How Yoga can Help Survivors Heal the Effects of Chronic PTSD by Tapping into the Body’s Wisdom…
Trauma-sensitive yoga, or trauma-informed yoga, has become somewhat of a buzzword these days. Although used interchangeably, they do, however, slightly differ in their origin and meaning. But for the sake of this article, trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed yoga are going to be used interchangeably, as well.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Trauma is part of the natural cycle of life that is experienced by other mammals and species, and we humans aren’t any different. In reasonable amounts, stress can be healthy for building our nervous system’s capacity to deal with and overcome challenges and trust in one’s own ability to triumph over difficult situations.
The problem isn’t so much in experiencing trauma but often in how and whether the energy of trauma is released from our bodies after the stressful event has passed.
Our bodies, through the evolutionary process, have developed their capacity to respond to traumatic events through the nervous system’s instinctual resources: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. If the body is successful in responding to the external threat detected by the nervous system, it often returns to baseline and feels triumphant as a result of responding to that threat. However, sometimes, when the body fails to utilize its internal resources to respond to threatening situations, the stress hormone cortisol keeps secreting in the body even long after the threat has passed. This sometimes results in one’s own body experiencing what happened in the past in the present moment in what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic PTSD. In some cases, prolonged, multiple traumatic events can lead to complex trauma (CPTSD).
No matter what happened (or when), the long-lasting effect of experiencing trauma can wreak havoc on one’s body, nervous system, and overall health and can interfere with our daily lives. Some of these symptoms may include anxiety, depression, grief, anger, addiction, isolation, hyperarousal, and dissociation. And while healing can help ease the lingering effects of PTSD, the remedy isn’t one-size-fits-all.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, a clinical psychologist in New York City, while some trauma survivors might find success in traditional top-down talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, others might benefit from somatic experiencing, a special type of adjacent trauma care that focuses on a more bottom-up, or body-based approach for addressing and treating PTSD and CPTSD.
What has trauma-sensitive yoga got to do with it?
One way survivors can engage in somatic experiencing is through trauma-sensitive yoga. Other examples may include meditation, mindful breathwork, massage therapy, and tai chi.
Given that PTSD is a situation where one’s body responds to a “perceived threat” that happened in the past, but in the present moment, the combination of intentional, slow, and mindful movement and breathwork in yoga experienced in a safe, predictable environment can help bring the mind and body’s awareness to the present moment, engage the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s rest and relaxation response which helps reduce hyperarousal and stress), and cultivate a sense of safety and ease in the body, all of which get compromised in the aftermath of trauma or complex trauma.
And that’s where trauma-sensitive yoga comes in, as it helps move that unmetabolized, stuck trauma energy in the body through the nervous system that gets activated during yoga.
But what is trauma-sensitive yoga?
Oftentimes, trauma-sensitive yoga refers to a specific program called Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) that was pioneered in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is part of the greater Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute. TCTSY is an empirical “clinical intervention” for complex trauma or chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, which fuses yoga philosophy and movement with neuroscience, trauma theory, and attachment theory. So, generally, trauma-sensitive yoga is a specific type of yoga class that is designed to take in participants who have experienced trauma, be it in the form of a traumatic loss or assault, childhood abuse, or daily trauma, including systemic oppression and racism.
How trauma-sensitive yoga works
Trauma-sensitive yoga is based on central components of the Hatha style of yoga, where participants engage in a series of yoga shapes and movements. These yoga shapes are modified to present participants with the opportunity to feel empowered in their own bodies and develop a sense of autonomy over whether to experience a yoga shape or not, to remain still, take a break, or move into another shape at their own pace. Although this style of yoga employs physical forms and movements, the emphasis isn’t on the alignment of the forms (i.e. how the shapes look or whether participants are doing it right), but more so on the internal experience that the participants are feeling as a result of engaging in the movement.
Focusing on the power of their body to inform decision-making allows participants to restore their connection of mind and body and cultivate a sense of agency that is often compromised as a result of trauma.
Additionally, trauma-sensitive yoga is informed by other pillars of research, including trauma theory, attachment theory, and neuroscience, to present participants with a safe space to engage with their bodies and where facilitators understand how to respond to what might show up in the participants’ bodies (hypervigilance, dissociation, re-traumatization) during a yoga session.
The powerful potential of trauma-sensitive yoga
- Improving mind-body connection by bringing both the mind and the body into the present moment through a combination of yoga movements and breathwork
- Calming the nervous system, which often gets compromised as a result of experiencing a highly stressful or traumatic event. Yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which tells your body that it is safe to calm down and be in the present moment.
- Emphasizing the present moment. Trauma-sensitive yoga focuses on strengthening “interoceptive awareness,” the ability to notice sensations in one’s body or notice the breath (shape, size, colour, length, constriction, expansion) while welcoming the option to move out of any sensation if it gets too intense or re-traumatizing
- Reclaiming control over one’s own body’s agency and feelings (i.e. the ability to feel safe in one’s body) is the first step to healing from the long-term effects of trauma. Therefore, trauma-sensitive yoga can help build a sense of empowerment, self-trust, and self-leadership by gradually mending one’s relationship with their own body.
If you or someone you know think could benefit from engaging in a trauma-sensitive yoga offering, you are welcome to drop an email to [email protected].
To ensure the availability of a support system while participating in the somatic practice and processing of TCTSY, an intake screening is required for all individuals prior to registration.
For more trauma-sensitive yoga resources, feel free to visit