Since its introduction to the western world, the practice of yoga has boomed. New yoga studios continue to pop up everywhere, online programs are easily accessed and yoga clothes have even become a wardrobe staple for many.
But if you’re a Veteran or if you’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the idea of sweating in a hot room, twisting yourself into a pretzel or meditating in a room full of strangers may have you questioning if yoga is really for you. The good news is, yoga can be hugely beneficial for both Veterans and those diagnosed with PTSD. And with the help of specially trained and certified yoga therapists, trauma-informed yoga classes are changing lives around the world.
What is trauma-informed yoga?
Trauma-informed yoga, also known as trauma-sensitive yoga, is yoga catered for and sensitive to the vulnerabilities of those with a history of trauma. Each class is run by a certified yoga teacher known as a yoga-therapist (C-IAYT); a teacher who has taken additional training specifically in trauma awareness. The classes can be in a group setting or one-to-one and are practised online, at home or in a studio setting.
Trauma-informed yoga is not a replacement for psychological or medical treatment. The classes are not designed to help you go back to or intentionally experience your pain or trauma. Nor are they a form of desensitisation therapy. Trauma-sensitive yoga is focused primarily on increasing awareness of and within the body.
How is trauma-informed yoga different from typical yoga?
A lot of the differences between trauma-informed yoga and a typical yoga class are subtle, others more obvious. Much like in a traditional yoga class, there will be a focus on breathwork. However, in a trauma-sensitive class, you’ll find there’s very limited touching (if any) and usually no physical assists. Certain poses, like child’s pose or reclined butterfly, may be avoided. And participants are often invited to keep their eyes open rather than closed.
The biggest difference in a trauma-informed class is that the teacher has a knowledge of not only the effects of trauma, but the unique experience each participant may have. This allows them to alter the class as needed and to provide constant reassurance and a sense of safety.
How can trauma-informed yoga help Veterans with PTSD?
It’s well-known that yoga is a powerful tool for mental health and overall wellness. Studies have shown that yoga can be beneficial for:
- Better sleep 1
- Reduced anxiety 2
- Improved balance 3
- Lowered blood pressure 4
- Reduced cardiovascular risk factors 5
- Lowered cortisol and perceived sense of stress 6
- Improved posture 7
- Increased strength 8
- Increased flexibility 9
- Improved joint health 10
- Reduced back pain 11
- Better bone health 12
- Heightened body awareness 13
And new studies are showing just how effective yoga can be to treat PTSD symptoms:
- A 2014 small group study showed that trauma-informed yoga significantly reduced the symptoms of PTSD and noted that the effects were similar to psychological and medicinal methods. 14
- A literature review of studies on mind-body practices like yoga used to treat post-traumatic stress found that symptoms including intrusive memories, avoidance and emotional hyperarousal were reduced. 15
- A 2014 small study of Veterans diagnosed with PTSD showed reductions in PTSD symptom severity, anxiety symptoms and respiration rate at the end of the study as well as at one-year follow-up. 16
- In another small pilot study, 16 military Veterans diagnosed with PTSD who attended twice-weekly yoga sessions reported significant improvements in sleep and other symptoms. 17
How to get started with trauma-informed yoga
There are a number of ways you can get started with trauma-informed yoga, even if you live in a remote area of Australia.
- Find a Certified Yoga-Therapist – The best place to start is to find a certified yoga-therapist located near you by searching https://yogatherapy.org.au/find-a-yoga-therapist/. Many trauma-informed yoga therapists host regular group classes you can join, or you may like to engage them for one-on-one classes.
- Join a Group Class – In an ideal world, all yoga teachers would be trained in trauma awareness. Unfortunately this is not currently the case, so if you’re unable to find a yoga-therapist in your area try these steps when selecting a general group class:
- Choose a beginner or all-levels class
- Arrive early and choose where in the room you’re most comfortable
- Let the teacher know if you prefer not to be touched and if you’re ok to do so, let them know of your condition
- Throughout the class, modify any poses that trigger your trauma-response or opt out completely
- Be prepared to leave the room or studio if you need to
- Practice Yoga at Home – Your other option is to practice yoga from the comfort of your own home. Try a simple stretching or breathwork practice using an app like Calm (included with our Veteran’s program) or try a class on YouTube. Not only are you more likely to feel at ease in a known space, you also have the luxury of being able to turn off the class if things start to feel uncomfortable, distressed or triggered.
What to do if trauma shows up in your body during a yoga class
With an increase in awareness of your body, you may also start to recognise signs of trauma showing up. These can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Increased perspiration
- Flushing of the cheeks or face
- Uncoordinated movements
- General frustration
If you do feel triggered during a class, particularly if you’re practising without the guidance of a trauma-aware teacher, try taking your control back by:
- Focusing on your breath, particularly your exhales
- Draw your attention to a safe part of your body or an object in the room
- Move to a different posture, perhaps lying down or try a simple seated position
- Leave the room or studio
Whether you’re looking to lessen symptoms of post-traumatic stress or just increase your overall sense of wellness and mental health, yoga — in particular, trauma-sensitive yoga — is an easily accessible and evidence-based tool. For more information on how you can access online classes, including breathwork, yoga, art therapy and weekly psychological check-ins through our Veteran’s Mindfulness program, click here.