Trauma & Yoga

The integration of a gentle, trauma aware yoga practice in trauma therapy offers the opportunity to experience a change in mental states, and the simple act of moving the body and reconnecting to the own breathe can create a major sense of accomplishment for people whose bodies have been frozen or numbed by their experiences.

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others …The first principle of recovery is the empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others might offer advice, support, assistance, affection, and care but not cure. No intervention that takes power away from a survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

Recovery therefore is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.  Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In the renewed connection to others the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are originally formed within relationships with others they must be re-formed within such relationships.

  1. Sgroi in “Stages of recovery for adult survivors of child sexual abuse” describes the progression through the stages of recovery as a spiral in which earlier issues are continually revisited on a higher level of integration.

One could say however that helplessness and isolation are the core experience of psychological trauma, while empowerment and reconnection are the core elements of recovery.

Because trauma affects the body physiology, and because traumatic experiences are often stored somatically, leaders in the field are increasingly insisting that trauma treatment must incorporate the body. Body oriented therapies, such as yoga based interventions, priorities making a connection at the somatic level, and then moving from the entry point to addressing emotions and cognitions. Practices like yoga can help unlock the body’s pattern of fear by allowing trauma survivors to become masters—rather than victims—of their own physiology.  By releasing held tension, paying attention to the present, and regulating the nervous system, a somatic approach helps ease the feelings of helplessness, fear, arousal, and disconnection that can arise for trauma patients.

 A yoga based approach uses a series of postures and breathing techniques to build a sense of connection to the self. Yoga practitioners learn to cultivate the ability to remain present, to notice and tolerate inner experiences, to connect and to develop a new experience with their body.

“Healing trauma requires a direct experience of the living, feeling, knowing organism”.
Peter A Levine, PhD.

The integration of a gentle, trauma aware yoga practice in trauma therapy offers the opportunity to experience a change in mental states, and the simple act of moving the body and reconnecting to the own breathe can create a major sense of accomplishment for people whose bodies have been frozen or numbed by their experiences.

As more research is done on trauma, somatic therapies might move to the forefront of trauma recovery.
“Overall, a somatic approach can radically alter the body’s physiology: It can rewire your brain stem, and change the fear system in your brain. It can regulate the balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems and activate the cranial nerves so your body doesn’t respond to everything as if it’s getting hurt.”
Van der Kolk

“Yoga is a highly effective therapeutic intervention for individuals suffering from PTSD when used in a complimentary manner alongside traditional treatments”
(Emerson, Sharma, Chaudhry & Turner, 2009; van der Kolk, 2009; Sutkin, 2009).

As Pat Ogden PhD writes, “Traditional psychotherapy addresses the cognitive and emotional elements of trauma, but lacks techniques that work directly with the physiological elements, despite the fact that trauma profoundly affects the body and many symptoms of traumatized individuals are somatically based.”

Despite the acknowledgement that traumatic stress disorders can affect the link between the mind and body, there are very few treatments available that seek to address this. The majority of treatments for PTSD focus, to a large extent, solely on the mental barriers in an individual’s mind that prevent them from coming to terms with, and overcoming trauma. Although it is essential to address the mental needs of a trauma survivor to overcome PTSD, individuals also need to find a way to feel safe once again in their own bodies and to regain control over their body.

Trauma aware yoga provides survivors with a nonclinical period of time where there is no trauma processing (talking about the trauma as a story) but where they can just focus on feeling, sensing, moving their body and their breath safely. The breathing exercises and gentle movements in the yoga practice give trauma survivors the tools to create or re-create a positive relationship with their bodies. The process of being traumatized involves a lack of choice. Having choice is therefore central in the yoga practice.

Krishnamacharya said that breath is central to yoga because it is central to life…and yoga is about life. Trauma is a part of life, but we do not have to allow it to define us. Yoga is about replacing old negative patterns with new positive ones, one step at a time.