When you think of yoga, you likely get a vision in your mind of difficult postures achieved via youth, strength, flexibility, and willpower. In many western yoga classes, yoga’s physical postures (asanas) are used as a means to get in a good work out or achieve some physical goal. Trauma Informed Yoga (TIY), also known as Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY), on the other hand, is an emerging practice that combines the centuries old traditional yogic practices with the findings of contemporary psychology and neuroscience. From my perspective, TIY is more consistent with the original definition of yoga, defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (compiled around 400 CE): Yoga is that which stills the fluctuations of the mind.
Those who have experienced trauma can find health club yoga classes triggering, unsafe, or even rejecting. Indeed, I have heard many clients describe their previous experience of a standard yoga class as being very uncomfortable and as feeling that they “did not belong there” and “were not good enough to be doing yoga.” In a TIY class, on the other hand, the teacher creates an environment that is inclusive and welcoming of students as they are, however they show up at that moment. The language used for instruction provides options and possibilities for different practices and levels of engagement and participation.
A TIY class incorporates physical postures, works with the breath, and uses a variety of meditative approaches with the intention of enhancing the student’s self-knowledge, ability to self-regulate and tolerate uncomfortable affect. The emerging research is consistent with overall trends in the mindfulness domain – these practices cause changes in brain functioning. In addition to attenuating the symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety, therapeutic yoga has also shown to have a beneficial impact on the management of chronic pain, diabetes, and insomnia, to name a few. Therefore, it is likely that some of your clients (maybe even you?) could benefit from TIY or a class that is taught from this perspective.
For the past ten years I have taught TIY classes, helped develop training and instructional materials, and have provided continuing education for Living Yoga, a wonderful non-profit that brings TIY into correctional settings, mental health facilities, drug treatment programs, etc. I have observed that a TIY class can appear very different than some of the fitness-oriented yoga classes. Students may each be manifesting the physical pose in very different ways, as the teacher gives many options (including doing nothing at all other than just being themselves and being there) and the language is much more invitational than offering specific directives. The pace is slower, and poses are held longer with an emphasis on taking the time to mindfully experience the sensation of the body in the moment. Attention to physical alignment comes from the perspective of safety and security, rather than striving to achieve the “perfect” pose. Attention to the breath is a consistent theme in a TIY class, and typically more time is spent in some form of meditation at the end of class. Indeed, I have taught classes that have been almost entirely pranayama and meditation. This meditation, such as yoga nidra, is carefully conducted in such a way as to enhance a sense of safety and integration rather than inadvertently reinforcing dissociation.
I would also point out that although I have used Sanskrit terminology in this piece, most of us who teach TIY classes minimize the use of such terms as it can be uncomfortable or intimidating for some, or simply irrelevant for others.
Some notable teachers have expressed concern about cultural appropriation and the need to decolonize yoga, and I value their contribution. I do find something illuminating about what these terms originally meant and how meaning has evolved, but on the other hand, the essential question is how to facilitate a healing experience for my student. So if simply saying “breath practice” is more beneficial than saying pranayama, then “breath practice” it is.
What should a counselor do when considering recommending that a client try yoga?
1) First, educate the client as to what TIY is and how it is different from a fitness-oriented yoga class. They may have had previous yoga experiences that were not empowering.
2) Next, if they are receptive, spend some time actually perusing websites of different studios that are convenient to them in order to find a studio and class that will maximize the chances for a successful experience. Encouraging them to try out a Level 2 vinyasa or hot yoga class, which may be great for some people, will likely be overwhelming for someone with complex trauma, and should be avoided if someone is in chronic pain. Even if a class is not explicitly labeled as TIY or TSY, descriptors can be helpful, particularly classes that are described as “restorative” or “gentle,” and beginners should always start with a Level 1 class. Most importantly, cultivate your own knowledge of studios and classes in your area. Many teachers offer private sessions, and I encourage clients to go for private sessions, particularly if they have a physical injury and chronic pain.
Living Yoga also offers public TIY drop in classes through these partner studios: Unfold Studio (Saturdays 8:00-9:00am), The People’s Yoga (Sundays 7:30-8:30am), Alano Club (specifically for people impacted by addictions and recovery, Sundays 2:00-3:00pm), Multnomah County’s North Portland Health Center (Thursdays 11:30-12:30), and Multnomah County’s Southeast Health Center (Fridays 10:30-11:30am). Donations are requested for studio space, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
Harry Dudley, PsyD, has worked in the mental health field since 1982 in a variety of settings. Since 1990 he has specialized in the field of forensic psychology. In 1993 he relocated from Manhattan to the Pacific Northwest and established a private practice where he primarily focuses on providing forensic and clinical psychological evaluations. He also provides psychotherapy to children, adolescents, and adults. He is a Certified Integrative Restoration – iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher, and uses iRest with individual clients, groups, and yoga classes.