The next time you gaze out over your yoga class, silently bless each student for many of them are carrying heavy loads that are imperceptible to the human eye. According to the CDC, 29% of women and 10% of men have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. The CDC also reported in 2012 that U.S. state and local child protective services received an estimated 3.4 million referrals of children being abused or neglected. A national sample of over 2,200 children in child welfare found that over 70% met exposure criteria for complex trauma. The hallmarks of complex trauma are that it is longitudinal (occurs over time), more than one type of trauma is experienced and the events occur in the context of relationships. Often these traumas begin in childhood when psyches and spirits feel the impact in deeper and longer lasting ways.
According to Bessel van der Kolk, MD and founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, “What most people do not realize is that trauma is not the story of something awful that happened in the past, but the residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems. The process of being in a safe space and staying with whatever sensations emerge and seeing how they come to an end is a positive imprinting process. Yoga helps traumatized people befriend their bodies that have betrayed them by failing to guarantee safety.”
We are in a unique position as yoga teachers and ayurvedic practitioners to help those around us who are imprinted with the marks of trauma. There was a study published recently in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that details the effects of an 8 week, 1 hour per week trauma sensitive yoga practice with people who had treatment resistant PTSD. 52% of the people studied no longer qualified as having PTSD at the end of the 8 sessions. Studies continue with domestic violence victims in MN and veterans at Emory University in Atlanta. We have the tools to help our students continue their journey of healing.
The type of yoga detailed here is taught at the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA (www.traumasensitiveyoga.com, www.traumacenter.org). This article will introduce you to some of the precepts of TSY. Perhaps the most important aspect to keep in mind is that we must do our best to not retraumatize people who are carrying the imprints of trauma in their bodies. How can we avoid this?
With our Language: In TSY the facilitator uses language that is invitatory and welcomes self inquiry. You will hear phrases such as “in your own time”, “as you are ready”, “perhaps you may want to”, “notice … watch … experiment …focus on”. Students in TSY classes tell their teachers that they cannot hear these words enough. Remember that people who live in abusive situations feel as if they have no choice. They have learned how to deny their needs in order to placate the abuser. Offering choice and steering clear of commands has a profound effect on a TSY student.
Staying in the Present Moment: It is said that the main goal of TSY is to help people to live in the present. As TSY teachers we do not use metaphorical statements (Envision the sun shining down on your head …. Envision yourself lying on a beach …. Move into tree posture and feel your legs as roots of a tree, your arms as the branches). Using these types of phrases encourages people to take their attention away from their bodies and travel into their minds. This can be a scary and unstable place for trauma survivors. They already have a deeply ingrained skill of dissociating from the here and now; this is perhaps what allowed them to endure what they experienced in the past. Our job is to use concrete, body focused words to direct our students home to their bodies.
Employ Interoception: Interoception means to sense the physiology of the body. We pair the phrases “notice” or “focus on” with muscles or sensations. We might say “notice the weight of your body on the floor and see if you can feel where you press into the ground” or “when you fold forward, focus on the large muscles in your thighs and experiment with the sensations in these muscles. “ Trauma survivors may not have feeling or sensation in their bodies. It is often important to remind them that one way to “sense” a movement is to look at the moving body part. Understanding the manifestations of trauma helps us to find optional ways of teaching so as not to cause fear or insecurity.
No Physical Assists: Most yoga teachers have deep compassionate hearts. In a “normal” world, touching someone on the arm, helping them to press deeper into child’s pose or laying hands on a student’s forehead or shoulders during savasana is thought to be a reflection of this compassion. Quite the opposite is true for survivors of trauma and abuse. When you provide an adjustment it implies that their version of a form is incorrect thus adding to their sense of inadequacy. When you lay your hands on someone it can be a visceral reminder of an unsafe touch that they have experienced. Most especially if their eyes are closed and you startle them, they will leave the present moment and retreat back to the past. TSY facilitators are taught to refrain from teaching a certain alignment or position. They will offer options so that students can practice in a safe manner; the focus is not on getting it right but rather is on experimentation. We take great joy in knowing that our students are having a present moment body focused experience and so let go of the need to interfere in any way.
Help Students to Take Effective Action: People who have survived trauma have been imprinted with the reality that they could not extricate themselves from a situation nor could they change what was happening. Through yoga, a realization that they can regulate how they move and breathe is powerful medicine. Encourage students to have their own experience and to know that if they are in pain or are feeling a sense of anxiety or discomfort, they can back off a bit, change the placement of their bodies or lessen the intensity. Verbally offering students different manners to adjust can be very helpful. This will help them strengthen a different muscle, one of learning that they can effectively change a situation if they so desire.
In Bessel’s quote above, he speaks of the “residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems”. Seemingly we are only helping people to move their bodies. The impact of this work however, goes far deeper. When people feel safe, when they learn that they have choice, when they understand that there is no right or wrong version of their movements, they can begin a cycle of healing and a return to wholeness.