instructors are able to effectively create a safe and supportive environment for practicing people.
Trauma-informed yoga sessions are also designed to be fairly predictable from class to class. The repetitive and consistent nature of these yoga sessions promotes a sense of control in practitioners. Because traumatic events are often inherently unpredictable, trauma-informed yoga promotes healing by providing participants with corrective and predictable experiences.
Some yoga instructors and studios emphasize the difference between trauma-sensitive yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga. Technically, Trauma Sensitive Yoga is suited specifically for people who have undergone 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 general term and works on the assumption that most – if not all – people have experienced stressful and potentially traumatic events in their lifetime. This approach is based on the basic principles of support and inclusiveness, aimed at fostering a feeling of security. Nevertheless, these expressions are often used interchangeably. Despite the few distinctions between trauma-aware yoga and trauma-informed yoga, they do not differ significantly in practice.
Scientific evidence has supported the conclusion that mind and body are intrinsically linked. Traumatic experiences disrupt this connection, altering the internal balance of the body and leading to a state of imbalance. To heal from trauma, the mind-body connection must be restored, and trauma-informed yoga can be an excellent and effective tool to facilitate this. As the mind-body connection continues to be studied and better understood, trauma-informed therapy will become even more evidence-based and even more important. In the near future, trauma-informed yoga may very well become more universally integrated into therapeutic practices.