Dr. Azita Nahia defines trauma as “a highly stressful event or experience that disrupts your world and the way you have come to make meaning of it, leaving you feeling helpless, immobilized, disconnected, and stuck.”
Stuck is the word that sticks with me.
You may have heard that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is a fancy way of saying for every force exerted on an object there is a force equal in energy. Trauma is a BIG force. And if a force isn’t processed it gets stuck.
Often survivors of traumatic experiences are intimidated or even terrified of talking about their experiences. This is a top-down approach to treatment, and it doesn’t work for everyone. And truthfully, it hardly works for anyone when used alone.
Because, where do you think that energy gets stuck?
Yes, the body, especially the fascia! All the mental or physical stress and emotional trauma have to go somewhere. That is often in the body parts.
So a somatic (body-based) approach, or a bottom-up approach, is more effective in releasing stored trauma. That’s why yoga poses are such an effective treatment!
Areas of the Body That Hold Trauma
The way bodies hold trauma is personal. However, there are some common symptoms and places. These are good starting points when you get on your yoga mat to practice yoga for trauma release.
Head, Face and Jaw
When stored here, trauma can be incredibly painful. If you’ve struggled with TMJ (temporomandibular joint) syndrome you know the struggle! These practices help release stuck trauma from these areas so you can smile and use your face more freely to express yourself.
- Lion’s Breath: Practice this from any comfortable position or in any favorite yoga asana. Inhale through the nose and exhale powerfully through the mouth as you stick out your tongue. Extra credit for making claws with your hands, roaring and/or crossing your eyes as you do!
- Face Massage: Self-touch is soothing and helps release tension. Find a comfortable seat. Let your fingertips come to your face and massage freely. Follow your own intuition, but some good places to start are the massater muscle (where the upper and lower jaw meets), the temples, the third eye center, and the tragus (the thick piece of cartilage at the front of the ear).
- Eye Movements: Eye movements have a big impact on the vagus nerve. Take your hands toward the base of your skull. Massage this space, where the vagus nerve travels into your brain. Gently cradle your head in your hands. Let your eyes look all the way to your left elbow. Listen and feel for any sensations. Slowly center your eyes and release the arms. Repeat again with the eyes looking right.
Neck and Shoulders
The upper body is an easy place for the body to put trauma, we hold so much here anyway (not just physical trauma but psychological trauma). Shoulder and neck tension can move up into the head resulting in tension headaches, which are no fun!
- Shoulder Shrugs: From a comfortable seat, inhale to draw the shoulders up by the ears and exhale powerfully to soften them back down.
- Head and Neck Turns: From a comfortable seat, inhale to turn your head to look to your left and exhale to your right.
- Thread the Needle: Begin on hands and knees. Inhale deeply and reach the right arm out to the side. Exhale to weave it under your body. Come onto the right shoulder and side of the face. Keep the hips over the knees, a little behind, or all the way back toward your heels. Breathe deeply here for a deeper stretch before using the breath to switch to the left side.
Chest and Heart
When your heart is hurt you have a natural tendency to close it off. The muscles of the chest get super protective. Sometimes the chest becomes sunken and the heart literally feels heavy. This can result in dysregulation of the breath or heart palpitations. Opportunities to open the heart and practice breathing exercises (pranayama) can help release some of that negative energy.
- Spinal Flex: Find any comfortable seat, perhaps on the edge of a pillow or folded blanket, or in a chair. Let your hands rest comfortably on your shins, knees or thighs as you connect to your breath. Begin to inhale as you breathe the heart forward and exhale as you breathe the heart backward (think seat cat pose).
- Heart Tapping: Find any comfortable position; seated, standing or lying down. Gently rest your fingertips on your sternum, the bone that protects the front of your heart. Begin to breathe deeply as you alternate tapping your fingertips on your heart.
- A Meditation for A Calm Heart: Find your meditation seat. If it feels safe, place your left hand on your heart. Connect the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb on your right hand. Hold this hand up next to your right shoulder as if you are making a pledge to yourself and your heart. Begin to stretch the breath as long as comfortable. Stretch the inhale, the suspension, the exhale and the empty space after the exhale. It can be uncomfortable to hold the breath. Adjust your breath to match your comfort.
Often the abdominal muscles are tense and this leads to reciprocal breathing and being stuck in the sympathetic nervous system response. Because of this, there are often resulting digestive or eating disorders. When you are in sympathetic you can’t be in parasympathetic. And the parasympathetic nervous system is the rest and digest system. It controls digestion and nutrient absorption. If your body isn’t processing your food you can’t be well nourished.
- Plank: This is a great pose for empowerment! Come to hands and knees on your yoga mat. Align your wrists under your shoulders and widen the fingers. Powerfully press into the earth as you extend both legs back and hug the low abs up and in to hold your body in one strong line. You could also keep the knees down and walk the hands forward until you find a diagonal line that powers up your core. Breathe deeply as you energize through the legs, energize the core and power through the arms.
- Legs Up the Wall: Bring one hip towards a wall. Lower onto your back. Adjust so your root chakra (the base of your body) is right against the wall. You might have to shimmy to get there. Gently swing your legs straight up to rest on the wall. Perhaps place your hands on your belly. Breathe deeply.
- Abdominal Massage: From seated or lying on your back bring your right hand to your lower belly. Inhale to circle it up the right side towards under the center of your ribs. Exhale to continue your circle around and down the left side.
Especially in cases of sexual trauma, trauma shows up in the pelvis. This often results in irregular moon cycles, pelvic pain, and difficulty being intimate with others. Suggested yoga for trauma in this area.
- Sufi Circles: Find your comfortable easy seat. Let your hands rest on your knees or shins. Begin to inhale as you circle forward in whatever direction. Exhale as you circle around and back. Focus on opening the pelvic area. Continue for at least one minute and then switch direction.
- Yoni Mudra: From a comfortable seated position, interlace your fingers gently. Join the tips of the thumbs to each other and the tips of the index fingers to each other. Hold this in front of the pelvis with the thumbs pointing up and the index fingers pointing down.
- Supported Bridge: Have a yoga block or bolster nearby and gently move onto your back. Bend your knees and plant your ankles under your knees. Inhale to lift the hips up. Place your support under your pelvis. Exhale to lower onto your support. Breathe deeply for at least three minutes.
Have you ever experienced an intense emotional release while deep in a hip opening posture like eka pada rajakapotasana for example? Me too! The large muscle groups of the hips try to hold SO much for the body.
- Bound Angle Pose: Have yoga blocks or blankets nearby. Sit on the floor and join the soles of the feet. With an inhale sit tall, with an exhale soften the knees towards the floor as you open the hips. You may choose to place your support under the knees in bound angle. Sit tall or take an inhale and on your exhale hinge at your hips to fold forward. Take your hands to the mat, to prayer, or anywhere that feels important for you.
- Pigeon: Begin in tabletop position or in downward dog. Inhale and with your exhale take your right knee to the back or your right wrist. Draw your right foot back into your body comfortably and lower your hips toward the mat. Add support under your body to bring the earth up to hold you. Keep the hips pointing forward and the back leg straight. Sit up tall with a straight spine or inhale deeply and exhale to bend forward. You can keep your hands and forearms on the mat or use support under the torso. If this doesn’t feel good in your body, stay with bound angle pose.
- Pontoon Pose: Have a bolster or block nearby and gently move onto your back. Bend the knees and anchor the heels under them. Inhale to lift the hips so you can place your support under the sacrum. Exhale to lower onto it. Inhale deeply. Exhale to lengthen one leg. Switch sides. Perhaps try both legs at the same time.
The Differences between Trauma-Informed and Traditional Yoga Practices
What is trauma-informed teaching?
Trauma-informed teaching is sharing yoga in a way that is conscious of the fact that many (potentially all) people have experienced trauma. It is creating and sharing experiences in a way that honors the lived experience of the students and helps them release trauma out of the physical body through movement, breath, meditation, and other yogic tools.
Group trauma-release yoga session
A group trauma-release yoga class focuses on a safe space for co-regulation. Co-regulation happens when students move and breathe together. They practice yoga poses together in an effort to release physical and emotional trauma. Sequences are centered around moving the body in all directions and offering a lot of space for choice and intuitive movement. Students hold each other and themselves accountable for showing up to heal with yoga therapy.
One-on-one trauma-release sessions
In a one-on-one trauma release session the yoga teacher curates an experience with the specific needs of the trauma survivor in mind. If your student is comfortable sharing details of their traumatic experience and how it affects their inner world you can use this valuable information to create a class. If they are not, (many aren’t ready to talk) you can still reach their present moment needs by focusing on embodiment and their physical health. Even if they don’t want to share, the way their body is affected will speak for them. You have the power to offer them a new perspective of what it means to be at home in their body!
Benefits Of Trauma-Informed Yoga
There are too many benefits to count! These are some of my faves!
Reconnection to the Body
Trauma informed yoga is a homecoming. Through it you can find acceptance, safety, ease and balance in the vehicle you get to move through life in.
Renewed Personal Power
Asana increases physical and mental strength and endurance. It is a reminder of just how powerful you are. It is how I reclaimed my power and can be that for you too!
Breathwork and chanting connect us to our vishuddha, or throat chakra. Often in cases of trauma you are silenced. Practicing these tools helps you unleash your voice and speak up for what you believe in.
Digestive disorders brought me to yoga! I was on a clear liquid diet on the verge of losing my colon. I chose to keep my colon and get a divorce. I now live mostly symptom-free thanks to my yoga practice!
Emotional Balance and Ease
Yoga offers us a safe space to feel and heal. Even if it is just for the 5, 10, 20, 50, or 90 minutes that we are on our mat, that is powerful! That allows you to witness your emotions as messengers and honor what they have to say and let them move on.
Mental Health Support
The nervous system was designed to protect us. When we experience a traumatic event it needs to respond. But often in cases of trauma, it loses flexibility so it gets stuck in responses. It can’t move between sympathetic and parasympathetic. Processing trauma in an embodied way helps reregulate. Knowing the brain is just trying to do its job is validating and empowering.
Trauma-Informed Yoga: Who Can Benefit?
There are many trauma survivors and each one has their own lived experience. Yours is different from mine. But what makes us the same is the need to connect, or reconnect, with our body, power and voice despite what those lived experiences were or are. I truly believe that everyone and everybody can benefit from trauma informed yoga, but there are certain groups that need it even more.
Domestic Violence Survivors
Often survivors of domestic violence, women especially, develop PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, or even complex PTSD. I can tell you from direct experience that the feeling of not being safe in your own home and being afraid your own family member might hurt you, or worse, needs deep level healing. We need a somatic approach.
Sexual Assault Survivors
Often survivors of sexual trauma move through life disembodied. Your “No” was ignored and horrific things happened in your body so you decided it isn’t a safe place to be. Even having experienced a school shooting, it wasn’t until I experienced marital rape that I became fully disembodied. Yoga is the way back home to your body.
Traumatic Event Survivors
Those that experience things like a shooting, robbery, car accident or sudden illness or physical injury to oneself loved one often live in a state of hyperawareness. Trauma sensitive yoga brings them back into the NOW so they can feel and deal with what is there.
How To Get Started With Trauma-Informed Yoga
Trauma-Informed Yoga Teachers
Regardless of what type of yoga you are sharing and with whom, all classes can (and should!) be more trauma-informed. You can take your education deeper and get certified if all of this is deeply touching your heart. But you can also start small and make a BIG difference.
Safety: Safety is the number one priority. Keep things predictable. Honor time. Be mindful of music and lighting. Avoid approaching students from behind. And above all, NEVER touch anyone without getting consent first.
My favorite way to get consent is with affirmation cards. Students get an uplifting message, and they have a way to communicate if they want to be touched. They know they can leave it face up at the top of their mat if they welcome touch, but if at any point they change their mind they can turn it face down.
Embodiment: Trauma takes you out of the now and has you stuck in the past of worrying about the future. To be embodied, to come back to the physical body, to stay present. Move the body in all directions through seated, standing and supine postures so you can help students connect to all parts of the physical anatomy.
Keep in mind that yoga postures may be uncomfortable for folks or cause them to feel threatened. Offer alternatives for postures like child’s pose, downward facing dog, and savasana. Rest is deeply personal, always let them choose what final resting looks like to them.
Hypervigilance: Traumatized individuals, especially those with resulting PTSD, are always on high alert for danger. They are hypersensitive to tones of voice or facial expressions.
You may often see a physical reaction; clenching the jaw, holding the breath, tensing muscles. Use your awareness to be mindful of your students’ reactions, and be ready and willing to adapt your teaching to meet them where they are.
Power: Use yoga postures to help students remember how innately powerful they are.
Standing postures and core work are especially potent here. Offer spaces that invite in discomfort, like holding a plank. This lets students discern what to do with the discomfort, push through or back off. Remind them the choice is always theirs, and that is their power.
Boundaries: Encourage students to listen to any boundaries their body or nervous system is setting.
This helps them honor their boundaries more off that mat and in their lives too.
Breath: We have so many beautiful pranayamas, but keep in mind that certain pranayamas (I’m looking at you, breath of fire!) can be activating for students.
Always offer long deep breaths as an alternative.
Language and Voice: Keep your language invitational and empowering and your voice patient and compassionate.
Invitational: Ensure that your students know you are simply a guide and they have agency over their own experience.
Empowering: Noone wants to be told not to do something. Shift your language from negatives to positives. Instead of saying what not to do, tell your students what to do instead.
Intuition: Trauma survivors have often ignored their intuition. You can offer them spaces to reconnect to their body’s intuition.
You can use your own intuition to guide their experience as well.
Meditation: You most likely already know meditation is magic! Encouraging your students to develop a practice off the mat by sharing the power of meditation on the mat is potent.
I find a combination of mudra and simple pranayama is powerful for trauma survivors.
If you are a 300hr student or graduate check out this Trauma Informed Yoga Discussion. If you aren’t an alumni, but want to go deeper with me LIVE on trauma informed yoga join our 300hr YTT! Check out some of Katrina’s favorite trauma resources too. You can also experience my trauma sensitive yoga classes within the Uplifted Membership to inspire your teaching.
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Trauma-Informed Yoga Practitioners
Often those of us (yes I am deeply in the us with you) who have experienced trauma get overwhelmed with all of the possible tools we can use. Or you may feel like you don’t deserve the time to practice because you need to be taking care of everyone and everything else. But I am here to tell you this is not true. You deserve the time and space to nourish yourself, promote healing and release stored trauma.
Safety: We can heal when we feel safe.
Reflect on what feels safe for you and your nervous system. Who? What? Where? Offer yourself more of that! And, equally as important, reflect on what doesn’t. Aim for less of that in your life!
Embodiment: Devote time to come home to your body every day, ideally with some movement, in your own way.
A lot of space for intuitive movement and grounding postures like child’s pose (if it feels safe), squat, mountain, and any of your favorite seated postures are lovely for embodiment.
Hypervigilance: Get curious about your reactions. Honor your nervous system for trying to do its best to protect you. Then make an effort to regulate with anchor tools.
My favorite tool for nervous system support is Vyana Vayu Mudra. On your right hand, connect the tip of the ring finger to the tip of the thumb. On your left hand, connect the tip of the middle finger to the tip of the thumb. Keep all other fingers extended as you rest the backs of the hands on the knees or thighs comfortably.
Power: Practice discernment.
This is where I find kundalini to be especially powerful. It gives you the chance to practice discernment. It takes you to the very edge of your comfort zone and lets you decide what to do there.
Boundaries: Honor any boundaries your body is setting on the mat so you can practice for doing this off the mat!
It is powerful to practice this in a seated forward fold. Sit tall with your legs extended forward. Flex through your feet and anchor both sit bones. Inhale deeply to lengthen the spine and sides of the waist. Exhale to fold forward. Lead with the heart. Listen for your body to set a boundary. Honor that boundary and breathe deeply.
Breath: Don’t underestimate the power of long, deep breaths!
From any comfortable seat, bring your awareness to your breath. Check to make sure the inhale expands the belly and the exhale releases it back to the spine. Connect with your diaphragm, the muscle that powers the breath. Notice if you can feel it move down with your inhale and float back up with your exhale.
Language and Voice: Reflect on how you are talking to yourself throughout your practice.
Are you offering yourself the same compassion you so freely give to others? How are you speaking to your body? How are you listening to it? Are you allowing yourself choice and agency?
Intuition: ALWAYS allow space for your body to move the way it feels it needs to move. Notice I didn’t say think!
Your body is innately full of wisdom and always seeking healing. Let it do its thing! From hands and knees or standing just move. Don’t think! Stay with your body’s inner knowing. This helps you tune into and trust your intuition more in other ways.
Meditation: I said it once and I’ll say it again – Meditation is MAGIC, especially for healing trauma!
There is an abundance of benefits, but the simple power is devoting yourself the time. Trauma survivors don’t usually leave space for a devotion to themselves. Understand you deserve that space. My favorite way to do this is with mudra and mantra meditations. Find what works for you. Create a meditation ritual for yourself, even if it is one minute of long deep breaths!
About the Author | Katrina
Katrina is an E-RYT 500 with a background in biology and education on a mission to empower kids and adults with yoga tools. She is a lead trainer here at Uplifted™Yoga with a special focus on trauma-informed leadership. She brings this healing practice into her local and global studios. Katrina is especially passionate about trauma-informed kundalini yoga, yoga for youth, and using the chakras and astrology as a map for healing. You can shop her moon workbooks and see her schedule at www.katrinamarieyoga.com. Join her live to reclaim your personal power and come home to your body and heart.
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