This last weekend I attended a yoga teacher training on Trauma Informed Yoga with Firefly Yoga International .
It was a powerful experience, and one that opened my eyes to a new way of seeing trauma survivors and how and why the body carries the past with it, right down to a cellular level.
I learned, for example, that current studies indicate that one in every two people has experienced trauma directly, with the other 50 percent of the population likely to have experienced it indirectly.
This is no small statistic, and impacts the health of our global society.
When our bodies experience trauma, the sympathetic nervous system, the part of our body run by the amygdala and what generates our flight or flight response (we sometimes call this our “lizard brain”), fires away, stimulating an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, increased muscle strength, increased capacity for breath, increased energy and decreased digestion and urination.
This is helpful in responding appropriately to stimuli, particularly harmful experiences. It’s what allowed our ancestors to run away from predators and what helps modern man to produce superhuman-like strength to survive catastrophic events.
Ideally, once the threat has passed and the incident is over, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and slows our heart rate, restores digestions, reduces blood pressure and returns breathing to normal.
The problem, however, is that as pattern seeking devices, our brains undergo a bit of re-wiring during a traumatic event. Essentially, every experience is training for the brain as it works to create associations; if x happens, then do y.
Thus, if we do not allow the brain and the body to work together to physically shake a traumatic experience out (see this video from Dr.Levine as a reference), we send our bodies the message that the correct way to respond that particular kind of stimuli is to send the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive.
This is not good for us in the long run.
When constantly triggered, the body continues to function primarily from the sympathetic instead of parasympathetic nervous system. This leads to a whole host of health issues, including things like immune suppression, muscle and bone mass loss, loss of insulin sensitivity, elevated blood lipids, heart disease, gastro-intestinal issues and even memory loss as a result of Hippocampus neuronal death (Sonia Rupp, MD, Barton Psychiatry, 2015).
Fortunately, these “issues in your tissues” can be released. Newer research, however, strongly indicates that we can’t release this from talk therapy alone, which some argue serves as yet another trigger to re-live the experience.
Instead, scientists are finding that it takes a connection of the mind and body working together to actually rid ourselves of both physical and emotional pain, restoring all systems to “normal” as the parasympathetic system takes over once again, calming the body and creating space to heal.
What is most exciting and immediately impactful about these findings is that there is a highly accessible, affordable and safe way to do this—
Simplified, the word yoga means unity; the joining together of the body, mind and spirit. Using breath and asana (poses), the practice offers us the space and opportunity to link body and mind and literally re-wire our response system.
There are many different forms of yoga available, each offering different and unique benefits to those who practice. However, in specific regards to healing trauma, a traditional style class may feel inhibiting or inaccessible to many as simple things like breathing styles, lighting, cues and closed, vulnerable or complicated poses may serve as triggers rather than as positive catalysts for growth and change.
Trauma-informed yoga classes, however, are distinctly designed to allow participants to regain control and choice as they are led through a gentle practice that assists them in syncing breath with movement. Trained teachers offer modifications for poses and guide students in a practice meant to create and hold space for each individual without expectation, judgement or focus on precise alignment.
As a yoga teacher, an ex-wife, a mother, a daughter of a trauma-survivor and most notably, as a member of a community and world that experiences trauma on a daily basis, I see a tremendous benefit in sharing this practice.
There exists within us such great capacity to heal, should we choose to unlock our own power.
I am humbled, honored and eager to share these teachings with others and encourage everyone, whether a direct trauma survivor or not, to consider yoga (particularly a trauma-informed class), as a part of genuine restoration of the body mind and spirit.
Yoga works, because you do. Your task? Show up and breathe, the body will do the rest.
An Open Letter from a Trauma Therapist to Yoga Teachers: 12 Simple Ways to Make Your Classes More Trauma-Informed.
Author: Michelle Sweezey
Editor: Catherine Monkman