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Trauma & Yoga?

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

One definition of trauma is that trauma occurs when people are bereft of agency—when they are forced into situations in which they are unable to make choices for themselves. Whether the situation lasts a millisecond or multiple generations, neuroscience and medical research reveal what people have probably known in their bodies all along: trauma changes brains and it changes our bodies, and these changes can shift how we relate to the world around us. These trauma-related changes can leave us feeling disconnected from our own bodies and unsafe in our own skin. Our bodies may be bombarded by warning signs that may or may not be relevant to the present environment, or our bodies may feel numb or even shut down. The good news is that healing is possible. Two things we know from a growing body of research across multiple fields are that:

1) Caring relationships are paramount. We are social creatures, and we need a team around us who can lift us up and cheer us on as we make our own choices,


2) Interoception—or the information we get from our interior selves, from our nervous systems and our internal organs—is our sixth sense, an awareness we can use to build pathways toward a sense of safety and empowerment in our bodies. Therapeutic, trauma-sensitive yoga is a healing modality centered on these principles. A trauma-sensitive yoga practice invites participants to explore movement and sensation in a space where trauma survivors can do something safe with their bodies and practice feeling what they feel without being told how they “should” feel, or what they “should” do, or how it “should” look. We feel the “feel-able” things in our bodies, as we’re ready to feel them—with, for example, depending on a client's needs and interests, exploratory movement, with active sequences of strength-based postures, with supported restorative forms, with breathing practices, meditation practices, and myofascial self-massage—and in doing so, we connect and build the neurological pathways that enable a sense of okay-ness, or even well-being, within ourselves.

What “Engaging Your Core” Can Mean for Trauma-Survivors I began practicing yoga in my early twenties, fresh off a frustrating collegiate athletic career and fully in denial about my own trauma history. I took aggressive classes in notoriously authoritarian styles (cf. Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, 2019), and I flinched every time a teacher tapped me to say “Engage your core.” I tried, and I thought about (read: ruminated, obsessed over) it, but never stopped getting the smack until I stopped going to the classes.

(And I stopped going to the classes only after I’d committed to going to therapy.) When I finally encountered the growing body of “trauma science” literature, I began to realize I was not alone in my challenges with “core engagement.” One physiological change that comes with trauma—and particularly with trauma perpetrated through relationships, and particularly relationships outwardly characterized by care and trust—is that interoceptive awareness, or our capacity to feel the sensations in our own bodies, goes awry. Our “core” or our “center,” where most of our viscera live, is a place in our bodies that teems with sensory information. When interoceptive awareness is interrupted (which can happen as a result of trauma, whether experiencing it first hand and-or witnessing it), our centers can be awash with conflicting sensory signals, and sometimes the only way to survive this overload is to shut down awareness altogether. Fine, I thought as I read all these articles in the so-called trauma sciences while still confounded by my own sense of bodily disconnection. I guess I believe it, but if trauma makes it so hard to engage your core, how then are there trauma survivors winning gold medals in gymnastics and other sports before ever realizing they were in need of healing and treatment? It’s a fair question—and a testament to the plethora of ways, both functional and dysfunctional—that trauma survivors work to control the bombardment of visceral warnings we receive from our bodies. The ways we hide from these signals—and from ourselves—has a lot to do with the context in which we’re trying to hide. Many of us—medalists included—learn to hide in plain sight. Emerging from our “hiding” places can create a whole new set of signals and warnings, and a whole new set of hiding strategies. This is where healing relationships and safe, non-evaluative spaces in which to rebuild interoceptive awareness can be useful. There’s no trauma Olympics—there’s no gold medal for having things “the worst” or for finding “the best” hiding spot. There are, however, rewards that come from building a compassionate relationship with our own bodies. This, like every aspect of trauma recovery, takes time. Trauma-sensitive yoga offers one way of reconnecting to a sense of safety in your body and has been scientifically validated to reduce symptoms of PTSD and emotional distress. To learn more, email and/or explore some of the following resources:

Emerson, D. (2015). Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy. Bringing the Body into Treatment. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Emerson, D. & Hopper, E. (2011). Overcoming Trauma trough Yoga. Reclaiming Your Body. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence -From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Porges, S. W. (2017) The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory. The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

Rhodes, Alison M. (2015) Claiming peaceful embodiment through yoga in the aftermath of trauma. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 21: 247-256.

Rothschild, B. (2017). The Body Remembers. The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

Schore, J.R. and Schore. A.N. (2008) Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal. 36: 9-20.

Seng, J.S., Lopez, W.D., Sperlich, M., Hamama, L., Reed Meldrum, C.D., (2012) Marginalized identities, discrimination burden, and mental health: Empirical exploration of an interpersonal-level approach to modeling intersectionality. Social Science and Medicine. 75: 2437- 2445.

The Center for Trauma and Embodiment at JRI. (2017) What is TCTSY? Retrieved from:

Van der Kolk, B. (2000) Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Nature of Trauma. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2: 7-22.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Van der Kolk, B.A., Stone, L., West, Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M., and Spinazzola, J. (2014) Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 75.

West, J., Liang, B. and Spinazzola, J. (2016) Trauma Sensitive Yoga as a Complementary Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Qualitative Descriptive Analysis. International Journal of Stress Management. 24: 173-195.

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