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What Is Trauma Sensitive Yoga?

“Trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago. The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present...The engines of posttraumatic reactions are located in the emotional brain. In contrast with the rational brain, which expresses itself in thoughts, the emotional brain manifests itself in physical reactions. The fundamental issue in resolving traumatic stress is to restore the proper balance between the rational and emotional brains. Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves." – Bessel van der Kolk, Founder and Medical Director of the Trauma Centre at Justice Resource Institute in his book, The Body Keeps the Score.

As Bessel van der Kolk describes in his quote, emotional pain and traumatic memories can be held in the body long after a traumatic experience has occurred. For some of us, it can feel like the trauma is remembered much less in words and more so with feelings that occur in the body. These bodily sensations associated with trauma can overwhelm the nervous system and our coping skills, which can result in a profound and lasting sense of vulnerability and a lack of safety and control. As Bessel van der Kolk aptly describes it… “the body keeps the score”.

Leading trauma theorists recognise that because trauma profoundly affects the body and many symptoms are somatically based, trauma treatment must incorporate the body. Neuroscience informs us that there is a part of the brain called the insula, which transmits our physical, bodily sensations into our conscious awareness. Brain imaging studies repeatedly show a marked decrease in activation of the insula, and other parts of the brain that are related to self awareness in people who have experienced complex trauma. Only by activating this dormant part of the brain can we begin to truly feel that we are here now, feeling something in the present moment and not reliving a traumatic event from the past.

In recent years, trauma sensitive yoga has emerged as an effective treatment for trauma survivors because it naturally builds interoception – or the ability to sense how something feels in our body. The practice of yoga incorporates a combination of yoga poses, mindfulness and breathing techniques to cultivate a connection to our feeling body. When we move mindfully from yoga pose to yoga pose and focus our attention on our breath and sensations that occur in our body, we begin to notice the connection between our body and our emotions. For example, when we hold a pose for a more than a few breaths, we may notice sensation start to build in our legs. We then investigate how focusing on our exhalation breath can produce a sense of calm, or maybe we will feel more ease if we shift the position of our feet. We also notice how sensations have a beginning, a peak, and an end. Knowing that sensations come to an end can expand our capacity for dealing with physical and emotional distress. Noticing and tolerating inner experiences in the present moment begins the process of reclaiming the body and building resilience – helping us to develop a new relationship with our inner sensory world.

In a trauma sensitive yoga class, you will be encouraged to practice making empowering choices with your body based on what you are feeling in the present moment – helping you to explore and connect to your body in a safe supportive environment. The goal is to connect to the somatic body, and then navigate from that entry point to addressing the emotions and the cognitions that arise as a result. The yoga poses we move through may help to release physical tension and trapped psychological energy, whilst focusing on natural breathing can help to promote relaxation, mindfulness, and embodiment.

Would you like to read more about the research behind trauma sensitive yoga or trauma theory?

The guiding principle of recovery is restoring a sense of power and control to the survivor.
— Judith Herman, 'Trauma and Recovery'