Any style of yoga can potentially be helpful to someone who has experienced trauma, and there are some survivors that swear by yin yoga and others that are triggered by it. More important than the style of yoga, is the environment, and for someone healing from trauma, working with an experienced teacher, coach or therapist in a safe space is what will help create an opportunity for healing. Let’s explore how yin yoga can potentially be a part of that journey.
What is Trauma Informed Yoga?
Trauma is an emotional or physical response to harmful or life-threatening events or circumstances with lasting adverse effects on someone’s mental and physical well-being. Emotions can be stored both in your mind and your physical body, which means that mind-body practices like yoga can be challenging, and even harmful, for those who have endured trauma. However under the right circumstances, the opposite can also be true and yoga can be profoundly helpful in healing. A trauma-based approach to yoga makes the practice safer and more accessible, addressing the unique needs of survivors.
All types of yoga teaching should be trauma-informed, but most group classes do not yet offer trauma-informed practices. Many teachers do choose to embark on further training beyond the standard 200 and 500 hour certifications, and today there are a number of different trauma informed trainings available, including becoming a yoga therapist. Trauma-informed teaching begins with an emphasis on personal empowerment, choice and agency, and the class itself is less about how poses are executed and more about the feeling of being in your body within a pose. A trauma-informed class will also take place in a mindfully curated environment with attention to lighting, sound, orientation, etc.
While many regular yoga classes encourage students to move through emotional discomfort, trauma-informed yoga takes that one step further because these teachers are trained and able to pay attention to signs of dissociation and distress that may come up and can then coach and empower people to navigate these challenges, including giving them permission to stop whenever they need. It’s important to note that while yoga can be a helpful tool for healing and releasing trauma, it should not be used as a substitute for professional therapy or medical treatment. If you’re experiencing emotional distress or trauma, it’s important to seek help.
How Can Yoga Help Heal Trauma?
Typically, treating trauma has relied heavily on psychological therapies, but recently more and more emphasis is being given to body-based somatic therapies, including trauma-informed yoga. In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, an expert in the field of trauma, specifically names yoga as one vehicle for helping with recovery from trauma based on its ability to help a person emotionally self-regulate, become present with physical sensations, and cultivate a sense of safety in the body.
Yoga in general tends to put an emphasis on fostering a mind-body connection, which is important for survivors to heal. The aim of trauma-informed yoga is to help survivors experience internal sensations in a safe and healing way rather than avoid or numb them. With the slow pace of yin yoga, you have time in each pose to begin to inhabit your body, increase awareness and cultivate a sense of curiosity towards your internal experiences. When a person experiences trauma, their capacity to cope is overwhelmed, often leaving them feeling powerless. Trauma-informed yoga can be a useful tool in helping an individual gain a greater sense of ownership and control over their body again.
When you go through a highly stressful or traumatic event, it can be hard for your nervous system (the master control center for stress response) to go back to baseline. Yoga often incorporates different types of breathing in addition to fostering a mind-body connection which can have a calming effect on your nervous system. When you’ve experienced trauma, your mind can get stuck in a loop of replaying the past or trying to control the future, both of which can compound stress. Yoga’s emphasis on focusing on the present moment can lessen the focus on past events or anxiety around future ones.
When looking for the right teacher, check their credentials, read their bios, sample free videos if available and find out whether they’ve received additional training that supports a more therapeutic or adaptive approach and whether they work with trauma-affected populations.
If you’re curious about yin yoga, Kerry offers weekly yin classes in person and online, geared especially for those in midlife and beyond. You can also explore free pre-recorded yoga practices on her Youtube Channel.