What is Trauma-Informed Yoga and Who Is It For?

Trauma-informed yoga. It sounds a bit technical, doesn’t it? Most people don’t stop to think much about it. Some let the words pass down their screen during a scroll, or perhaps read through the words on a flyer without a second glance. Ultimately, I don’t think most people believe it applies to them. And so the terminology sits, like an ugly duckling waiting to be seen and appreciated. So few truly understand the potential of these words.

What is Trauma-Informed Yoga and Who Is It For?

How I Discovered Trauma-Informed Yoga

As a clinician, a yoga teacher, an educator, and someone who has gone through trauma first hand, I can tell you I’ve always needed the practice and teachings of trauma-informed yoga, but for the longest time I didn’t know just how powerful this training would be. I stumbled into the blend of these two areas on my own back in 2013. I was a new counselor at a women’s trauma program, and like a baby deer trying to find its footing, I was just starting to understand the basics of stage one trauma work: stabilization and safety.

I read handouts, taught skills, and coached my clients to ground themselves. I felt pretty confident in this place. It was a safe container for myself and for my clients. In my personal life I was practicing (hot) power vinyasa yoga to take care of myself and de-stress. Mainly, I walked into power yoga looking for a new workout. Like many new things, I wanted to understand it fully. It wasn’t enough to just be a student, I wanted to learn how to teach so I could share yoga with others. In 2014 I finished my RYT-200 hour training, and was handed a certificate to go out into the world and teach yoga. Perfect.

It seemed pretty clear to me, in the conference room at the women’s trauma program, that I could easily put these two worlds together. Trauma and yoga – this made sense, right? Since it was power yoga, and it was fast, I called it “energizing yoga”, and waited for sign ups for my 11:30 AM group offering. Sometimes seven women arrived, sometimes one, and many times precisely zero students showed up to my class. Not fully understanding why clients weren’t flooding to the newly christened “yoga room”, I figured maybe it was the name. I erased “energizing” off the sign up board and changed it to “depression”. “Yoga for depression, yes, this is it!” I thought to myself.

Still, I had similar results. While teaching power vinyasa yoga to the women’s trauma program, I had some memorable moments. More than once, I turned around to see the students and noticed none of them were practicing at the same pace I was. Here I am thinking, “this is SO empowering right?” Turns out, it wasn’t. It was highlighting what these ladies couldn’t access, or needed much more time to learn. And yet I’m saying things like “find YOUR fullest expression, and honor that-but it didn’t match with my teaching. This didn’t feel right.

I did have one client come in that was quite flat in her expression throughout the program day – except for yoga, and she would never miss a class. I brought this up with excitement during the treatment team meeting and her therapist responded “probably because she is exercising. She has a severe eating disorder”. “Crap”, I thought, as I slid down in my chair.

Some clients didn’t seem to mind physical assists. I was told in my teacher training to give everyone in class a physical assist, and let them tell you if they didn’t want it. However I noticed clients tightening up at the touch of my hand, and some of them not returning to class. What was going on here, wasn’t I doing everything right??

At times clients would sit during certain poses and stare off, with a glazed-over look in their eyes. This would happen for one person in particular each time we went into child’s pose and into savasana, or corpse pose. It wasn’t until quite some time later I connected the dots to how difficult it would be for someone who is suicidal to lie and “just relax” in corpse pose, of all things. Or how difficult it might be to regulate their emotions when in child’s pose, having endured sexual trauma. The same was true for countless women during hip openers. It seemed their bodies couldn’t move into the shape, as if something were stopping them. There was no opening happening here.

Understanding What Trauma-Informed Yoga Really Means

Understanding What Trauma-Informed Yoga Really Means

After months of offering yoga and reflecting, I finally realized that Trauma-Informed Yoga, wasn’t just the sandwiching of trauma work and yoga, it was so much more than that. Trauma-informed yoga means to be inclusive, understanding and accepting of those you are serving. It’s taking into consideration that according to estimates, out of every four people that approach you for your services, it’s likely that three of them have endured a traumatic experience. It’s taking the generic, canned phrases that are tossed around in yoga rooms like “love and light” and having accountability to put them into practice when people are coping with quite the opposite. Though it involves what you teach, it’s more about HOW you teach.

If you want to offer trauma-informed yoga practices in your studio, mental health practice or other setting, remember this: trauma did not only happen to a person’s mind, their body was there for the experience and their body remembers. As important as it is for healers to understand how to keep yoga safe, it’s equally important for us to understand the importance of movement, mindfulness and breathwork to keep the healing moving through the entire person – not just their minds. In mental health, we call this bottom-up processing. We resource and work through trauma and emotional discord from the body, then seek to understand it in the mind (or not!). Unfortunately, many popular therapy practices – even those that provide excellent results at first glance – forget to include body-based work, and miss the opportunity to provide a powerful and lasting experience of healing.

Here’s Where to Start if You’re Looking for Trauma-Informed Yoga

Here’s Where to Start if You’re Looking for Trauma-Informed Yoga

If you are looking for a space to work on moving trauma out of your physical body, look for a yoga studio that has trauma-informed protocols. Some questions you might ask the studio or teacher are:

  • Do you offer consent based physical assists?
  • How do you promote a safe and inclusive space in the studio?
  • Do your teachers undergo special training for trauma informed work?
  • Am I able to leave during the class, and if so, what will happen?
  • Do you play music in your classes, and if so, what kind?
  • Do you offer classes for beginning level practitioners?

If you are a clinician or mental health provider looking to help your clients process trauma somatically and not solely cognitively, get training or supervision in this area. Be transparent with your clients about what your abilities are clinically, and be honest about when you may need to refer out. There are some simple practices that any clinician can use to increase the attention to true mind-body awareness such as the ones listed here:

  • Observe your own breath and body as you work with clients.
  • Notice changes in their positioning, body and breathing as they move through and describe different experiences.
  • If it feels safe, ask your client at the beginning or end of the session to observe their breath, for example noticing the sensation of the rising and falling of their chest.
  • Ask your client to notice where they feel an emotion in their body when they label a feeling.
  • Ask your client to pay attention to the soles of their feet (or another area that feels grounding) when they are feeling overwhelmed.
  • If it helps the client, end the session by taking a few deep breaths together.
  • Ask your client to notice the impact difference when offering somatic interventions that shift their posture – and go slowly with these explorations! Going slow will help you pick up on more subtle cues.

I know Trauma-Informed Yoga may sound technical, and in ways I suppose it is. But in others, it’s quite simple. What I really want people to understand is that yoga can be a tool to help people recover from traumatic experiences. To heal the emotional residue that trauma has left in the body – when used skillfully, of course. Yoga, like anything else, can be harmful when not used with intention. Whether you are teaching yoga, recommending it for someone else, or taking a class at a new studio, I recommend you do your homework first. Consider your reason for attending the class and whether or not it will suit your needs. Talk to a therapist if you haven’t already, and remember that your voice matters. Especially when you’re recovering from trauma.

I hope this information is helpful. I just completed nearly a year of intensive study in yoga and trauma, and am now a Certified Provider through the Center for Yoga and Trauma Recovery. My hope is to continue to learn and share my teachings with others to create a larger impact when it comes to healing.

Interested in taking a class? I am taking over teaching for the next few months at DBT of South Jersey, and our monthly virtual online yoga classes are free. Sign up here to join me, no experience necessary.

Peace, Shaelene

DBT of South Jersey media

Stay In The DBT SJ Loop!

Get all our updates, free events and workshops and DBT Tips in one beautifully curated place by subscribing to our email list!

We only send about once a month, so we don’t overwhelm your inbox! 😉

Welcome to DBT of South Jersey – we’re glad you’re here.

Subscription Form