yoga and trauma

When Rebecca Epstein talks about the power of yoga to heal the effects of trauma in girls, she quickly brings up Rocsana Enriquez.

Enriquez is a woman who took a yoga class while incarcerated at Camp Kemp in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006.

The class was part of a program run by the Art of Yoga Project, a California-based nonprofit.

“Hers is an inspiring and illuminating story of the power of these programs,” said Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

In interviews with the center, Enriquez described herself as always being an angry person. When she got out of juvenile detention, she ended up in an abusive relationship — 19 years old and pregnant.

But yoga gave her tools to deal with everything in her life.

To relax when she felt angry.

To watch the words that she used.

To think before she jumped into action.

And to feel that she deserved better.

“She says that without yoga she doesn’t know where she would be today,” Epstein told Healthline. “It helped her with healthier parenting. It helped her leave the abusive relationship. And she’s now a teacher in the same program that she enrolled in at juvenile hall.”

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High rates of trauma

Anyone can experience trauma, but girls especially are affected.

“We know that girls are suffering, and that girls in a juvenile justice system experience even greater rates of trauma than girls outside the system,” said Epstein. “And we need to address this.”

Studies show that 70 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced some form of trauma, according to a report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Twice as many girls as boys reported past physical abuse — 42 percent of girls compared with 22 percent of boys.

The discrepancy is even higher for reported cases of past sexual abuse — 35 percent of girls compared with 8 percent of boys.

That’s why the Art of Yoga Project and similar programs focus on helping girls who are marginalized or in the juvenile justice system.

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A different kind of yoga

From the outside, yoga classes offered by these programs might look similar to what you’d find in a boutique studio.

There are still the three main components of yoga: physical poses, regulated breathing, and aspects of mindfulness or meditation.

But there’s much more to trauma-sensitive yoga than what’s on the surface.

“The yoga forms may look similar to your average yoga studio, if you just looked at the class. But the way we’re interacting with the forms is quite different,” David Emerson, founder and director of yoga services for the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts, told Healthline.

Emerson also leads trainings for yoga teachers and mental health clinicians as part of the center’s Trauma-Sensitive Yoga certification program.

This training is listed in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP).

For yoga teachers, trauma-sensitive yoga is a shift from the usual fitness-oriented yoga class toward creating a setting that empowers people.

“We have to learn how to be much more invitational in the approach,” said Emerson.

That means allowing people to participate in their own way rather than telling them what to do.

“We also have to be able to tolerate people making choices that might be different from what we expect or have on our own agenda,” he explained.

Read more: Coping with stress »

Benefits of trauma-sensitive yoga

Epstein can rattle off a long list of benefits for this type of yoga.

After participating in trauma-sensitive yoga, girls reported higher levels of self-esteem as well as decreased anger, depression, and anxiety.

They were also more likely to open up about past traumas.

“Girls in a residential program disclosed past incidences of sexual violence that the case workers hadn’t known about,” said Epstein. “So girls can contribute to more effective treatment plans for themselves through participation in yoga class.”

And like Enriquez, girls are able to use breathing techniques to avoid responding aggressively when provoked.

This decreased reactivity — pausing before acting — is also seen in children who participate in mindfulness meditation programs.

“Youth seem to be able to put a little bit more space between what is happening, what they’re experiencing, and their reaction to it,” Dr. Erica Sibinga, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Healthline.

In a 2016 study, Sibinga and her colleagues found that students in the 5th through 8th grades who participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program saw many benefits.

It’s an effective coping mechanism for the moment of trauma when you can’t escape.
Rebecca Epstein, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality

This included lower levels of depression, negative coping, and post-traumatic symptoms, compared with students in a health education program.

Students were from two middle schools in Baltimore.

“The schools are in areas where there is quite a bit of interpersonal and community violence,” said Sibinga, “We believe those aspects contribute to chronic stress. And that can function as trauma, as well.”

Like trauma-sensitive yoga, mindfulness meditation can help children deal with the parts of their lives that they can’t control.

“The goal is to try and improve the overall situation,” said Sibinga, “and provide tools for improved coping in relation to the stress and trauma that the youth are experiencing.”

While mindfulness can provide benefits to children all by itself — without physical yoga poses — this type of meditation is a key part of trauma-sensitive yoga.

People who have been through trauma — especially those who have survived sexual violence — can become disconnected from their own bodies.

“It’s an effective coping mechanism for the moment of trauma when you can’t escape,” said Epstein. “But when you remain stuck in that state, it can affect your awareness of your own needs and your ability to form connections to others.”

Being mindful on the yoga mat can help girls regain a sense of self. And as with Enriquez, sometimes one that is more positive than before.

“It’s absolutely critical to practice being present and being aware of oneself,” said Epstein.

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