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Can Yoga Really Help People With Trauma?

February 22, 2017

I recently interviewed Christine Redman, a yoga instructor and a therapeutic recreation specialist on trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed yoga.  Many of my patients over the years reported anecdotal benefit, and there are some studies and Bessel van der Kolk even conducted a fascinating randomized controlled trial.  Nevertheless, many are doing this, and I wanted to better understand what all the fuss was about.  Christine was very open to answering my questions.


Dr. M: Why would anyone with Trauma want to do yoga?


Christine: My studies, reading, research and experiences have taught me that people who have experienced trauma often cope by dissociating, on a small or larger level, and temporarily “lose” access to the mind body connection.  Yoga is a proven, powerful therapeutic tool /coping skill that allows the mind body connection to begin to heal itself, and for people to get back in touch with their bodies.  Through this, they became more aware of not just thought and emotion, but sensation and self.  Trauma-informed yoga allows them to do this in a comfortable, safe environment without having to process thoughts and feelings or talk about the trauma they’ve experienced.


Dr. M: What is about yoga that makes it more helpful to people than other forms of exercise? Is “trauma certified” yoga experience different from plain old yoga at the local studio?


Christine: Yoga is more than just exercise, which unfortunately is one of the most common misconceptions about yoga. The experience of yoga helps the entire body-- not just our physical anatomy but also our physiology. The physical practice of yoga alone can help increase strength and flexibility, but if we include all of the other aspects of the fuller yoga practice it can contribute to great change in our lives, not just our bodies.


One of the most important aspects of yoga is breath. We breathe every day, unconsciously, every few seconds. But just imagine focusing on your breath, the one part of the autonomic system that we have easy access to control.  This focus can allow you to feel it move through your body, and allow you to move your breath or change it consciously. If we did this, would we move differently? Would we be more conscious of our decision making abilities? Would we feel differently about our body, treat it better, or with more respect?


Working with a yoga instructor who has been trained in aspects of trauma is very different than one who has not been trained. Imagine for a moment you have a history of sexual trauma, and you walk into your local studio because your therapist said it would be good for you. However, your therapist is not trained in trauma-informed yoga. The yoga teacher, of course, does not know of your past trauma history. As class starts, you are doing great, feeling very comfortable and safe. But then you are instructed to do a particular posture that makes you feel exposed. This can trigger past events and become a retraumatizing experience. Trauma -informed yoga instructors have been taught on a person-centered level, and often utilize props, postural variations, carefully selected phrasing, and other variations to their teaching to make everyone feel safe. Yoga is not about the “pose”.  It’s about the person. Trauma-informed yoga teachers are trained to put people first, not the pose, posture or asana they are performing.  This generally contributes to a warm, welcoming, safe environment or class, as well as a breath-centric, slower class.


Dr. M: Are people with trauma open to this or is there sometimes fear about doing yoga?         </