There is growing recognition that yoga has an important role to play in the process of overcoming trauma. Learning to recognise and eventually control physical and psychological processes that disrupt daily life as a result of the dysregulation of a traumatised nervous system can be a long and frustrating process. Progression can come in waves, with trauma healing often described as a nonlinear process. We often oscillate between states and phases of recovery. Yoga is something to come back to in every state and phase. In trauma recovery, instability and a loss of control can cause profound discomfort and distress. Yoga presents a reliable and self-directed practice of connection between the mind and body. Offering space to reflect, connect to breath, notice physical sensations and psychological preoccupations, and practice strategies that regulate the autonomic nervous system, yoga presents a myriad of benefits for those who have experienced trauma.
What Does Trauma-Informed Mean?
‘Trauma-informed’ has featured on the list of psychological buzzwords for some time, making it a phrase that is susceptible to misunderstanding or misuse. Trauma-informed refers to an approach or framework that takes into account the impact of trauma on individuals and communities and seeks to create an environment that promotes safety, trust, and healing. It is a way of understanding and responding to the experiences of people who have been affected by trauma in a sensitive and supportive manner.
The key principles of trauma-informed care include:
Safety: Prioritising physical and emotional safety for individuals who have experienced trauma.
Trustworthiness and Transparency: Building trust through clear communication, consistency, and transparency in all interactions.
Peer Support: Recognizing the value of support from others who have experienced trauma, as peer support can be an essential aspect of healing.
Collaboration and Empowerment: Involving individuals in decision-making processes and empowering them to have a sense of control over their lives.
Cultural Sensitivity: Acknowledging and respecting the diverse backgrounds and experiences of individuals, including cultural differences and needs.
Understanding the Impact of Trauma: Recognizing the widespread impact of trauma and its potential effects on physical, emotional, and mental health.
Avoiding Retraumatisation: Ensuring that environments and practices do not inadvertently re-trigger trauma responses. 1
Trauma-informed approaches can be applied in various settings, including healthcare, education, social services, and mental health. The ultimate goal is to create an atmosphere of compassion, support, and understanding, promoting healing and resilience for individuals who have experienced trauma.
What Is Trauma-Informed Yoga?
Trauma-informed yoga is an approach to yoga that studies have shown to be highly beneficial for people who have experienced trauma. It combines mindfulness training with breathing exercises, physical movement, and relaxation techniques while incorporating essential trauma-specific elements like safety, empowerment, collaboration, and trustworthiness.
There are specific approaches and adaptations that are made to ensure a trauma-informed yoga practice to ensure it serves as an effective intervention for trauma survivors, promoting healing and emotional regulation. These are based on up-to-date research by trauma experts such as Bessel van der Kolk.
In trauma-informed yoga, creating a calm and welcoming environment is important. A calming space, without distractions, with soft lighting and comfortable props, fosters a sense of safety and security. Empowering participants through choice is also an essential aspect of trauma-informed yoga. The facilitator will offer options for poses and movements and use invitational language, such as “if you’re comfortable”, so that participants feel empowered and in control. This is particularly important for those that have lost a sense of autonomy and ownership of their body through trauma. Body awareness and mindfulness are central; participants are invited to connect with their physical sensations and learn grounding techniques like deep breathing. In a trauma-informed approach, poses are carefully considered to prioritise safety and stability, avoiding triggering or vulnerable positions. Trauma-release techniques may be used to aid in stress release, and priority is given to self-regulation tools like grounding exercises and mindfulness to assist participants in managing overwhelm. Of key importance are the considerations given to assists and touch. These always require clear consent and emphasise support and grounding.
How Does Yoga Help Trauma Survivors?
A wide range of evidence shows that traumatic stress has lasting impacts on the body. Increasingly researchers are suggesting that the most effective treatments involve two key things; increasing a person’s tolerance of the physical sensations in their body, or desensitising the intensity and stress of the psychological response to physical sensations, as well as regulating arousal, increasing a sense of control, ownership, and power over the body. 1
Yoga has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system 2, responsible for the “rest and digest” response, which counters the hyperarousal often experienced by trauma survivors. This leads to reduced stress hormones like cortisol and an increase in feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins, promoting relaxation and emotional well-being.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Yoga incorporates mindfulness and meditation practices that enhance present-moment awareness and acceptance. For trauma survivors, this can reduce rumination on past traumatic events and minimise the emotional reactivity triggered by trauma-related stimuli.
Body Awareness and Reconnection
Trauma can often lead to dissociation or disconnection from the body. Yoga helps trauma survivors reconnect with their physical sensations, fostering a sense of grounding and empowerment. Trauma-informed yoga is specifically designed to consider the ways that trauma affects the body and a person’s sense of safety in comfort within it. Survivors are encouraged to monitor their own sense of discomfort or safety throughout the class and adapt what they are doing accordingly rather than follow everything that the teacher is doing.
Yoga involves controlled breathing techniques that can regulate the autonomic nervous system and emotions. These techniques help trauma survivors manage overwhelming emotions and reduce the frequency and intensity of anxiety or panic attacks.
Empowerment and Agency
Trauma-informed yoga emphasises choice and autonomy during the practice, allowing survivors to take control of their bodies and experiences. This sense of agency can be empowering for individuals who have experienced trauma and felt a loss of control during traumatic events.
Positive Social Interaction
Participating in trauma-informed yoga classes can provide a supportive and non-judgmental environment. Building positive social connections can counter feelings of isolation often experienced by trauma survivors and promote a sense of belonging and support.
Resilience and Coping Skills
Through regular yoga practice, trauma survivors develop coping skills and resilience to navigate the challenges associated with trauma recovery. Yoga teaches individuals to stay present and respond adaptively to triggers.
Neuroplasticity allows the brain to reorganise and adapt. Consistent yoga practice can facilitate changes in brain structures related to emotional regulation, memory processing, and stress responses, supporting trauma recovery. 3
While yoga is not a stand-alone treatment for trauma, its integration with trauma-focused therapies and other support services can enhance the overall healing process. The combination of physical postures, mindfulness, breathwork, and relaxation techniques offers a comprehensive approach to supporting trauma survivors on their path to recovery and resilience.
- Spence. (2021). Trauma-Informed Yoga : 47 Practices to Calm, Balance, and Restore the Nervous System. (1st ed.). PESI.
- Chin, & Kales, S. N. (2019). Understanding mind–body disciplines: A pilot study of paced breathing and dynamic muscle contraction on autonomic nervous system reactivity. Stress and Health, 35(4), 542–548. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2887
- Tolahunase, Sagar, R., Faiq, M., & Dada, R. (2018). Yoga- and meditation-based lifestyle intervention increases neuroplasticity and reduces severity of major depressive disorder: A randomised controlled trial. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 36(3), 423–442. https://doi.org/10.3233/RNN-170810