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Trauma can be defined as any “event that is temporarily overwhelming and exceptionally distressing, leaving lasting psychological symptoms.”

Though trauma is often viewed as an aspect of mental health, leading researchers such as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, who authored “The Body Keeps the Score,” observe that trauma “lives” in our bodies.

The World Mental Health Survey Consortium estimates that 70% of the world’s population has experienced some form of trauma, though its causes and severity range widely.

The fact that trauma can be elicited through our body makes movement practices potential tools for managing and healing trauma, and yoga has been confirmed as an evidence-based treatment tool.

Trauma-informed yoga is an individualized approach to teaching rather than a specific style.

In a 2018 peer-reviewed journal, trauma-informed yoga (TIY) was broadly described as “yoga adapted to the unique needs of individuals working to overcome trauma.”

Hala Khouri, MA, SEP, E-RYT, has been leading trauma-informed trainings and workshops around the world since 2007. Khouri explains that with trauma-informed yoga, there’s “no one-size-fits-all approach but rather teachers support each student to find what works for them,” continuing, “It’s all about how the yoga is taught.”

Many trauma-informed yoga classes tend to fall under the umbrella of Hatha Yoga, meaning they are physical asana practices, but teachers can apply a trauma-sensitive approach to meditation and pranayama (breathwork) classes, as well.

Though the body of research is still somewhat nascent, it’s growing rapidly and many studies confirm yoga to be a low risk, evidence-based tool for healing trauma.

  • It can be calming: One of the physiological expressions of trauma is a heightened stress response, sometimes referred to as hyperarousal. With the right class and teacher, yoga has been shown to elicit the parasympathetic nervous system’s calming “rest and digest” response, which is helpful for reducing hyperarousal.
  • It improves emotional well-being: A recent program evaluation looking at the effects of TIY in vulnerable populations, including those who are incarcerated or in substance use recovery programs, found that people reported feeling less negative emotions even after a single class.
  • It increases self-regulation: The same evaluation observed significant improvement of self-regulation skills in people in the corrections and substance rehabilitation settings. A recent article examining yoga’s effects on adolescents facing age-based and school-related stressors had similar findings.
  • It improves sleep: A 2021 study exploring trauma-informed yoga for veteran women who had experienced sexual assault trauma while enlisted in the military found yoga significantly improved their sleep.
  • It helps with shame reduction: The aforementioned study also found statistical reductions in self-reported feelings of shame around the traumatic event.
  • It cultivates presence: Some common trauma responses — especially for those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — include dissociation and flashbacks. In those instances, yoga can be an effective tool for helping practitioners return to the present moment through the practice of mindfulness.

There’s a fine line between yoga’s ability to heal trauma or trigger it.

It’s important to keep in mind that any element can be a potential trigger for someone, from the pacing of the class, (for example if it’s too fast and stimulating), to atmospheric elements like the lighting or volume of the music.

Exclusionary spaces may trigger trauma, as well. Tamika Caston-Miller, director of Ashé Yoga, points out that wellness spaces — from studios to teachers to yoga apparel advertisements — often promote “white supremacy, ableism, and heteronormativity.”

Because there are so many nuances in individuals’ experiences and expressions of trauma, it’s highly recommended that teachers take formal trauma-informed training and/or study from a trauma-informed teacher.

Caston-Miller recommends learning from BIPOC and LGBTQ+ faculty to better understand systemic trauma and the best ways to make a space feel safe and inclusive.

That said, there are some general considerations that all teachers can make:

  • Make all of your cues suggestions rather than commands.
  • Allow students to modify and take variations as they see fit.
  • When cueing aspects of teaching that may be perceived as vulnerable, such as closing one’s eyes or poses where people are folded in (like Child’s Pose or deep forward bends) offer alternative options:
    • For closing one’s eyes: say “or find a soft gaze toward the floor.”
    • For forward bend shapes, suggest people stay upright.
  • When cueing the breath, always encourage people to go at their own pace.
  • If you give hands-on adjustments, give the students a private way to opt out before class. For example, some studios offer white chips (like poker chips) that people can put on their mat.
  • Always make sure to ask someone’s permission before putting your hands on them, even if someone “opted in.”
  • Try to use inclusive language and avoid highly gendered statements.

Where to learn how to teach trauma-informed yoga

Here’s a list of some highly accredited trauma-informed certifications and teachers:

Collective Resistance: Khouri co-leads this trauma-informed yoga and Somatics training and certification alongside well-known TIY teachers, Kyra Haglund and RW Alves. Trainings are currently being offered online.

Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY): The Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts developed its own Trauma-Sensitive training. TCTSY is currently offering modules and advanced trainings online.

Dr. Gail Parker, PhD, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, psychologist, yoga therapist, educator, and author of “Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma” and “Transforming Ethnic and Race-Based Traumatic Stress with Yoga.”

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All types of yoga can be trauma-informed when one finds the right teacher, style, and setting for their individual experience.

Which style is most appropriate depends on the type of trauma one has experienced and how their nervous system responds to the class. Khouri explains, “Some people need a gentle practice and others need something more vigorous. Some need spirituality, others need things to not be spiritual at all.”

Classes specifically geared toward relaxation tend to move quite slowly and have very long holds, which can actually be potential triggers for some people who have experienced trauma.

As the practitioner, always feel free to come out of a pose early or adjust the shape as it feels good for your body, no matter the style of class. You can always leave a class early if you need to.

There’s no one type of yoga or pose that can heal. Causes of trauma vary widely, as do people’s experiences of it.

Yoga is a very personal endeavor. It’s about finding the right style, teacher, and setting.

People should seek whatever postures help them to feel grounded and have access to their breath, but as Khouri reminds us, “For one person that might be Child’s Pose, where for another it might be a Warrior Pose.”

Caston-Miller personally enjoys placing blankets on her body in certain poses, as the weight helps her feel held and contained. For example, in Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall) she will place a blanket over her navel or in Child’s Pose, she puts a blanket over her back.

Anecdotally, hip openers and backbends have been reported to trigger strong emotional responses, but again, it’s entirely personal, and there are often other factors at play — including the external environment in which the class takes place.

Trauma is incredibly common and yet unique to the individual experiencing it. A key to healing is taking back ownership of one’s body and choices. Yoga is a great forum to do this, in that every movement you make is a choice you’re making for yourself.

Always listen to your body and adapt your practice as needed for you to feel safe and supported.

In the right setting and with the right teacher, yoga may help heal trauma.