CoSozo Living

Yoga & Trauma
  • Patty Hart, E-RYT, has been happily teaching yoga for more than 16 years. She fondly refers to her a...

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Fri, August 1, 2014
Trauma + Yoga = Awareness & Healing
Yoga – Is It Always a Stress Reliever?
Engaging yoga as an antidote for stress is a primary reason to continue to practice. That ‘relief valve’ opening occurs for thousands of practitioners in daily or weekly yoga classes of all kinds worldwide.
However, for persons living with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or other types of trauma, a traditional yoga class may be a frightening, intimidating, or difficult place to be. Sounds, images, and behaviors which most people would consider neutral, can unexpectedly trigger those with PTSD.
I have experienced these unexpected triggers in myself while taking yoga classes. Over time I realized these adverse reactions were in response to my own childhood sexual and emotional abuse. This acknowledgement placed me on a unique teaching and healing journey.
Utilizing an adaptive yoga teaching approach, a curiosity about trauma’s effects on the body and mind, and the guidance and inspiration of some dedicated and compassionate yogis and trauma researchers I fashioned Trauma-Awareness Yoga for Women.
These are small gentle classes and private sessions that I teach for women who are actively working through PTSD or the effects of severe trauma (usually with a therapist), and who choose yoga as an adjunct to their existing therapy.

Patty will be offering Trauma-Awareness Yoga for Women small group classes and private sessions beginning in September, 2014. You can contact her at or 734-645-7251.

PTSD, Women, and Trauma Statistics
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD affects 7.7 million American adults. And the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder states that women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men.
Reasons why women may develop PTSD include a higher incidence of sexual assault, which is more likely to cause PTSD symptoms than other traumatic events. Women also tend to blame themselves when traumatic events occur.
My Personal Experience of Trauma Triggering
I was once triggered while participating in a 3-day workshop for yoga teachers, 200 miles from my home. There were over 100 teachers in attendance, and by the end of the first day we had engaged in many physically challenging standing poses without much rest in between.
Although I was breathing consciously, caring for myself as best I could, I experienced increasing anxiety, elevated heart rate, tears, and an internal sense of panic. I recognized that my body’s response was disproportionate to what was occurring at the workshop. Without knowing exactly what happened, I had stepped out of my body’s “window of tolerance” where I could no longer effectively manage my body’s current state of overload, sometimes referred to as hyperarousal.
Upon reflecting that evening I returned to the workshop the next morning more as an observer than participant. I then made the choice to leave the workshop and return home.
My choice to leave the yoga workshop was an example of taking effective action – an action that frequently doesn’t occur for those in the midst of a traumatic event.
I had deep compassion for myself in making that choice because it was not so much the workshop that I was leaving but the symbolic gesture of leaving the abuse of my childhood home. This was a powerful and resilient moment for me.
Although my childhood trauma does not meet the exact criteria of PTSD, the after-effects of trauma have impacted me throughout my life. These episodes of “triggering” have been physically and emotionally painful and simultaneously unique opportunities for growth and a deepening of self-love.
Yoga & Trauma Research
Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a psychiatrist, trauma researcher, and founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts has devoted more than three decades to helping those living with PTSD. He has championed the use of ‘somatic’ or body-based therapies, including yoga, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique or “tapping”), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), and Mindfulness Meditation in the treatment of trauma.
Van der Kolk noticed in a Vietnam War veterans’ therapy group that his patients would faithfully show up each week and reiterate their stories again and again. Many of the veterans were “stuck” in their stories, not living fully in the present and not releasing the trauma symptoms that brought them to therapy in the first place. He questioned the effectiveness of talk therapy alone as a primary treatment for PTSD.
Inviting the Body to Be Part of the Healing
As his research continued, van der Kolk recognized that his patients’ emotional states were imprinted in their bodies – usually tight and contracted muscles of the limbs, face, and upper body. He looked to body-based disciplines such as yoga to provide another avenue of healing for those whose lives have been repeatedly interrupted by the intrusion of trauma.
I had the opportunity last year to train with Dr. van der Kolk, and Trauma Center yoga teachers David Emerson and Jenn Turner, in a therapeutic yoga style called “Trauma Sensitive Yoga”. This training answered many questions about my own trauma history and crystallized the direction my teaching was headed.
This manner of sharing yoga as a body-oriented adjunct therapy invites students to safely notice and feel at the body-sensation level first, and address emotional and cognitive issues if and when they are ready. This manner of teaching yoga is often referred to as ‘Trauma-informed yoga’.
How is Trauma-informed Yoga Different?
Some things we might take for granted in a typical yoga class – dimmed lighting, women and men in close proximity, a teacher’s verbal instructions or demands, or a teacher’s physical adjustment of a student’s pose, may trigger a traumatized person to experience fight, flight, or freeze modes.
Although there may not be an actual threat, their perception due to past trauma is that a threat exists. This is also represented in distinct changes in their body, brain chemistry, and nervous system.
A trauma-informed yoga teacher seeks to minimize variables that can potentially trigger participants, hold a compassionate space for them and to sometimes allow the yoga positions and breathing to assist a student through a triggering episode until they can share the experience with their therapist.
What You May Find In a Trauma-Informed Yoga Class
Safety for each student and consistency of the teaching and yoga practice experience are priorities in this type of class. Here is what you may find in a trauma-informed class:
  • A small grouping of students – 10 or less
  • A consistent set up of the classroom prior to class with mats and yoga props (blocks, blankets, chairs) where students can always have a view of the door to exit the room
  • A scent-free space (no candles or incense)
  • No chanting or use of Sanskrit terms for the movements – only easy to understand terms (ie. ‘mountain’, ‘tree’, ‘bridge’, etc.)
  • Lights on and not dimmed
  • Shorter classes - usually 60 minutes or less
  • A friendly, modestly dressed teacher whose vocal tone is clear, even, and easily heard
  • A teacher who consistently uses “invitational” language as she/he instructs using words such as ‘maybe you’d like to explore’, ‘when you are ready', 'in your own timing'
  • A teacher using language that emphasizes that students have a choice in every moment as to how they wish to move or not move
  • Students taking effective action with the choices they make to care for themselves in class, (ie. opening a window if too warm, accessing specific props for comfort or safety)
  • A slower paced class that invites an internal breath and movement rhythm for each student and rhythms among the participants
  • A teacher providing non-directive verbal instructions that reference connection to their bodies in the present moment (ie. “if you’d like, inhale and lift your arms up from your sides, perhaps inviting your arms up to the height of your shoulders”)
  • Avoiding physical adjustments for students until a safe and grounded relationship is established between teacher and student. If an assist is given it is usually for the safety of the student in a pose.
With these tenets in place, teacher, students, and the therapists assisting them, can help build a new foundation of support and trust. Trauma-informed yoga welcomes the possibility of befriending one’s body without the shame or guilt that those living with trauma often face.
Yoga for Trauma: What The Research Shows
A study conducted by Dr. van der Kolk’s Trauma Center has recently been published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry where 64 women with treatment-resistant PTSD were placed in a yoga class or in a health education class meeting once a week for 10 weeks. After the period of the study, 52% of the women taking the trauma-informed yoga classes no longer met the requirements of having PTSD compared with 21% of the control group. Improvements were noted in both groups halfway through the study however only those women in the yoga group maintained these improvements.
It is so encouraging to see trauma-informed yoga beginning to receive recognition for its effectiveness as an adjunctive therapy for PTSD!
Giving students the opportunity to have a truly safe, gentle and grounded experience of their bodies through yoga creates the possibility of healing from trauma. This is the heart of trauma-informed yoga practice. 
I feel immense gratitude for what my body has learned and how it continues to heal. I welcome the opportunity to safely share the gift of this practice with other women through Trauma-Awareness Yoga for Women.

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