A few months have passed since my promised update on some amazing training I took part in at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass. A lot has happened since then. That training is now coming to fruition via a pilot study for women who have endured complex trauma. A new trauma-sensitive yoga class series begins with an intake later this month, and I’ll begin a 10-week series March 7 at HeartSprings Community Healing Center.
While small, HeartSprings, a Fargo, N.D.-based nonprofit organization, maintains an incredibly proactive stance in introducing complementary therapies to benefit our community, with a special focus on neurological disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Always looking forward, they enabled me to receive specialized training in trauma-sensitive yoga therapy, taking my 200-hour training to the next level with the 40-hour certification in order to better reach those impacted by trauma.
A few slots still remain for the training, which will be conducted at no cost due to the pilot study format. For more information or to register, contact HeartSprings at 701-261-3142.
A collage of photos I took during my time at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
You may have heard or read about various studies showing yoga’s impacts on health and well-being. The overall benefits are immeasurable as the ancient practice “yokes” the body and mind — but some benefits can be measured, as recent research by The Trauma Center at JRI is finding. But not all yoga classes, or instructors, are created equal.
New trends for “hot yoga” result in minimally clad yogis crowded into a room exceeding 100 degrees. In other classes, instructors lead — sometimes demand — students into postures that can trigger past trauma. For many, “Child’s Pose” is not the safe, comforting posture that instructors reference it as, and there is little joy in “Happy Baby Pose” — lying on one’s back with legs spread and extended upward — for somebody who has endured sexual trauma. Foreign-sounding Sanskrit names for postures and chanting in some classes may bring military veterans back to images of war overseas, not to a place of peace and harmony. In other classes, instructors use physical assists, touching students to adjust their hips, arms or legs — a practice that can feel invasive while also adding to any feelings of failure. Still others use metaphors and images that can promote dissociation if it leads the participant to a disturbing place.
Studies by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, along with David Emerson and others, at The Trauma Center at Joint Research Institute, show that there are ways to not only bring yoga to those who have endured complex trauma, but that the results are quite incredible. Results of heart-rate variability, CAPS (PTSD testing) measurements and even fMRI brain scans show the dramatic improvement of those with PTSD after just ten 30- to 60-minute weekly yoga sessions.
While traditional treatments work with the memories of trauma, they don’t address the physical reactions of the trauma the way yoga does. Our physical bodies hold trauma: scents trigger reactions, noises cause a physical reaction first, and so forth. Trauma-sensitive yoga re-creates the bond and connection with one’s body. It “intentionally and systematically intervene(s) in the body’s own alarm systems and begins to turn them down,” Stephen Cope, MSW, writes in the introduction to “Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body.” Befriending one’s own bodily sensations through yoga will overcome the imprints of trauma, Emerson writes in the same book.
Yoga can do all of that and more. A trauma-sensitive class focuses on themes that reintroduce participants to the body they’ve often dissociated from and/or come to hate. Among the six key themes, or “therapeutic goals,” of trauma-sensitive yoga classes are:
1, practice making choices (for example, “You may want to sit back onto your feet or, if you’d like, you could consider leaning forward in the posture.”)
2. present moment experience; according to van der Kolk, “The goal of treatment of PTSD is to help people live in the present without feeling or behaving according to irrelevant demands belonging to the past” (for example, “Perhaps you’d like to notice your feet and how they connect to the ground. Maybe you feel your toes on the mat, or notice your heels touching the floor …”)
3. taking effective action (for example, “If that posture isn’t comfortable, consider moving in a way that will improve how you feel.”)
4. creating rhythms, which focuses on time, relationship with others (interpersonal) and intrapersonal, such as moving in a similar pattern to others in the room as well as discovering ones own rhythm (for example, “Experiment with moving back and forth between cat and cow at your own pace. Discover the rhythm that best suits your body.”)
5. spatial orientation, including noticing where one’s body is on the mat and in reference to the room (for example, “Notice how much more space you fill on the mat as you move from that form to this one.”)
6. sensing dynamics (for example, “I’d like to invite you to feel what happens when your muscles shift from that posture to this one. Maybe notice how your hands feel on the mat now and how that’s different from a few moments ago.”)
Here’s more details on the study, “Yoga as a Complementary Therapy to PTSD”, via the Trauma Center:
This randomized controlled study found a short-term yoga program was associated with reduced trauma symptoms in women with PTSD. Traditional trauma therapies have faced challenges in the treatment of childhood onset chronic trauma and its associated symptoms of affect dysregulation, heightened physiological states, somatic problems, dissociation and avoidance. Body-based work, such as yoga, may act as a treatment bridge, increasing a sense of awareness, safety and mastery over one’s body while building skills to effectively interpret and tolerate physiological and affective states. Yoga, one of the top ten most widely practiced forms of complementary alternative medicine in the United States, incorporates techniques of breathing exercises, physical postures, movement, relaxation and mindfulness.
In this study, 64 women, 18-58 years old with chronic, treatment un-responsive PTSD, were randomly assigned to 10 weeks of a treatment condition of Trauma-Informed Yoga classes or a Control condition, Women’s Health Education classes. At the post-treatment assessment, the Yoga Group exhibited statistically significant decreases in PTSD symptoms compared to the Control Group. 16 out of 31 (52%) of participants in the Yoga Group no longer met criteria for PTSD compared to 6 out of 29 (21%) in the Control Group. The Yoga Group reported reduced dissociative symptoms, approaching statistical significance. Statistically significant decreases in affect dysregulation and increases in tension reduction activities were also reported by the Yoga Group.
If you or somebody you know would benefit from a trauma-sensitive class, please check listings in your area. If there is no reference to being “trauma sensitive,” I encourage you to speak with the instructor. Ask how they teach and their expectations, as well as what classes are like. Find a place that’s comfortable. Forget the stereotypes of yoga being for petite flexible girls; it’s not. Just try it. Your body, mind and spirit will be glad you did.