The Happy Trail

Trauma-sensitive yoga: Conscientious fitness practice for trauma survivors

By Lorraine Kelly

In recent years, yoga has become a major facet of millennial life. Fitgrams (fitness Instagram accounts) praise yoga for its meditative properties and health benefits alike. For many students, taking a yoga class is an easy self-care habit.

But for trauma survivors yoga can feel like Mount Everest.

It’s no surprise to many of us that arenas of fitness can often be toxic spaces for those struggling with mental illness, from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and body dysmorphia. But isn’t yoga supposed to be the most zen place on Earth? Isn’t yoga class supposed to be a space of healing?

For many trauma survivors, myself included, a space in which the body is the main focus can be alienating. The fitness aspect of any workout space feels constricting. Many group classes, yoga included, have strayed away from mindfulness, instead emphasizing physical abilities.

Elayna Caron, leader of Yoga Club here on campus, is trained in trauma-sensitive yoga. She also works at Mercy Housing, a space that creates affordable housing for families, seniors and people with special needs. Caron also teaches yoga at the local juvenile detention center through Yoga Behind Bars. “If you go into a traditional yoga class, there aren’t a lot of options, and in yoga culture, there’s not a lot of consent. In a class setting, I never touch my students. I still teach a flow-style class, but it’s more accessible. Trauma-aware yoga is more community-based; you’re holding each other in the space,” Caron said.

Caron advocates for an all-inclusive environment: “It’s not about what you can do in your body, it’s about how you can release and soften.” She also critiques many traditional yoga spaces, saying: “There’s not much time to just be, and to not be.”

According to the Trauma Center: Trauma Sensitive Yoga website, the goal of trauma-sensitive yoga is “to build a trauma survivors’ experiences of empowerment and cultivate a more positive relationship to one’s body.” The Trauma Center, based in Boston, Massachusetts, runs training programs for trauma-sensitive yoga, and has foundations in trauma theory, neuroscience, and attachment theory. Trauma-sensitive yoga is particularly sensitive towards the relationship between teacher and student in its elimination of power structures in the classroom, which can be particularly helpful for individuals who have suffered from various traumatic experiences.

Morgan Vanderpool is a licensed trauma-sensitive yoga instructor in Tacoma. Vanderpool, who was trained by the Trauma Center, promotes a similar message to trauma survivors trying to connect more deeply with their bodies. She recommends breathing exercises as a way to gain a greater understanding of the agency of our bodies. Breathing and engaging with deeper core muscles has been linked to alleviating anxiety, according to Psychology Today. Learning how different breathing exercises make our bodies feel is an important aspect of cultivating mindfulness.

Caron’s word of advice: “Changing the culture starts with the teachers.” In creating a trauma-aware space, “you’re not just moving through motions, you’re looking out for your students,” Caron said. In order to create a wholesome and healthy environment, both the instructor and the student must communicate constantly, regardless of whether the class is geared towards trauma-sensitive practices.