Trauma Informed Yoga

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Author: Karen Wilson

Trauma & The Mind Body Connection

I sit here looking over my notes…trauma and the mind-body connection. I recently attended a talk by Erin Baker, an Indianapolis yoga teacher and yoga therapist. Symptoms of trauma include disempowerment, disconnection, the inability to self-regulate, intense emotions that drive reactions, diminished capacity to reason and process information correctly, difficulty with decision making, maintaining self-control, and feeling a need to escape.

These symptoms make being present an overwhelming task. Aha! As an adult who has experienced trauma, this rings very true. And though it may seem overwhelming to experience all of these symptoms, it gives me some hope that the reason for the symptoms is known. If trauma is the underlying problem causing the symptoms, then I only have to solve the trauma problem. ONLY. Another Aha! I can’t go back and change the event or series of events that led to trauma. I can only alleviate the symptoms by group therapy, individual therapy, mindfulness and yoga. Yes, yoga.

Trauma Is A Major Issue for Children

More than two thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16, according to SAMHSA. Most kids who’ve experienced trauma are not sitting in yoga classes, yoga lectures, or reading yoga centered articles about trauma. It is our responsibility, as adults, to first recognize that trauma is a major issue for our children and then decide to do something about the problem. By teaching yoga to children, we offer them one way to manage/treat the trauma symptoms stated above.

Trauma and The Body

Trauma gets trapped in the body, whether it be one major event or a series of events. There is a disconnect between the mind and body, and the victim is unable to physically or emotionally bring body and mind back together. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, explains this in great detail.

As an adult, I can recognize the symptoms of trauma, name the traumas that I have undergone, and then develop a way to deal with it. Children may not be able to voice the trauma at all, let alone label it or understand how to treat it. We don’t need to know the cause of the trauma to help kids through it. We teach them yoga and let the results of the class speak for themselves.

Trauma is not something that lives in our past, but instead it stays with us in our bodies. The stagnant energy may show up in different forms, but it puts the body in a diseased state. Through practicing yoga, the “stuck” trauma in the body can be released. “Yoga for Emotional Trauma” The Yoga Journal.com.

Yoga and Trauma

When trauma lives in the body, we are constantly reacting to it. Yoga is a method we can use to touch on the after effects that continue to live within our body and cause us pain. We can teach kids how movement assists us in managing the symptoms. Through movement, we can slowly move this trauma energy out of the body. It does not happen in one yoga class. It takes time and practice, but we can offer kids the opportunity to obtain some freedom by offering them yoga in schools.

Kids don’t have to comprehend all of this; they do not have to understand trauma or its consequences. As adults and teachers, we do need to understand so we may better serve them. The kids need to experience the peace that comes after some of the tension and memory in the body is released. We return to that movement, and practice it again and again, to get the good feeling that results. Kids only need to be present in a class of peers, coming together to learn yoga. By teaching them movement within community, we teach them safe ways to feel better.

Yoga and the Nervous System

Numerous things are happening in the body during a yoga class. One is the transition from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the sympathetic nervous system is activated it results in fight or flight and many trauma victims live in this place. The PNS is activated during yoga; this is the rest and digest mode. When SNS is activated it is hard to take a deep breath; when PNS is activated breathing comes more naturally. The transition happens seamlessly during a yoga class.

Loss of Control

After a traumatic event, sense of agency may be lost; sense of agency is best described as our ability to control our own actions and consequences. Read more on sense of agency here. Most of the world is outside of our control and that can be a hard concept to accept; it is important to feel a sense of control within. A yoga class offers a child the choice to take some power back or at least find some power within.

Trauma Informed Teaching

You must adjust your teaching if you are transitioning from working with adults to teaching children. Children are in a classroom being told to follow your directions. Keep the flows simple. The movements don’t have to be large or major. Micro movements can remind the body it has the ability to protect itself. An example of a micro-movement is simply turning the palms up and down. A teacher might start class in a grounding position, such as having kids lie on their tummies or in child’s pose. Both of these poses are grounding, as much of their bodies are touching the mats. From these grounding postures, kids can bring in gentle movements that allow the body to settle and calm. In these safe grounding poses, a teacher may offer the kids choices such as turning the palms, setting their own intention, rocking the body from side to side.

Choices are Key

Offering choices also keeps you, as the yoga teacher, from preaching or telling kids what to do. Trauma can cause strong reactions when we are told what to do. We feel such a loss of control, as is, that we don’t want to give away any more. We are desperate to get a sense of agency back, though we cannot express it in this way. Therefore, when someone tells us what to do, we don’t want to listen, and we don’t want to give away our power. If we give choices about safe movement options, we offer the students the choice to do what FEELS right to them. In that moment, their sense of agency returns. Continual practice and repetition links moments together to create lasting relief.

Call to Action

I am not unique in experiencing trauma. There is a strong likelihood that at least one student in your class has experienced it as well. One of our students summed it up best by saying,

“The outside is loud. Yoga calms me down.”

As our outside world becomes louder and louder, let us teach our children how to go within to find peace. Let us teach them how to move through pain and get to the other side. Let’s give them a lifeline out of any trauma experience. Let’s give them hope – for it is then that we give our world hope. One yoga class at a time!