Psy-Q: Can yoga be an effective therapeutic tool for survivors of trauma?

Paula A. Madrid, PsyD

Paula A. Madrid, PsyD

Answer: Yes, trauma-informed yoga – which is on the rise – can help people with a history of trauma but it may not be a good choice for everyone. Paula Madrid, PsyD, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist, discusses the complexities with Psycom Pro.

(See also, why trauma-informed yoga is trending.)

Good candidates might be people with type 1 trauma, says Dr. Madrid, meaning they have had a traumatic experience but who are “otherwise doing well, have good coping techniques, have experience with yoga or movement, and are not claustrophobic.”

Trauma-informed yoga can help people deal with their trauma by learning to relax, which is not a natural state for people with trauma. “What helps is the fact that through this practice, individuals can begin to feel more moments of safety and tranquility, which signals their parasympathetic system that they are OK,” says Dr. Madrid.

“The issue is that chronically traumatized people live on a constant alert – they are hypervigilant – and, at the same time, they avoid reminders of the trauma (and often while having flashbacks and other triggers). It is a back and forth that makes their lives challenging,” she explains.

Trauma-informed yoga practice would not necessarily be good for people who:

  • are in the early phases of treatment of chronic and severe trauma
  • are actively symptomatic
  • have a history of self-injurious behaviors that they do not have under control
  • have a borderline personality disorder
  • have very chaotic lives.

People in these categories are not yet ready for the vulnerability that they might feel during a yoga class and could be triggered, which could “result in a panic attack or in their using maladaptive coping such as cutting, drinking, or becoming severely isolated,” says Dr. Madrid.

“Those who have active PTSD avoid sensations, feelings, and situations that they deem unsafe,” she adds. “They are on constant alert, and so asking them to let their guard down by relaxing and breathing through movement is too much for some.”

Clinicians should consider all of these factors if recommending trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga for their patients. Dr. Madrid clarifies, however, that when a patient is ready, trauma-informed yoga can “make a significant difference if done at the right time and place.”

With the rise in awareness of trauma-informed care, finding a yoga studio or class that incorporates trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive techniques should not be a challenge – but it’s important to ensure that a class has established protocols for those who may become triggered and whether there are options to easily transition into a class.

Resources for learning more about trauma-informed yoga classes

  • SAMHSA has a page explaining the characteristics of Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY).
  • The Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute describes TCTSY and provides a worldwide locator for facilitators.
  • The nonprofit Exhale to Inhale supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Their website says the group “helps survivors reconnect to their bodies inherent strength to better navigate healing after trauma.” Virtual classes are offered to the public.

 

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Last Updated: Apr 21, 2021