Trauma-informed yoga creates space for physical healing
When a person experiences trauma — gun violence, abuse, or military combat, for example — the body holds onto those memories in tissues, muscles, and physiology. Even as the person mentally tries to work past the experience, physical reactions that helped them through the traumatic experience may persist.
This can look like someone who has survived gun violence dropping to the floor when they hear fireworks, even if intellectually they know they’re safe.
To work through this, some people turn to trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed yoga, which uses yoga postures and breathing practices as a way to physically ground the body and retrain it toward calm. Dave Emerson, author and leader at the Justice Resource Institute, coined the term trauma-sensitive yoga.
“You know, it’s therapy. It is not just a yoga class,” says Mariana Lopez, behavioral health clinic manager at the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago.
Trauma-informed yoga differs from popular yoga because it takes into account “symptoms and circumstances,” all while creating a safe space to intentionally support healing for both the group and individuals.
For example, trauma-informed yoga instructors at Move Therapy and Wellness, an integrative mental health and wellness practice located in Roscoe Village, pay close attention to the language they use and how they structure space during class. Above all, teaching from a trauma- informed lens means that instructors have a deep understanding of trauma.
“Because of its impact on the nervous system, trauma is a deeply physical experience, which is why yoga can be instrumental to helping people heal,” says Laura Dziekiewicz, founder and clinical director of Move Therapy and Wellness. “It can help to increase body awareness and connection in a safe and controlled way, which can enhance feelings of physical, emotional, and psychological safety.”
Approaching yoga from a trauma-informed perspective gives participants another way to process and cope with their life experiences.
“To a certain extent, this class is a coping skill,” Lopez says. “We take things slow and allow the body to release that trauma all while building a ritual, one time a week, for your self-care and healing.”
The body-based therapy engages the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the nervous system that controls the body’s ability to relax and rest. Trauma-informed poses, breath work, and humming can all stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This fosters a sense of calm, safety, and comfort.
Elisabeth Nuesser, trauma-informed yoga facilitator at Timberline Knolls in Lemont, says many participants in her classes have experienced trauma and developed other behavioral health diagnoses as a result. “We’ve worked with a lot of dual diagnoses — PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders — just pretty much the gambit of mental health in general.”
Lopez says she finds beauty in trauma-informed yoga because of the growth that it promotes. In IMAN’s class, people work toward healing and recovery using psychology, anatomy, and a system of healing that is thousands of years old.
“The community connection is a very big part of healing from trauma because a symptom of trauma can manifest as feelings of isolation,” Lopez says. “The trauma-informed classes connect everyone together, to the present moment.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 print issue.