Whether you’ve never tried yoga or are deeply into your practice, you probably know that yoga has an intense way of integrating your body’s movements with your mind’s inner chatter. For some, that connection facilitates a sense of calm and restoration. For others, that peace seems far away, if not impossible, and yoga classes offer more fear than relief. When yoga calls unexpected attention to your mind and body — and when it involves subtle competition with and potential touch from strangers — it can actually be re-traumatizing for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the increasing practice of trauma-sensitive yoga is a safer, more supportive practice for all people.
When someone is living with PTSD, their body-mind connection is wired into a state of persistent fight, flight, or freeze. In other words, their body is always hyper-vigilant, ready to protect itself against danger that it might not realize has already passed. Many yoga classes can inadvertently trigger this re-traumatization in people. And according to Annie Okerlin, founder of the Exalted Warrior Foundation, which facilitates adaptive yoga instruction for wounded veterans, “If there is a 'no pain no gain' mentality [in your yoga practice] it will increase [your] current dis-regulation and the system will not have a chance to reset.”
In these ways, people can be re-traumatized in yoga class from a variety of triggers, including unexpected touches from yoga instructors to adjust a person’s position, the feeling of certain poses or of closing the eyes, or from yoga’s emphasis on breathing itself.
According to trauma therapist Dr. Jamie Marich, writing in Decolonizing Yoga, many trauma survivors are encouraged to try yoga classes by their healthcare providers. But without the right fit, yoga can actually be a triggering experience for people who have experienced or are experiencing trauma. Dr. Marich wrote that in order to feel safe in yoga class if you’ve experienced trauma, it’s especially important for you to be in control of your yoga practice. This includes feeling like you can leave your mat or the room for a water or mental health break, and feeling like you don’t have to close your eyes during your practice if that’s something that makes you feel out of control of your body or too vulnerable and exposed.
Jenn Turner, director of training at the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute (JRI), tells Bustle that there are particular things to look for in a potentially trauma-informed yoga instructor. “I like to encourage folks to read through a teacher's bio and look for language that signals that the instructor seeks to empowers students to build their own relationship with their body and with yoga,” she says. “In Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) we invite students to rely on their own inner wisdom of what works or doesn't work or what feels ok or doesn't feel ok, rather than relying on some external arbiter of what a form should look like or feel like.”
Okerlin encourages people to begin their quest to feel safe in a yoga class well before class begins. “If you are anxious about being in pubic or rarely leave the house ask what the quietest times are at the studio for a visit,” she tells Bustle. “That way you can orient yourself to the space. If possible meet the instructor there prior to a class and see if you feel comfortable with them.”
In addition, Dr. Marich said that it’s critical to find a trauma-informed yoga instructor who is sensitive to issues of consent. Even gentle touches meant to guide and adjust posture can be triggering and harmful to people. And even if an instructor asks for consent, Dr. Marich wrote that since many people have a difficult time saying no to touch for fear of upsetting an instructor or otherwise being seen as difficult, your instructor should be attentive to your body language so that your boundaries are respected.
When developing your yoga practice, it is essential to find an instructor that invites you to cultivate movements, poses, and self-care strategies during yoga class that give you control and choices about what you do with your body. Customizing your practice to fit what you need is one of the key principles of trauma-informed yoga. Anneke Lucas, founder of Liberation Prison Yoga, which offers yoga and mindfulness practices for incarcerated people in New York, encourages people to look for instructors who use inviting language instead of commanding language. For example, instructors should focus on encouraging students to find ways poses feel right for them, instead of telling students that a pose should look and feel a certain way. In these affirmative class atmospheres, Lucas tells Bustle that “Students should know that if they wanted to lay down on their mat for the entire class, that this teacher would be 100% OK with their choice and encourage any type of self-care.”
Any type of self-care may well include yoga that does not look like the typical Instagram-promoted image of yoga: instead, Lucas says, “Creating one's own sacred space for the practice can be empowering and fulfilling, choosing anything that invokes a sense of comfort and peace, such as scented candles, gentle music, nature sounds, stuffed animals, soft blankets, etc.”
Ultimately, Turner’s most important advice for people seeking to cultivate a trauma-informed practice for themself is that it’s about you. “This is your practice and your journey,” she tells Bustle. “You get to decide what feels OK in your body and what doesn't. Turner encourages people to cultivate a practice that feels uniquely right for them without focusing on what other people's practice looks like. "Reconnecting or reclaiming your body in the aftermath of trauma is hard work," she says, "and isn't often peaceful or easy ... but it can be both powerful and impactful.”
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.