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Yoga: A Path to Healing


But beyond what a trauma informed approach can do for survivors of trauma is the simple fact that yoga, in general, heals!  The word yoga means Union and its ultimate purpose is to calm the fluctuations of the mind. Because ancient yogis understood that the mind, body and spirit are intimately connected, they engaged all three to restore balance in the human system. Here are a few ways that yoga encourages healing after trauma.

By Julie Jack


When a traumatic event happens, the brain responds in the way that it is designed to respond to a threat. The fight, flight or freeze reaction is activated; cortisol and adrenaline are released into the system; and our body responds with increased energy, a faster heart rate, tensed muscles and heightened senses. All of this is the body’s “normal” response, but the problem arises when the body is not able to shut down this response, resulting in a system that is always on high alert or in some cases frozen. Trauma and the treatment of it then becomes, not so much about the actual traumatic event, but the body’s subsequent and continual reaction to it. Imagine your reaction to watching a scary movie and then imagine going through life with these reactions, anticipating something bad happening around every corner. When there is an inability to calm the body’s response to stimuli, it can be easy to disconnect from the body. One may begin to numb it, or detach from it (disassociation), or harm it. In short, it becomes the enemy.  


In the case of sexual trauma, the physical body is often violated and/or harmed increasing the feeling of detachment. On top of having doubt about their ability to manage the intrusive symptoms that arise, a survivor of sexual violence may feel “dirty”, violated and sometimes ashamed. This can also be exacerbated by the cultural attitude and power dynamic in modern society which adds to the confusion and self-doubt that they are experiencing.


There is no question; trauma has an intense physiological impact! It not only changes the way that one lives in their body, but it also affects the sense of safety and frequently the sense of self-worth.


- Yoga offers an alternative form of healing that focuses on the mind, body and spirit of the survivor and has a growing body of evidence behind it, validating its effectiveness in healing from trauma.


Yoga that is specifically designed to work with the nuances of trauma, often called Trauma Informed Yoga (TIY) can be a way for survivors to navigate through these intrusive emotions and sensations and befriend their body again in a safe and controlled environment.


TIY takes special note to meet survivors where they are on any given day.   Teachers are specially trained and mindful of appropriate touch, physical space arrangement, music choice, and work to mitigate anything that may be triggering for a survivor.  They are also mindful of the power dynamic that can play out in yoga classes, which mimics the power structure of our society and plays a big part in sexual violence. For example, instead of focusing on alignment and form, a TIY yoga instructor may encourage participants to utilize their own body’s cues to guide their practice and empower them to make choices about what they feel is best for them in each moment.   


Utilizing choice in the yoga class is one example of how TIY can bring a survivor into the space of empowerment which transfers into life off of the mat. Survivors slowly begin to realize that they must take care of themselves before anything else and begin to make empowered choices in their daily life. In general when individuals believe in themselves and their abilities, they are equipped to turn these beliefs into action and are more proactive in their decision making, allowing them to move from victim to survivor.


But beyond what a trauma informed approach can do for survivors of trauma is the simple fact that yoga, in general, heals!  The word yoga means Union and its ultimate purpose is to calm the fluctuations of the mind. Because ancient yogis understood that the mind, body and spirit are intimately connected, they engaged all three to restore balance in the human system. Here are a few ways that yoga encourages healing after trauma.


Relaxation


In TIY classes there is an emphasis on breathing and connecting gentle movement with breath, which slowly starts to unwind the nervous system response to a perceived threat. As the body is slowly able to relax, one can start to explore bodily sensations again. Essentially, a survivor begins to build trust in their body and then begins to build a relationship from there, finding new ways to relate and respond.    


Befriending the Body


In relationships, once one has established trust it is easier to fall in love. The same thing happens with the body and self-love. Through yoga, survivors of trauma become more mindful of their body and more aware of its miraculous adaptability and strength; and as the body begins to grow stronger it is natural to have more reverence for it. Over time a sense of self love begins to develop, which spills over into all aspects of life. Confidence, relationships and health begins to take center stage.


Connection


Another important factor is that yoga offers the opportunity to move in sync with others. This has an incredible impact on healing, as trauma can feel isolating. Moving with others helps to reestablish interpersonal connections, builds confidence and creates a sense of structure or ritual.  Whether a survivor wants to talk about their experience or not, they are in community with others that are compassionate to their experience and nonjudgmental about how they show up in the world on any particular day.


Resilience


Finally, yoga encourages resilience in survivors allowing them a model for growth and life after trauma.To be resilient means to bend and not break in the face of stress and adversity. Being challenged to hold a pose when one feels they have reached a limit helps to build the mental muscles of endurance in the face of the inevitable turbulence of life. Yoga also provides tools for self-regulation and when survivors are more in touch with their body’s cues they can begin to employ these tools, as needed, in any given moment.


Often times, survivors of trauma are experiencing something that they don’t have words to describe.  Moreover, each journey to healing is unique and frequently doesn’t take a neat, linear path. In the face of this silence and unknowing, one thing seems to be true. The body and the breath hold at least one key to restoring balance.

Julie is the founder and director of the Exhale Project which offers trauma informed yoga to survivors of sexual violence in East Central Iowa.  If you would like to attend a class or just learn more, please reach out. You can find her on Facebook or Instagram and you can also check out her website for more information.

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