Trauma-Informed Yoga & Scope Of Work
Human beings are animals and as animals, we have what is sometimes called a trauma response when we experience trauma. Our nervous systems are designed to help us integrate traumatic experiences, but many of these involuntary responses are shamed by society and have even been misinterpreted as nervous disorders. For example, when a mother gives birth her body has to process the trauma of the experience. In the wild when an animal gives birth they process this trauma by shaking, jumping, flailing, and vocalizing. In our society, we have such a grotesque misunderstanding of the birthing process that we historically have laid women down to labor, which actually slows down the progression of labor. To add insult to injury, we encourage numbing sensation over allowing the body to feel and process the sensation in order to integrate the trauma. Women who give birth naturally report shaking uncontrollably after delivery, which is completely normal. This is their body’s way of integrating the experience.
Dr. Levine is the authority on somatic therapy and he says we hold trauma in the body when the trauma loop is not allowed to naturally complete itself. In the example of labor and delivery, many women have a “block” after childbirth that impacts their sexuality and their self-esteem. This may very well be due to their body’s inability to complete the trauma loop. Dr. Levine’s work with somatic modalities has been instrumental in our research and work in the field of Yoga and Yoga Therapy with regards to the way the body holds trauma and how yoga and mindfulness can help us to release the holding and find integration.
First, it is important to note that our body’s chakra system is essentially the peripheral nervous system’s way of communicating with the central nervous system unconsciously through proprioception and interoception. When we understand this we understand that our body is constantly scanning its environment looking for what it perceives to be dangerous or what it perceives to be safe. When we’re in a safe environment we are able to cycle through our samskaras or patterns. When we are in an unsafe environment we move into a hyperaroused state of being that initiates our fight, flight, freeze, and response.
The brain’s limbic system is where we store our memories and our memories are the places where our brains go to reference what is perceived to be safe and what is not perceived to be safe. Our perceptions are based on our lived experiences and although these lived experiences are true for us they are NOT universally true. This concept is important to note because we often take for granted that our experiences are universal when they are not. When we hold space for the trauma we have to remember that is not the case. We also have to understand that trauma cannot be compared. The way we internalize our experience is unique based on our unique experiences prior to the traumatic event. Therefore, we have to understand that trauma is a multifaceted experiential event that can live in the body, be activated at any time, and impact and even impair our ability to make sound judgments or act in accordance with our values or best interest at heart.
All populations are populations impacted on some level by trauma. If we remember this then every class we teach will be a trauma-informed class. Trauma-informed classes are not therapy sessions, they are not opportunities to activate students’ past traumas, and they are not spaces for energetic release. Although trauma-informed yoga can pair well with therapy it should be done by a trained Yoga Therapist working with a Licensed Therapist as a team, not in isolation. Trauma-informed yoga can activate individuals, but it is not designed to do so; rather, trauma-informed yoga is designed to create space to teach students self-regulation strategies to help them to be better at connecting with their bodies’ responses to proprioceptive and interoceptive stimulation. Finally, although trauma-informed yoga, or yoga of any kind, can facilitate energetic release we have to hold a safe container for the entire group. We want to teach students how to release without going into hyperaroused patterns that may be reactionary. Ultimately, we want to teach students to respond to their bodies’ feedback with the appropriate bio-response that will regulate and self-soothe while using psychological tools found within yoga to help facilitate self-study, svadyaya.
It is extremely important that yoga teachers remain in their lane of expertise when it comes to trauma. Teaching trauma-informed yoga requires that you are self-aware enough to understand when you are projecting your own material in your cues, directions, and attachment to a particular pose. If you do not possess that metacognitive skill then trauma-infomed yoga might not be the most appropriate style of adaptive yoga for you to teach. If you’re asking yourself what projection-free teaching looks like then you can refer to the yoga teacher training manual and many of the videos on projection-free teaching. Essentially, projection-free teaching is all about the student. The student is dictating the shape of the posture, the speed of the class, and the way the practice integrates into their life.
If you’re teaching a sixty-minute class you might cue physical cues, you might cue directional cues, and you might offer alignment suggestions to help make the practice more easeful. If the student is moving slowly you go with it, if the student is moving quickly you go with it, if the student is married to their perception of Warrior I you go with it rather than trying to impose your will on their practice. You can gently suggest things, but always as an offering. Projection-free teaching also eliminates the story that sometimes creeps into the yoga shala. If you think a student’s alignment is wrong you ask yourself if their alignment will cause injury and if it won’t you let it be. You might check in after class with some suggestions but always ask first how their existing practice feels in their body rather than assuming that they want your advice in the first place.
When we couple projecting free teaching with a trauma-informed protocol we are ensuring that students have a safe space to explore their practice and we are making sure that we are staying within our scope of work.
Trauma & The Brain
Our brains are supercomputers that have the capacity to store a lifetime of memories and process a plethora of metal fluctuations arising in the sea of awareness that we identify with as I, Me, and My. The brain is composed of many different sections and two hemispheres. The brain stem is the reptilian brain and that supports the autonomic nervous system and our basic involuntary functions. The midbrain is where the limbic system is located and it is responsible for emotion and our ability to perform certain tasks and remember things. The frontal lobe is the seat of discernment and it allows us to leverage executive functions.
When we experience a traumatic event the body takes in the sensory information and the brain has a difficult time processing it. The brain looks for a memory that helps it to identify the experience as “good” or “bad”. If there is a straight answer the body processes the experience accordingly. If there is dissonance or confusion the brain gets stuck. This cognitive experience of being stuck is what Dr. Levine talks about as an interruption in the trauma response. Obviously, this is simplifying the process slightly, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll move on from here with the understanding that something we perceive as “bad” might fall into the category of traumatic even though there is no dissonance around it and experiences that have dissonance are automatically traumatic.
Imagine you’ve formed a bond with someone and you only know love for them. One day this person abandons you and you don’t understand why. Your brain keeps recalling all of the times that they said they would not abandon you and yet here you are in an experience that is incongruent with your understanding of reality. We could apply this same concept to a car crash; you are driving in what you believe to be a safe vehicle and are following the traffic rules only to be hit by an oncoming car. The experience is traumatic, even if you are not physically hurt, because there is an incongruency between the belief and what actually happened. Usually, these concepts go back to basic safety principles like autonomy, dignity, respect, and well-being but trauma can be a result of any incongruency.
Below we have a graphic of the brain. You can see the limbic system impacts all three parts of the brain. The amygdala is associated with the brainstem, the hippocampus is associated with the mid-brain, and the prefrontal cortex is associated with the frontal lobe. It’s almost like a game of ping-pong. The stimulus hits the brain, the hippocampus is activated and looks for memory, and the memory is found and is perceived as good or bad. If no memory is found or if the memory is perceived to be bad then the amygdala is activated and emotions become dysregulated. This cuts off communication with the prefrontal cortex and the result is usually rumination which moves the individual back to the hippocampus or continued reactivity.
Trauma And The Nervous System
The brain alerts the body to the possibility of danger or threat of danger. The brain does not know the difference between the death of body and death of ego; to the brain, they are the same thing. The brain sends a message to the body that either the body is safe or that the body is in danger. Danger initiates the nervous system’s hyperaroused state of being which causes the heart to beat faster to pump more blood to the extremities. This is to help the body prepare for fighting or fleeing, but sometimes this causes the individual to freeze.
Sometimes the trauma loop can be completed, but sometimes it can’t. Remember the scenario of giving birth? When a woman delivers naturally it hurts, and it’s traumatic, but the body produces endorphins and can feel the experience in its fullness. In feeling the experience the body reacts unconsciously and regulates itself or doesn’t. If the body doesn’t integrate it holds in a pattern of tension.
The chakras represent generalized felt sensations that all humans can relate to. These feelings are the interoceptive system’s response to environmental stimuli. This causes the proprioceptive system to innervate organs and tissues that cause sensations. These sensations can be felt as physical sensations in the body. Examples of benign sensations that are a result of the proprioceptive system are the sensation of butterflies in the stomach when you’re anxious or nervous. This is the celiac plexus innervating the tissue of the stomach, small intestine, and gallbladder.
When we experience trauma we either process through it or we hold it in the body. The body has energetic layers that are impacted by these experiences. We might not even be conscious of what is going on, but our bodies are aware and they are protecting us from the inside out as part of a greater effort to keep us safe.
Poses To Avoid
When we are teaching through a trauma-informed lens we want to make sure that we are aware of the possibility that something we might offer could activate a student. Activation is inevitable, but we want to avoid it if possible in a trauma-informed setting. If we know we are working with specific populations we can avoid certain poses altogether. If we are not sure what trauma our students might have experienced we can offer general options and modifications. The key to offering trauma-informed yoga classes is in giving your students autonomy.
If you’re working with the general public you should offer options for different asanas. For example, if you were to offer child’s pose offer a comfortable seat first. It might sound like this:
“Today we’re going to begin class by taking either a comfortable seat with the gaze softened or by coming into child’s pose. Whichever posture is more comfortable and welcoming to you is perfect.”
The example above gives students the option to take whichever posture feels most comfortable, and they know they can come out of that posture and move into something else if need be. Typically in a general class teachers can pair the following postures together as an “either-or” option.
Comfortable seat OR child’s pose
Seated cat/cow OR cat/cow
Seated hip opener OR ½ pigeon
Mountain pose OR forward fold
Comfortable seat OR savasana
Firelog pose OR frog pose
If you know the population you are working with is healing from sexual trauma you might want to avoid the following postures all together.
Bound angle pose
Whenever you teach a trauma informed yoga class, make sure to provide options and to reassure the class many times that this is their practice and they always can move out of a posture at any time if they feel the need to shift or change their body to feel more grounded, safe, and at ease.