Benefits and Limitations of Yin Yoga for Trauma

A woman using a cushion while in Caterpillar Pose to stay comfortable. Holding poses for long periods can be a benefit and limitation to Yin Yoga for trauma.

Yoga can be an incredibly powerful, therapeutic, and healing force, especially when guided by a knowledgeable and ethical yoga therapist. It has even been shown to help trauma survivors, reshaping their responses to triggers and reducing their symptoms, stress, and anxiety. But there are several important considerations to take into account in order to provide a safe, healing experience for survivors, especially if you’re considering Yin Yoga for trauma.

I’m Brandt Passalacqua, the Founder, Director, and Lead Teacher at Breathing Deeply Yoga Therapy, where I train students to become certified yoga therapists. I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of clients and have seen firsthand how yoga therapy can help those who have suffered trauma. Below I’ll share my thoughts about the benefits and limitations of Yin Yoga for trauma.

Table of Contents:

What Is Yin Yoga?

Introduced in the 1970s by Paulie Zink, Yin Yoga is a slower paced, more passive yoga practice. It focuses on stretching connective tissues (including ligaments, fascia, tendons, and joints), especially around your spine, sacrum, hips, pelvis, and knees. Guided meditation is also common in Yin Yoga, with a focus on deep breathing and reducing stress.

Poses are often performed on the floor as opposed to standing. They are usually held for 3 to 5 minutes or even longer to achieve a deeper stretch and stimulate the Pranas.

What Are the Limitations of Yin Yoga for Trauma?

Despite its potential benefits, there are several important limitations of Yin Yoga for trauma survivors to consider.

First, Yin Yoga is most often offered in group classes. In any yoga class, you run the risk of getting an instructor who is not trained in trauma-sensitive practices. Unless you are able to find a class specifically for trauma survivors, your needs will likely be different than those of others in the class.

If they don’t know better, your yoga instructor may use directive language, which can be triggering for trauma survivors. Trauma-informed yoga therapy relies on maintaining a survivor’s agency at all times, which is not how most yoga classes operate.

Another major potential issue for those who have experienced trauma is that Yin Yoga is based on holding poses for longer periods of time. This can also be triggering.

Some people may find that there are mental challenges to holding poses for longer periods of time or in certain positions. Survivors should have agency over their bodies at all times, repeatedly getting to make choices about their bodies to understand that they can feel safe in their bodies and have the agency to get out of anything uncomfortable that may occur. This can be at odds with the goal to stay in the same position for an extended period of time.

What Are the Benefits of Yin Yoga for Trauma?

Any style of yoga can potentially be helpful to someone who has experienced trauma, as long as it does not cause them harm or distress. There are some trauma survivors who swear by Yin Yoga.

With Yin Yoga, you have the opportunity to hold poses for longer periods of time. Slowly learning to tolerate certain sensations in your body can be helpful, and for some, Yin Yoga provides a safe place to do this. In addition, Yin Yoga often incorporates breathing exercises, which can be useful techniques for those who have experienced trauma.

At the same time, there are limitations to using Yin Yoga for trauma which make it not the right fit for every survivor. Be sure to consider the limitations of Yin Yoga for trauma survivors outlined above before practicing it.

Can You Heal Trauma Through Yoga?

As mentioned above, yoga can be an excellent avenue for releasing the stress that comes from trauma and healing your body and mind.

Studies have shown that yoga can offer relief from stress, anxiety, and depression. According to an article in the International Journal of Yoga, “The practice of yoga produces a physiological state opposite to that of the flight-or-fight stress response and with interruption in the stress response, a sense of balance and union between the mind and body can be achieved.”

In addition, a study by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk examined the effects of using gentle yoga for women with PTSD in healing classes. The women showed a 30% reduction in symptoms, and several women were no longer diagnosed as having PTSD after 10 weeks of practicing yoga.

What Type of Yoga Is Best for Trauma?

There is no single type of yoga that is universally best for treating trauma. In fact, there is no one best style of yoga for any health condition. Yoga therapy should be personalized to the client at hand whenever possible for best results.

With that said, however, I have seen the best results for trauma survivors come from holistic approaches that involve healing both body and mind. There are a variety of yoga styles that can help heal from trauma, such as yoga nidra, which has helped a number of my clients find healing and peace.

Does Yin Yoga Release Emotions?

Yin Yoga can lend itself well to physical as well as emotional release. It involves tensing, stretching, and releasing your connective tissues, which promotes mobility, flexibility, good breathing, and energy flow.

When someone is tensing their body as a result of emotional stress, anxiety, or fear, there can also be an emotional release associated with the physical release of the body or breath. Yin Yoga can help you engage and clean out several different meridians in your body, which can produce emotional release.

If negative emotions or stressful energy has been repressed, they may also become trapped deep in your connective tissues. Yin Yoga can gently release these emotions and energy, helping you to process them and heal from them. As difficult emotions arise, Yin Yoga can enable you to identify, observe, and accept them through stronger bodily awareness, deep breathing, and meditation.

However, emotional release is not the only factor to take into consideration when using yoga for trauma. Be sure to review the limitations of Yin Yoga as well.

Yin Yoga Poses for Trauma

Before using Yin Yoga for trauma, be sure to consider its limitations and determine if it’s the right style of yoga for you. For best results from any yoga practice for trauma, I recommend working with a certified yoga therapist who can use a trauma-informed approach.

In general, yoga therapy should be tailored to each individual, addressing their unique health conditions and needs. For this reason, it’s not possible to prescribe a one-size-fits-all list of yoga poses for trauma or any other condition. With trauma survivors, constantly providing the choice to do what feels right and decline what doesn’t is more important than any particular pose, reinforcing their agency in everything that they do.

That being said, there is only a limited number of Yin Yoga poses to begin with (somewhere between 16 and 26, depending on who you ask). If you want to get an idea of what Yin Yoga poses a trauma survivor might encounter, I’ve included a few common Yin Yoga poses below.

Caterpillar Pose

A person performing Caterpillar Pose, which you might encounter if you seek Yin Yoga for trauma

This pose can help stretch your spine, hamstrings, and backs of your legs. It can also stimulate your digestive system.

  1. If it feels right to you, start by sitting on your yoga mat. You may find it more comfortable to sit on a cushion or blanket for more support.
  2. If it feels right for you, stretch your legs straight out before you and lean forward from your hips, rounding your spine. You may find it more comfortable to rest your head against a cushion on your legs or use cushions or yoga blocks to support your arms.
  3. If it feels right, allow your legs and spine to relax, with your feet gently resting together or falling outward.
  4. If it feels right to you, hold this pose for 3 to 5 minutes.

Dragon Pose

A person holding Dragon Pose, one of the Yin Yoga poses for trauma you might see

There are actually a number of different variations of Dragon Pose, including Dragon Flying High, Dragon Flying Low, Winged Dragon, Overstepping Dragon, Dragon Splits, Twisted Dragon, and Fire-Breathing Dragon. All of these poses serve to help stretch and open your hips, hip flexors, and quadriceps. The general Dragon Pose, also known as Baby Dragon Pose, is the one described below.

  1. If it feels right to you, start on your hands and knees on your yoga mat, then bring your right foot forward between your hands. You may find it more comfortable to put your hands on yoga blocks rather than on the mat.
  2. If it feels right for you, keep your right knee directly above your right foot while moving your left knee back as far as you comfortably can, dropping your hips and keeping your shin flat on the floor. You may find it more comfortable to rest your left knee on a cushion or blanket.
  3. If it feels right to you, hold this pose for 3 to 5 minutes, rest for 1 minute, and then repeat on the other side.

Revolved Abdomen Pose

This pose engages the abdominal organs to promote circulation in the gut, while also improving strength and flexibility in your core muscles.

  1. If it feels right to you, start by laying on your back on your yoga mat with your knees drawn up to your chest.
  2. If it feels right for you, extend your arms straight out to the sides from your shoulders with your hands resting palms-up on the floor.
  3. If it feels right to you, pull both knees to the right as you exhale, bringing your knees toward your right elbow.
  4. If it feels right for you, breathe deeply and focus on the twist in your abdomen, pressing on your left shoulder blade and revolving your abdomen to the left as you exhale.
  5. If it feels right, hold this pose for 3 to 5 minutes, rest for 1 minute, and then repeat on the other side.

Shoelace Pose

A person demonstrating a forward fold in Shoelace Pose, a Yin Yoga pose

This pose can be great for improving flexibility in your hips. When folding forward, it can also stretch your back and help promote digestion.

  1. If it feels right to you, start by sitting on your yoga mat with your legs in front of you and your knees bent. You may find it more comfortable to sit on a cushion.
  2. If it feels right for you, slide your left foot underneath your right leg, bringing it out past your right hip.
  3. If it feels right, slide your right foot out past your left hip so your right knee is stacked on top of your left knee (or as close as you can comfortably get). You may find it more comfortable to use a cushion or blanket between your knees.
  4. If it feels right to you, you can hold the pose like this or fold forward from your hips. If you fold forward, you may find it more comfortable to rest your chest on a cushion or yoga block on top of your legs.
  5. If it feels right, hold this pose for 3 to 5 minutes, rest for 1 minute, and then repeat on the other side.

How to Get Trained in Yoga Therapy for Trauma

If you’re interested in helping others heal through yoga therapy, I would be honored to be a part of your journey. I’ve spent years practicing yoga therapy privately with clients as well as training aspiring yoga therapists. My personal mission is to make high-quality, ethical yoga therapy as widely accessible as possible, and it starts with each one of my yoga therapy students.

At Breathing Deeply, we offer programs for every level of skill and experience. If you still need to earn your initial 200-hour yoga teacher certification, a prerequisite for all yoga therapists, our program can get you certified while setting you up for success in becoming a yoga therapist, not just a yoga teacher. If you already have your prerequisites completed, you can join our 800-hour advanced yoga therapy program, which ends in yoga therapy certification.

Learn more about our yoga therapy training and apply now to get started.

Info Session

Brandt talks about common questions applicants have about the Breathing Deeply Yoga Therapy Program. Tune in to get the full program details.