Using Yoga to Manage Trauma
Julie Caramanico, MS, RYT, RCYT
The body remembers. When I started practicing yoga, I felt really good. Two years in, I became more dedicated to yoga and started doing a more intensive yoga practice (Ashtanga) for a few hours a day.
When I began to practice this way, I started to have strong emotional reactions while doing yoga. I’d feel this “wave” of sadness or anger wash over me, and I had no idea where it came from. An otherwise happy morning could turn into an experience where I was confronting difficult emotions.
What I didn’t realize then was that I had experienced a traumatic event and had repressed the memories and emotions that stemmed from the trauma. I wasn’t able to remember or articulate what had happened to me, but through yoga movement, I began to access the deeply repressed emotions associated with the trauma.
I then reached out to a therapist I trusted, and was able to begin doing the work to heal myself. “Yoga saved my life” can be a tired statement at this point. But in a very real way, yoga was the critical gateway to accessing the care I needed.
In the city of Philadelphia, 37% of residents report having four or more “Adverse Childhood Events” that predispose them to post-traumatic symptoms.1 Concurrently, yoga in our City of Brotherly Love is booming. Donation-based classes are wildly popular with anywhere from 30-80 folks showing up for community yoga sessions at the Race Street Pier and Schuylkill Banks. Yoga studios seem to be popping up on every corner.
In addition, the mental health community is recognizing yoga as a helpful method for therapeutic healing. Yoga is used in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is an evidence-based treatment for trauma. With so many people in our city experiencing trauma, and so many folks getting out to community yoga classes, it’s possible that trauma survivors are turning to community classes and yoga studios for release. They may even be discovering their trauma for the first time on the mat.
In an effort to provide information for trauma survivors and yoga teachers, I spoke with Gwen Soffer and Melissa Lucchesi. They are incredibly dedicated to trauma-informed yoga instruction, and train yoga teachers in how to teach trauma-informed classes. Here are their responses below:
How is yoga helpful for those who've experienced trauma?
Melissa: Yoga is often considered a mind-body-spirit activity. You use all of those to practice yoga, and each is affected by the yoga practice. So is trauma something that affects mind-body-spirit. When a trauma survivor engages in a yoga practice, in a way that is safe for them, yoga can help process the traumatic energy held inside.
So many trauma survivors are turning to yoga for healing. What is important for them to know or ask for when they come to a yoga class? What should they do to make sure they feel supported?
Melissa: Find out what you can about the type of yoga taught and the teacher leading the class beforehand. You can find out a lot from researching online to find what might work for you. I would also consider finding a studio that asks for permission before physically adjusting students. This can create a safer space on the mat where a survivor's consent to touch matters. Even if she is comfortable with touch, the idea that her word counts can empower a survivor greatly. Also, always remember that you are not committed to staying in or returning to a class where you are uncomfortable. There are many different styles of yoga and yoga teaching, and it is your choice what works for you.
What have you learned from becoming a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher? What has surprised you?
Gwen: I would say the most significant lesson that I have learned is to not assume what students are experiencing on their mat. As part of our trauma-informed teacher training, we ask people to share a safe experience they have had in yoga and an unsafe experience. I learn so much from these responses. Some of the situations are blatant and others more subtle, and each offers insight into the many ways students experience, both positively and negatively, yoga classes.
Teaching in a trauma-informed way is a practice in itself. It takes effort and presence, and most importantly it takes a lot of self-awareness; awareness of our own biases, our own experiences, and the assumptions we make about what yoga is and why people show up on their mat. When I keep my own ego in check, I am able to see more clearly how to be of service to my students.
How can yoga teachers create a safe space for those who've experienced trauma?
Gwen: Trauma-informed teaching has specific techniques and approaches that create a safer classroom, but more than that, it is an attitude. We refer to teaching through a trauma-informed lens. In other words, through that lens or awareness you are able to assess your words, your actions, and your expectations in the face of individual experiences. Since we cannot know what every student needs, the safety of all students is built by a universal approach that respects boundaries, understands the power of words, and positions the student as the expert of their own body and practice.
How can people who've experienced trauma find trauma sensitive yoga teachers?
Gwen: The awareness around trauma-informed yoga is growing, and there are many advocates of this approach to teaching yoga. We want to reiterate that we believe this approach creates a safer classroom for all students regardless of the specifics of their personal story. At the core of practicing yoga is learning to live in your own body. This being said, creating safe space that promotes student-driven choice is important to self-discovery.
Our advice to students is to know that there are a variety of types of yoga and teaching styles and to trust yourself if you do not feel at ease in one class, there are others for you to choose from. Finding a good fit is important, so talk to friends about their experiences. We also have a registry on our website of teachers that have trained with us. There are many trauma-informed yoga teachers throughout the country, so we hope to expand this list to include others that have committed to this work.
Learn more information about the Trauma-Informed Lens Yoga Teacher Certificate Program: http://www.experienceenso.com/events/trauma-informed-lens-yoga-teacher-certificate-program
Participate in the Trauma-Informed Lens yoga survey: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeySTLSrT3UkS0aNWk_ibezB3Pv3A_Xw8cf9XLfs3e0fq6LwA/viewform?c=0&w=1
Julie Caramanico, MS, RYT, RCYT is a certified yoga instructor for adults and children with a master’s degree in Health Psychology. She teaches trauma-informed yoga to adults (vinyasa style) and teaches kids yoga for children with special needs. Find out more at www.yogawithjc.com.
Gwen Soffer E-RYT is co-owner of Enso Yoga Studio in Media, Pa., and co-founder of Trauma-Informed Lens Yoga. She is a masters in social work and trauma certificate candidate at Widener University. In addition to her trauma-informed weekly public classes, she leads trauma-sensitive group classes and individual sessions with community groups as well as in service agency settings. Gwen is co-lead teacher of Enso Yoga Studio’s Yoga Alliance-certified teacher training and co-lead teacher of Teaching Public Yoga Classes Through a Trauma-Informed Lens Certificate Program.
www.experienceenso.com , www.traumainformedlensyoga.com
Melissa Lucchesi is founder and director of Voices, Inc., in Media, Pa., which offers healing groups for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Widener University and is currently enrolled in Chestnut Hill College’s masters of clinical and counseling psychology and trauma studies program. She has worked in the victim-service and trauma field for over 11years on a local and national level. She sat at the White House Roundtable for Trauma in Women and Children and has presented workshops on victim services, laws surrounding violence on campus, and trauma healing across the country.