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A Case for Trauma-Informed Yoga

By Erin Finck

TUE OCT 27, 2020

The Culture of Trauma

We live in a culture that seeks to ignore and deny the existence of trauma. Attempts at speaking up and speaking out are silenced. The victim is shamed, and the perpetrator is more often than not effective at discrediting the trustworthiness of the victim, denying their own fault and blaming their victim, as if they "deserved" it, or "had it coming." By some strange phenomenon, the majority sides with the perpetrator, and the victim is left with a sense of helplessness, injustice, and an inability to feel safe or to trust.

Our current cultural systems, even as they’re meant to be helpful, can often end up doing more harm than good. We are just now learning about the effects of trauma on human development. In America, such things like acting out (oppositional defiant disorder), trouble concentrating (ADHD), difficulty with relationships or emotional regulation (borderline personality disorder), substance abuse disorder, and even obesity are seen as moral flaws inherent in the individual themselves. A stigma is attached to the human who has been subjected to already cruel and unjust treatment, medication is administered, and the patient is dismissed.

This isn’t to say that medication can’t be a life-saving tool, but that this is only one piece of the puzzle. A person needs to heal in order to recover. Taking a trauma-informed approach into every cultural system we have can be instrumental in creating positive, healthy, nurturing environments for our people to work, live, and grow in. Taking trauma-informed approaches into our judicial, criminal justice, mental health, substance use, and even our medical systems is essential if we want to work with a person holistically to create genuine healing.

Statistically Speaking...

Young children exposed to five or more adverse experiences in the first three years of life are 76% more likely to have at least one delay in their language, emotional, or brain development (Barth et al., 2008). As the number of childhood traumatic events increases, so does the risk of developing one or more of the following health problems in adulthood: depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide attempts, heart and liver diseases, pregnancy issues, high levels of stress, uncontrollable anger; and family, financial, and job issues (Felitti et al., 1998; Anda et al. 2004). The economic costs of violence against women and their children are estimated to be in the billions (Vandenbroek, 2014; Breiding et al., 2015). Research into the impacts of trauma on the developing brain has indicated to have negative effects on emotional regulation, cognitive development and brain development (Carpenter et al., 2009).

Parents who have experienced adverse childhood experiences in their early years might exhibit reduced parenting capacity and maladaptive responses to their children. Adverse childhood experiences increase the incidence of social risk factors, mental health issues, substance abuse, and intimate partner violence. Childhood trauma suffered at critical periods in a child’s brain development will impact the child in multiple ways; including neuroendocrine development, genetic/epigenetic systems, and, in turn, affect social/behavioral systems. This process happens cyclically: toxic stress takes its toll on the child’s biological systems, which influences the child’s behavior, which plays a part in the child’s social life. The behavioral and social interactions can end up creating more stress, reactivating the stress response, affecting neuroendocrine development, genetic/epigenetic systems, etc. The results of this can cause physical, emotional, and cognitive impairments that can last well into adulthood. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014).

The influence of power dynamics are everywhere, and in fact, begin at the moment of birth. If the child does not develop a secure attachment with their caregiver, their ability to develop healthy emotional regulation is damaged, they may be unable to form safe and reliable social bonds with others. The part of their brain involved with "maintaining a coherent, continuous, and unified sense of self" is impacted (Devinsky, 2000). The child grows to learn that the world is unsafe, and they are unworthy of care. This can lay the foundation for a lifetime of abusive relationships, struggles with mental health and substance use disorders, and engagements with self injurious behavior, to name a few.

So, why Yoga?

Yoga can help with positive psychological attitudes, vitality, good health, relaxation, and anti-inflammatory hormones (Kiecolt-Glaser, Christian, Andridge, 2012). The frequency of yoga practice has been negatively associated with stress and self-objectification, which can be useful for those who struggle with eating and/or body dysmorphic disorders. (Daubenmier 2005).

Yoga has a direct effect on the stress response system (Rhodes et al. 2016). It reduces perceived stress and symptoms of anxiety as well. It has been shown to yield gains in bodily attunement (Clark et al., 2014) and has been shown to improve self-regulation and the ability to stay focused on present experiences (Rhodes et al., 2016). This can be helpful for people who have been afflicted with substance abuse disorders as well as people who engage in risky behaviors, as it can help with impulse control. This type of yoga has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression, dissociation, and engagement of self-injurious behavior, even after having been in trauma-focused psychotherapy for at least 3 years (Rhodes et al., 2016).

This type of yoga can be a valuable tool for anyone who has not been successful with other trauma focused interventions. (Price et al., 2017). Even as little as 20 weeks of yoga practice resulted in 83% of participants no longer meeting the requirements for PTSD. The practice of yoga can take place in the same setting as traditional group therapy and doesn't require much equipment (Clark et al., 2014).

What do you mean by Trauma-Informed Yoga?

Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) is an evidence based, adjunctive treatment for trauma and/or PTSD that is chronic and treatment resistant. It was developed by the Trauma Center, which is now the Center for Trauma and Embodiment, at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA. It was developed using 5 underlying principles: invitational language, choice-making, shared authentic experience, non-coercion, and interoception. In the world of yoga, a number of trainings and programs are available that speak to these principles (making them what I call trauma-informed). To be certified to teach TCTSY, one must complete the full 300 hour certification. Trauma Informed and Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga are based upon the underpinnings of neuroscience, attachment theory, trauma theory, and the underlying yogic philosophies of Ahimsa (non-harming), Aparigraha (non-attachment, non-grasping), and Svadhyaya (self study).

This means, as facilitators, we aim to guide the sessions in ways that will not harm the participants (Ahimsa) by not using hands-on assists, by using language that is invitational (vs commanding) and offering choices (so the participants can decide for themselves what's best in their body). We are mindful of power dynamics (by sharing the experience, engaging in the practice in a way that is best in our own bodies, so that the participant has the choice and ability to engage in practice in a way that is best for their body). We aim to be non-coercive, by letting go of trying to control the outcome (Aparigraha). The participant is able to have their own experience, not one that we have tried create for them. This also means we regularly engage in our own self-study (Svadhyaya), staying open to our awareness of our intentions, our why, our reasons for facilitating, our goals and desires as facilitators. The reason behind this is that we aim to give the power, the locus of control, a sense of agency, back to the participant; so that they may simply be in the present moment, so that they may experience simply being in their own body - restoring a relationship between mind and body that may have been severed long ago. Our practice in our own self awareness (Svadhyaya) and of letting go (Aparigraha), is to let the participant be exactly as they are, in that moment, without us telling them how, without us telling them that there is a "right" or "wrong" way to be, or even suggesting that they're "supposed to" feel or do anything at all.

This is a bit different from modern yoga teacher training that emphasizes that the instructor is the one with the knowledge, and therefore the one who should be telling the other what to do. See the power dynamic here? This isn't even done on purpose in all cases, just that the idea is to communicate to the student that the instructor knows what they are doing - so the student can trust them. Conversely, trauma informed yoga aims to establish that the person who knows what is best in their body is the person who is participating in the practice, not the person guiding it. It is to establish the foundation for trust in one's own intuition and to continue to foster that development. It is not about getting into a particular shape (form), but about finding the expression of the form that works best in the participant's own body, in that moment. It's about giving the ability to decide what form to be in, if any at all, back to the participant. It's about giving choices.

The person is empowered to make choices that are supportive in their body. The awareness of sensation (interoception) lights up parts of the brain that have been silent for years. The person can learn to feel safe in their body again, and even develop a sense of comfort and ease. I believe that this lays the necessary foundation for the person to build upon to regain their sense of strength, security, peace, and overall well being.

Copyright © 2020 Erin Finck. All Rights Reserved.