Can Yoga Really Help People With Trauma?
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?
Christine: In my experience, people overcoming trauma can resistant to trying new things or completely open to other forms of holistic healing. Talk therapy, for some,can get boring or redundant, and those with trauma histories can be resistant in talk therapy, as well. Fear itself can be very paralyzing or it can be very motivating.
As a teacher, it is important to know your client’s history if at all possible. We want to meet out students where they are at the time. Yoga teachers dealing with clients suffering from any mental health issue should create classes giving clients a little bit of what they want and a little bit of what they need. This makes the class enjoyable, contributes to feelings of safety and comfort, and creating a relationship of trust between teacher and student.
I think it is of primary importance for the space in which one practices yoga to feel safe, in terms of helping clients overcome any fear of doing yoga that they may be experiencing. We can get caught up in the “studio” world of yoga and not feel safe, so it is important for those who suggest trauma-informed yoga to their clients and for clients themselves to look for spaces where they feel comfortable and safe, and to feel comfortable walking out of a studio or class that does not meet the client’s needs. Also, the importance of trusting your teacher and knowing a bit of your teacher’s background can’t be underestimated. It may also be helpful for those referring clients to trauma-informed yoga and again, for clients themselves, to check out the background, training, or experience of the teacher leading the chosen class.
Dr. M: Is this intended to replace other treatments for trauma?
Christine: Yoga is not intended to replace other treatment for trauma. It’s intended to be a part of treatment, using yoga as a treatment modality as a part of the holistic piece of healing individuals as a whole. Yoga is an excellent complement to the “top down” approach of talk therapy, as yoga is considered a “bottom up” approach to holistic wellness for the entire person, addressing issues from the body first rather than through talk and/or analysis.
Dr. M: What’s your advice for people who have experienced trauma who might be considering yoga?
Christine: My advice for anyone thinking of doing yoga who has experienced trauma is to try it at least three times. If the client is trying yoga at home, again, try it at least three times. Having a home practice is very important and can help with daily stressors and triggers one may experience. That being said, it is important to do research and find an instructor who the client not only feels comfortable with, but who also has training in trauma sensitive yoga.
I will not say yoga is “easy”, although I have heard many clients say this after their first experience, often surprised. However, sometimes during a yoga class things can come up--memories or difficult experiences. It is important that those who have experienced trauma have a support system, or a therapist, with whom they can process these feelings to assist in overcoming trauma and healing the person as a whole.
Dr. M: Thanks Christine, I appreciate your time. I’m placing some links at the bottom to some of the research on Yoga for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Yoga for other anxiety conditions.
Christine Redman is a yoga teacher and therapeutic recreation specialist in Charlotte, NC. She received her Bachelors of Science in Therapeutic Recreation from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She can be found on LinkedIn
References: a selection from the evidence-base for yoga for trauma and PTSD: