Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 26-28
I first turned to yoga classes at a local community centre when I was going through difficult moments, including struggling with my mental health and difficult relationships. I was feeling depressed and lethargic, and my limbs felt heavy most of the time.
When an instructor invited me to step into virabhadrasana II (the Sanskrit term for a form called Warrior II in English), I felt some energy come back into my body, and I felt empowered. This was one of the first signs to me that yoga would support not only my physical health, but my mental health as well. In yoga, I found peace, strength and grounding. But some classes and instructors brought out these positive impacts more than others, and I wasn’t sure why.
Later, when I was in school to become a counsellor, we learned a lot about trauma and its impacts on our physical, psychological and social well-being. Some of the books we read even suggested yoga could assist with recovery from trauma. This piqued my interest, and I dug deeper into the subject.
That’s how I came across Yoga Outreach,1 a non-profit organization in BC that trains instructors in trauma-informed yoga. Now it made sense: the classes where I had felt supported were trauma-informed. I took the opportunity to train as a trauma-informed yoga instructor with Yoga Outreach, and now I feel grateful to be able to share this practice with others.
Before I go on, it's important for me to acknowledge yoga’s roots. As a white woman with ancestors from the Netherlands, Germany and Scotland, yoga is not in my ancestral lineage. Yoga is a practice that is thousands of years old. It has eight limbs, only one of which is asana, the postural practice we often associate with yoga in North America.2 Although the blending of East-Asian philosophical and spiritual principles and contemporary research on the impacts of trauma and stress has allowed trauma-informed yoga to emerge, yoga is much more complex than this article allows me to describe. This is simply a small glimpse at one aspect of a rich spiritual and philosophical practice.3
To understand trauma-informed yoga and how it can aid with recovery, it's best to first understand trauma. Trauma is an event, series of events or chronic circumstances that threatens our emotional or physical safety.4 Often, a traumatic experience overwhelms the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. The autonomic nervous system protects us during the incident by engaging our fight or flight response, but it can also impact our brain’s ability to record the traumatic experience as a regular memory.
Our nervous system can get stuck in the fight or flight response. For some people, this response can then be triggered more easily, which can create a lasting impact on our bodies; this can show up as difficulty regulating emotions, a sense of disconnect from our body and difficulty in relationships.5 As the doctor and writer Gabor Maté says, “Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you.”6
Since trauma is as bodily as it is emotional and cognitive, movement practices can support recovery. This is not to say that regular exercise classes, sports or solo movement practices cannot help with trauma recovery, but trauma-informed yoga intentionally takes into consideration the specific needs of trauma survivors. It acknowledges the disconnect that people can feel from their bodies; the emotional and nervous-system regulation challenges that trauma presents; and the difficulties in relationships.
Making yoga trauma informed
So, what makes trauma-informed yoga trauma informed? Some key aspects of the practice include:
Choice: Trauma often involves a loss of choice and control for the survivor. That’s why choice is one of the most important elements of this practice. Everything in trauma-informed yoga is an invitation: the teacher guides the class through movements, forms and breathing practices, while reminding the students that everything they say is just an offer. Students can choose to do a movement, do it differently, do a completely different movement that feels better in their body or simply not do it. This gives the survivor an opportunity to regain a sense of choice, particularly regarding their bodily autonomy.
Inner resources and tools: Another important aspect of trauma-informed yoga is offering people the chance to learn about tools and resources that exist in themselves. This can include breathing practices to calm the nervous system and different yoga forms that support emotional regulation. Since these tools exist within survivors, they are accessible to be used outside the yoga class and in people’s everyday lives whenever they experience difficulties regulating their emotions or somatic (bodily) responses.
Reconnection: Spread throughout the whole practice of trauma-informed yoga are opportunities for people to reconnect with their bodies. As mentioned earlier, people can disconnect from their bodies during a trauma as a protective mechanism. Through gentle invitations to get curious about the sensations in their bodies, survivors can rebuild a healthy connection to their bodies and themselves.7
Healthy connections and relationships: Trauma-informed yoga instructors strive to be consistent and predictable, as traumatic experiences are often unpredictable and can put survivors' internal alarm systems on high alert for threat or danger. This not only models a consistent and predictable relationship, but also offers occasions for co-regulation. We learn to regulate our emotions as children through the relationship with our caregivers, and we continue as adults to co-regulate with one another without even realizing it.5 Having space to connect and co-regulate with others is as important as learning self-regulation tools and resources.
If classes aren’t accessible to you right now, and you’re wanting to try practising some elements of trauma-informed yoga, I would suggest starting out with the pranayama (breathing practice) called Bhramari Pranayama or bee breath:
- You can sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes if it's comfortable for you, or just have a soft gaze.
- You can take a deep breath in and, as you exhale, make a humming sound like a bee.
- You can inhale again and repeat this five to nine times, or as many times as feels comfortable for you.
- If you would like to add to this practice, you can place your index fingers on the cartilage between your ear and your face and gently press down as you exhale.
This practice can support some people in calming anxiety or agitation and can offer relief from tension.
Trauma-informed yoga is one of many types of somatic work that can help some people heal and recover from trauma. I believe it is an important step in the direction of offering supportive resources to survivors of trauma. It also acknowledges the bodily disconnect that some survivors of trauma can experience. Trauma-informed yoga continues to guide me through difficult times in my life, and I feel very grateful to be able to share this practice with others and learn about yoga's roots.
If you’re interested in learning more about trauma-informed yoga, I suggest checking out Yoga Outreach in BC: yogaoutreach.com.
About the author
Mercedes currently lives on the unceded Coast Salish peoples’ territory known colonially as Vancouver. She works as a registered clinical counsellor, psychedelic-assisted therapist and trauma-informed yoga instructor
Yoga Outreach. yogaoutreach.com
Burgin, T. (2007, November 26). History of Yoga. Yogabasics. yogabasics.com/learn/history-of-yoga
Satchidananda, Sri S. (2012). The Yoga sutras of Patanjali: The book of the spiritual man: an interpretation, 4th ed. Integral Yoga Publications.
CAMH. (2018). Trauma. camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/trauma
Dana, D., & Porges, S. W. (2018). Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation. Norton.
Maté, G., & Mate, D. (2022). The myth of normal: Trauma, illness, and healing in a toxic culture. Penguin Random House Canada.
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, April 15). What Is Trauma-Informed Yoga?