Medical doctors and psychologists have conducted research on this topic. It can easily outsize a blog post! Most students and teachers of yoga have personal perspectives on yoga’s power to heal. My answer isn’t exhaustive, but it’s mine! How can trauma-informed yoga help survivors heal?
- Positive way to spend free time. At the very broadest level, spending your time doing something you enjoy, something that doesn’t harm you, something you look forward to, is beneficial. In terms of underserved communities, financial barriers can make it harder to get involved in free time activities like yoga.
- Gentle physical exercise. Yoga postures are a form of exercise with physical benefits such as flexibility, lowered blood pressure, and increased strength. Aside from these more direct physical benefits, there are psychological benefits related to the physical practice as well. One example: backbends (including those gentler than full wheel of course!) activate the same part of the brain that responds to stress; the fact that we often rest immediately following backbends activates the logical part of the brain responsible for calming the system – this is literally training the brain to respond more calmly to stress.
- Mindfulness – that is, focusing on the present moment, the present sensations in our bodies, our present emotions. Lots of activities and practice can help us focus on the present moment, and yoga is one of them; furthermore there is often a focus on going inward more than many other physical activities. For those with PTSD, being focused on a past event or experiencing anxiety about the future can be problems; time spent doing something that brings our awareness to our bodies and our movement in this moment is time that isn’t spent looking to the past or future. Sometimes people can bring that present moment focus off the mat and into life. Even for those of us without a diagnosis like PTSD, focusing on the present moment can be a welcome relief from less severe but still problematic anxiety or rumination.
- Improved body-mind connection. Coordinating movement and breath, perhaps even without vinyasa, can strengthen the body-mind connection which is often lost or weakened in trauma. Even less intense forms of stress can cause us to live a little more in our heads than in our bodies. (See “How can you incorporate vinyasa into a gentler yoga class where students aren’t flowing in between yoga postures?” Forthcoming) On a related note, slowing down the pace of the breath signals the brain to relax. Most of us believe in body language, that our mindset affects how we carry our body, but the reverse is true too – how we hold our body affects our mindset. Lisa Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses relates to this without even specifically citing yoga.
- Feeling of control. Offering options in yoga can help return one’s sense of control over one’s own body. Lack of control can be a major or the major factor in trauma, so having options in a yoga practice, to choose how to move, how long to hold a posture, how deep to go literally puts some control back in a person’s hands. Invitational language can be an excellent way to incorporate options into a practice.
Few people would argue that yoga alone will help people heal from trauma, but it is often one powerful tool. When I teach, I don’t necessarily speak to all these benefits all the time, but I do sometimes pepper them in, both in public classes and in trauma-informed classes. I tend to speak to the benefits that speak to me, but it’s wise to hold space for the fact that different things work for different people. There are yoga teachers who bring in the chakras or other aspects of yogic philosophy, and no doubt students and trauma survivors who find this helpful. Personally I believe yoga has a lot to offer even solely as a physical and breath-oriented practice; I don’t offer a different style of yoga in my trauma-informed classes, I just take steps to make the class friendlier and safer for trauma survivors than a typical public yoga class.