September is National Yoga Month, a national observance and awareness campaign to educate about the health benefits of yoga and to inspire a healthy lifestyle. While you may be wondering what yoga has to do with interpersonal violence, it turns out yoga has quite a lot to offer trauma survivors as the effects of trauma can be physical as well as mental with “body-mind” interventions like yoga uniquely designed to address them. Yoga is a blend of physical, mental, and spiritual practices done for well-being and, in practice, connects breath to movement, creates a sense of peace and well-being, and provides an opportunity for a trauma survivor to connect with her/his body, the surrounding environment, and a safe, supportive community.
In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk highlights that trauma produces actual physiological changes, recalibrates the brain’s alarm systems, increases hormone activity, alters the way a person filters relevant information, and compromises a person’s ability to feel embodied and alive. These changes affect every aspect of a survivor’s life and incorporating body-mind practices such as yoga stimulates the calming branch of the nervous system sending a message to the brain that all is well.
Consistent yoga practices help change a person’s brain back to a pre-trauma state where she/he is less inclined to perceive threat everywhere, with a shift away from always feeling a need to either fight or flee to more often feeling the ability to rest and renew. In addition, yoga decreases isolation through participation in a community - practicing yoga and meditation in groups can assist people in developing a deeper sense of belonging and connection, important aspects of healing and recovery from trauma.
Yoga also provides a safe and gentle way to reclaim one’s body where the trauma is stored and to stay in the present moment which has the potential to counteract the need that many survivors have to disconnect from their bodies in order to feel safe. From a physiological perspective, yoga slows breathing and increases heart rate variability, both of which decrease anxiety, calms the mind, and activates areas of the brain involved with increasing self-awareness. Yoga's ability to touch us on every level of our being - physical mental, emotional, and spiritual - makes it a powerful and effective modality for trauma survivors.
There are many, many types of yoga and many, many ways to access yoga classes. You don’t have to start by going to a yoga studio, but you can do that if you are comfortable and that works for you. Yoga studios are pretty much everywhere and can go online and look up yoga studios near you. Most yoga studios have a range of classes and a variety of teachers, so it is possible to find a class that meets a person’s needs at any given time. Ask whether they provide trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive classes. For more information on what to look for in a trauma-sensitive class, check out David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper’s book, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga. Experiment with different types of classes to determine which meet your needs and, most importantly, listen to your body!
If you would rather try yoga on your own, there are many resources available online. The following are a sampling of online resources:
NPEIV is committed to reducing interpersonal violence and its consequences through scientific research and application of empirical findings. It is our mission to make the prevention of interpersonal violence a national and international priority and to encourage healthy relationships by linking science, practice, policy and advocacy. Through our many partnerships and collaborations, it is our vision to end all types of interpersonal violence, for all people, in all communities, at all stages of life. For more information, please visit www.npeiv.org.