Yoga as an Intervention for Complex Trauma

Yoga for Trauma

by Lisa Frede

Jaime sat cross legged on her new yellow yoga mat, wondering why she had ever agreed to try this. The instructor at the front of the room was addressing the class, yet Jaime’s mind was racing and she could hardly focus on what was being said – something about bringing her attention to her breath and settling into her body, whatever that meant. It was all so unfamiliar: the soft lighting, soothing music, a few other teens sitting on either side a safe distance away.

The instructor continued: “I invite you to begin with your palms together at your heart and just notice the places where your fingers connect. Then, on an inhale, you could extend your arms out to your sides, noticing any sensations that might be there for you. With the exhale, you may want to bring your palms back together.” Jaime breathed out, noticing how fast her heart was pounding and how tight her chest felt.

As part of her treatment plan, Jaime’s therapist had connected her to the yoga class, letting her know that it was “trauma aware” which meant that it was designed for people like her who had experienced complex trauma and who were living with things like PTSD. Her therapist suggested that it might be a way she could learn to calm her overactive stress response, experience a decrease in physical symptoms and emotional distress, and not feel so out of control and out of touch with her body sensations. According to description of the class online, it was the same as a “normal” yoga class except for the way it was presented. Trauma-informed yoga classes are structured to offer an environment where participants can feel safe, mostly due to the emphasis of simple things like using the word “form” instead of “pose” (which might be triggering for some survivors), working with breath in an experimental way instead of a prescriptive way, and never using physical touch as a guide. The instructors are trained to use invitatory language instead of commands, offer lots of choices during the forms, and emphasize mindfulness directed solely at body experience to further the benefit of yoga.

Jaime’s breath started to flow more fluidly as she consciously began matching it to the movements of her arms. The instructor continued, “Another possibility is to bring your arms to your sides, and then, on an inhale, sweep your arms up in a circle. With the exhale, you could bring your arms back down to your sides. How high you lift your arms and whether or not you lift your chin when you sweep your arms up is totally up to you. Feel free to experiment with this breathing and moving exercise, perhaps noticing how the muscles in your arms feel while you lift them and lower them. You may wish to continue to move in this way for three more cycles of breath.”

“Good, only three more,” Jaime thought as she noticed the tops of her shoulders start to burn. She suddenly realized that she couldn’t remember ever just sitting and breathing before. It felt a bit weird, yet at the same time, being rooted cross-legged on the floor provided a sense of stability and balance.

“You can experiment with finding your own pace with this movement or you could try matching my pace if you’d like,” the instructor said gently. Jaime felt panic rise up for just a second and almost froze in the face of a decision, but then found herself raising her arms to match the instructor’s movements. She didn’t want to lift her chin because that would mean taking her peripheral gaze off the others in the room so she chose to leave it parallel to the floor. The instructor’s breath was audible at times and made it easier for Jaime to remember to take in air. “If at any point this feels uncomfortable,” she said, “You are welcome to take a break for as long as you need.” Jaime looked around shyly to see if anyone else took a break, but when they all chose to continue, she did too.

Why Yoga?

Thanks to a growing body of research, trauma-informed yoga is now considered an evidenced based intervention for people who were pervasively hurt and abused within relationships and/or for those who suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety.  For example, David Emerson, along with world-renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, founded the Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Program at the Trauma Center in 2002 and started gathering data on its efficacy; although their research has focused on adult women who experienced chronic childhood abuse and neglect, yoga is also utilized at the center with younger children and teens who have similar backgrounds. The practice of yoga especially serves to promote growth in the following areas for those that have survived complex trauma:

Yoga develops interoception.

Interoception is our ability to sense what is going on within the boundary of our own skin. Cultivating this internal sensory awareness is a critical aspect of healing from complex trauma because in order to listen to and take care of our body we need to be aware of what it needs through recognizing feelings like hunger and being full, tiredness, tension, cold, heat etc.

Yoga provides opportunities to gain confidence in choice making.

Survivors of complex trauma have often experienced what David Emerson refers to as an “extreme lack of choice.” In trauma-informed yoga this experience is countered with providing participants with as many chances as possible to practice making in the moment choices about what to do with their bodies.

Yoga teaches how to take effective action.

In order to heal from trauma, survivors must discover that their bodies can become effective agents of action and change. In yoga, participants are given the opportunity to focus their attention solely on having and noticing experiences that are happening in the present and experiment with interacting with those sensations by taking action.

Yoga fosters the practice of being present.

David Emerson defines being present as the situation, “When one’s body experience and one’s neurobiological experience are aligned.” Yoga offers an opportunity to experiment with various forms of movement and to notice what is being felt in each moment so that trauma survivors can have new experiences that are not traumatic.

Yoga increases a sense of rhythm.

Trauma survivors often feel as if they are stuck forever in a helpless state of horror. In yoga, participants learn that body sensations rise to a peak and then fall; they subsequently begin to recognize that they won’t get stuck in a place of emotional overwhelm. Bessel van der Kolk summarizes the value of this in recovering from complex trauma: “Once we know in our body that things end, then the next part of our life can begin.”

Yoga develops familiarity with muscle dynamics and trains participants in the value of breath work.

By learning to sense various muscle dynamics, including those involved with breathing, yoga participants can begin to develop the ability to make things happen on purpose in specific muscles which in turn provides a sense of ownership over in the body.

Improves Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

Bessel van der Kolk explains that individuals with PTSD have unusually low HRV which is the measure of how their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems respond to breath. Yoga practice is shown to increase HRV and as a result, bring the systems closer towards balance which improves the body’s overall response to stress

Jaime continued to attend the trauma aware yoga class as part of her treatment. Over time, she noticed that she wasn’t as distracted while moving through the forms and felt more present wherever she was. She learned to remind herself to breathe throughout the day and noticed that her muscles felt just a little bit more relaxed and a little stronger. She started being more curious than afraid of her body sensations which resulted in a significant decrease of anxiety. Not only did she learn to notice different feelings in her body and recognize what they were telling her, she also came to realize that no sensation lasted forever even if it was a bit uncomfortable. As her experience with yoga increased, Jaime became more confident with choosing when to take a break, when to push herself just a little, and learned that she could become more energized or more relaxed depending on which movements she made. She also started to enjoy the challenge of new forms and found she was starting to feel proud of her ability to master them.

Jaime’s experience illustrates the suitability of yoga as an intervention within the CTR framework, particularly for targeting growth in the domains of Neurological and Biological Maturity, Over-active Stress Response, Emotional Regulation, and Identity Development. Through practicing yoga, Jaime was able to experience what Linda Sparrowe concludes in her article, Transcending Trauma: “Yoga’s ability to touch us on every level of our being— physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual —making it a powerful and effective means for trauma victims to rein-habit their bodies safely, calm their minds, experience emotions directly, and begin to feel a sense of strength and control.”


A Review of Yoga as an Aid in the Treatment of Trauma, prepared by Arthur Sharp, Trauma Sensitive Yoga Australia

Article: Transcending Trauma by Linda Sparrowe

Book: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Book: Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the Body into Treatment by David Emerson

About the author

Lisa Frede

Lisa Frede is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and member of our CTR Clinical team. To learn more about her click here click here

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