Healing Through Trauma-informed Yoga

When many of us think of Yoga, we think of people holding stretching poses or crossing their legs in meditation and chanting “om.” Well, it’s actually all of that and so much more!

The word “yoga,” derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” means to integrate or unite. While Yoga is not a religion, it is an ancient philosophy and practice based on the goal of harmonizing the human mind and body with the “Universal Spirit.” The Yoga Sutra, a “guidebook” assembled by Patanjali, an ancient Indian sage, provides 195 “sutras” or “words of wisdom” – to help practitioners of Yoga achieve harmony. It also outlines the eight “limbs” or practices of yoga:

  • Yamas – moral conduct or restraint, such as not harming others, and practicing truthfulness
  • Niyamas –observances/positive habits that help purify body and mind and bring about wellness, such as healthy food and a clean environment; contentment/gratitude; self-discipline; self-study; devotion to something greater than the “self”
  • Asana – postures, the physical stretching or strengthening poses
  • Paranayama –breathing exercises performed for purification
  • Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses, focusing within versus on the material world
  • Dharana – focused concentration on one thought
  • Dhyani – meditation or “mindfulness”
  • Samadhi – absorption

What is being discovered through various scientific studies is that the practice of yoga has statistically significant positive effects on neurochemistry and can be beneficial in treating youth in trauma recovery. The application of yoga in trauma recovery is supporting the findings.

Trauma can be a response to a one-time incident, such as an accident, death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or, it can be a response to chronic experiences such as child abuse, neglect, poverty, urban violence, or war.

Now, trauma-informed yoga, which recognizes how trauma effects the mind, body, and spirit, makes subtle, but important alterations to the practice of yoga in order to avoid re-traumatizing young students and help them gain the full benefits of yoga. One of the features of trauma is that it happens to a person, control is taken away. Through trauma-informed yoga, students are provided with the means to regain control over their body, thoughts, and emotions:

  • Trauma-informed yoga puts an emphasis on giving the student control through invitational language, suggesting and offering choices instead of merely using instructional language. For example, “
  • Physical positional correction of poses is only done with permission.
  • Certain poses that can suggest vulnerability, such as downward dog, are only introduced when the student has achieved a feeling of strength or confidence.
  • The room is kept well-lit and students are invited to close their eyes only if they are comfortable doing so.
  • Teachers avoid going behind students – staying where the students can see them. This can be accomplished by having the students set up in a circle, with the instructor in the center.
  • And keeping yoga groups small so as to not overwhelm students who feel uncomfortable in larger groups or starting off one-to-one and slowly introducing the group format.

Also, according to Mira Binzen, a child psychologist and certified Yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra teacher, yoga therapist, and co-founder of Global Family Yoga, “Having a set routine and a steady rhythm throughout that routine is beneficial for all children. It establishes a sense of predictability and a sense of trust in what will happen next. This is crucial for a child whose trust has been broken.”

Testimonials

“I learned how to balance out my crazy life without getting or going crazy, and I learned how to be assertive.” – female child in the Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse with Yoga program (Yoga Therapy in Practice)

“Most of us [in juvenile hall] come from traumatic childhoods. [Yoga] was the only time you experienced a quiet time, when everything was so chaotic.” Missy H. expressed that she believes the practice helped her cope with symptoms of bipolar disorder. (The Role of Yoga in Healing Trauma)

“If people can learn the skills of regulated breathing, physical engagement and mindfulness, it can help break the cycle of trauma.” Rocsana, participant in the San Francisco Bay Area Juvenile Hall The Art of Yoga Project (How to Heal Trauma Through Yoga)

Yoga helps calm the mind, strengthen the body, and sooth the spirit, it is helping children and teens with behavioral health disorders and/or who have experienced trauma, heal.

Trauma creates both physical (such as migraines, nervous tics, tension in neck and shoulder) and emotional (such as anxiety, hyper-vigilance, rage, feelings of helplessness, panic, feelings of detachment, difficulty trusting, and depression) symptoms. As the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, which looked at the long-term effects of childhood abuse and household dysfunction, showed, there is strong relationship between the level of traumatic stress in childhood and poor physical and mental health in later life.

Children who have an adverse childhood experience often find it difficult to control their behavior and rapidly shift from one mood to the next. They can find it hard to sit still and can have difficulty focusing and paying attention.

Yoga is a useful tool in helping children relax and find stillness and calm within themselves. It increases coping skills, self-esteem, self-respect, and builds resilience. Yoga has been shown to decrease anger, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety.

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