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Introducing Trauma-Sensitive Yoga

My journey to a career in healing and mental health was paved on some very difficult journeys. I’m a survivor of multiple traumas, big personal losses and a debilitating, chronic illness. I work from a place of deep, personal knowing. I have yearned for answers and came up empty. I’ve searched for solutions and hit multiple dead-ends. I have cried many tears on the bathroom floor, with not much strength left. Through my personal and subsequent academic journeys, I have come to know much about mental health, the mind-body link and the approaches and healing modalities that work. I am predominantly focused on trauma, and the practices that support trauma recovery.

Trauma has traditionally been defined as an objectively life threatening event (or witnessing of such an event). However, this definition of trauma has changed dramatically in recent decades. We can see in both the professional fields of mental health and trauma research, there has been an evolution of this definition and the appreciation for how much wider the definition of trauma needs to be.

Trauma is not just what happened to us, but also what absence of care and responsiveness there may have been as a child and in adulthood. It is also not necessary that this is an event we can recall clearly (for example if our own birth was traumatic). It is for these variety of reasons that more contemporary approaches define trauma as any emotionally disquieting or disturbing emotional event that the trauma survivor gets to define themselves.

Unresolved trauma has historically been treated with pharmacological and psychotherapeutic approaches. In recent decades, there has been fascinating research emerging on body-based approaches to trauma recovery. These approaches rely not on verbal memory recall and narrative therapy, but rather resolving both the psychological and physiological effects of trauma. Trauma is a whole-body experience. It is often an experience that we find psychologically difficult and that our body responds to physiologically (for example: racing heart, shallow breath, digestive system slowing down). For many trauma survivors, they can find great relief and support from the after-effects of trauma and unresolved trauma through body-based approaches. There is also interesting research emerging in the USA that compares body-based approaches to other more traditional approaches, with fascinating results. Research is still in its infancy in this field.

Trauma-sensitive yoga, as I offer it and train others in it, is a non-verbal, safe and empowering whole-body practice for trauma survivors; to develop effective, accessible tools and resilience in their trauma recovery journey. It does not take away from traditional approaches, but provides a complementary practice to them. It’s important to note that this is not the standard yoga one would find in contemporary yoga studios. It is distinctly different in several important ways. Trauma-sensitive yoga requires specific actions from the facilitator, the space we provide it in and the style of yoga we provide.

Facilitators are required to undergo specialized training in the field, with a strong focus on their own self-regulation and trauma recovery if they identify as trauma survivors. Facilitators are encouraged to have a robust, consistent form of mental health support such as a therapist or similar.

The physical space trauma-sensitive yoga is provided in is intentional. Safe spaces with lots of natural light, and clear exits are important. The physical space is intentionally kept free from unnecessary visual, auditory and scent distractions. Particularly because many of these may be triggering for trauma survivors. Trauma survivors are oriented towards exits.

In the case of trauma-sensitive yoga conducted online, video technology that is safe and secure (e.g: requires a passcode) is of paramount importance. Participants are always provided with a choice to have their video on or off. The facilitator is encouraged to be in full view, in a completely private room or space, and orient participants to where they are and what background noises they may hear. This is done to avoid startle responses.

The yoga practice is made trauma-sensitive through a variety of ways that are intentional and that facilitators receive in-depth training on. Yoga classes generally do not include long periods of stillness and introspection. Participants are guided safely through mindful meditation and breathwork that is externally oriented and that involves some form of movement. Eyes open or closed is always the choice of the participants. This is to avoid potent trauma triggers that long periods of stillness which trauma survivors may not be ready for can arise. Yoga poses are chosen intentionally, with the local context in mind and which poses could be potentially triggering for trauma survivors in that context. As an example, in a context where sexual violence is noted as prevalent, poses which expose the lower abdomen to the class or facilitator are avoided. Cues and words are always invitational, trauma survivors are not instructed into poses but rather invited with plenty of reminders that they can exit, or choose another pose or activity. The tempo of a trauma-sensitive yoga class is not too slow, but not too fast either. Poses are generally not held for long periods, due to the risk of overwhelming periods of stillness and introspection.

Trauma-sensitive yoga is a gentle, and intentional form of yoga that is proven in academic research to effectively support trauma survivors on a trauma recovery journey. The underlying mechanisms of this are taught in detail, in our trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training programs. As a licensed counselor and yoga therapist that specializes in trauma and mental health, I bring both fields of knowledge and professional practice to the programs. We host an 8 week yoga class program for trauma survivors and training for those wanting to facilitate trauma-sensitive yoga (20 hour and 50 hour programs available). This is a wonderful field that is fast-becoming a popular and complementary option for trauma survivors globally.

About the author: Candice Clark is a licensed counsellor and yoga therapist who specialises in trauma and mental health. She has worked with numerous individuals and on group therapy programs in South Africa and internationally, supporting the recovery from psychological trauma. She is currently completing her Masters thesis on trauma-sensitive yoga in the South African context. She trains local psychologists, counsellors, healthcare practitioners and yoga teachers on this methodology. @returntopresence

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