Yoga Therapy for Trauma and PTSD

 

A woman in Warrior 2 Pose using yoga therapy for trauma.

The majority of us will experience trauma at one point or another in our lives. On average, 60% of men and 50% of women report experiencing trauma at least once, and around 6% of people have experienced PTSD at least once. Increasingly, people are seeing the benefits of yoga therapy for trauma and PTSD treatment.

Trauma-informed yoga therapy is all about addressing individual trauma needs with a concentration on mind-body techniques. With decades of experience working with thousands of clients and hundreds of students, I’ve seen firsthand how therapeutic yoga is for trauma recovery.

In this guide, I’ll answer common questions that those suffering from trauma or PTSD may have, as well as share insights for fellow yoga therapists on how to help students heal and prosper in a non-judgemental setting.

Table of Contents

What Types of Trauma Can Yoga Therapy Treat?

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” Statistically, men experience trauma more often from physical assault, combat, disaster, accidents, or witnessing others’ deaths or injuries. By contrast, women experience trauma more often from sexual assault or child sexual abuse.

Trauma presents itself in a variety of ways, including both physical and emotional types of trauma responses:

  • Physical Responses: Survivors of a distressing event may experience increased heart rate, bodily pains, fatigue, poor concentration, loss of appetite, and sudden panic attacks. Keep in mind that physical reactions may come and go without any warning.

  • Emotional and Mental Responses: Emotional responses are often the most common symptoms in survivors. Depression, anxiety, cognitive difficulties, guilt, shame, and denial are all psychological responses to distressing experiences.

Without proper intervention and emotional support, trauma can rob survivors of their happiness and their ability to confront their inner struggles. Fortunately, with the help of a knowledgeable yoga therapist, yoga techniques can be applied to help the mind and body heal from all types of trauma, both physical and emotional.

Benefits of Yoga for Trauma

To work with trauma, you generally need a multidimensional approach. Many conventional approaches are only part of the therapy needed to support those who have experienced large traumatic events and need help in processing trauma.

While talk therapy lets us understand our story in a cognitive way, yoga therapy can help reshape our response to triggers on all levels of our being. Both parts are important. Working with all aspects of oneself is essential to healing.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has done studies on trauma that make the benefits of yoga for trauma fairly clear. In one study which used gentle yoga for healing classes to help women with PTSD,  participants had a 30% reduction of symptoms. More striking to me is that several of the participants no longer qualified as having PTSD after just 10 weeks of yoga.

Benefits of yoga for trauma can include:

  • Fewer PTSD symptoms or trauma responses

  • Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression

  • Better mood and sleep quality

  • Stronger emotional regulation

  • Better concentration and attention

  • More bodily and mental awareness

  • And more

What Is the Best Type of Yoga for Trauma?

In general, it’s hard to prescribe one best type of yoga for trauma or any other health condition, since yoga therapy is meant to be personalized for each individual’s needs. But in my experience as a yoga therapist, I’ve found that the best trauma yoga therapy involves using both body-based and mind-based approaches to promote holistic healing.

In particular, it may be helpful to consider these practices when searching for the best type of yoga for trauma:

  • Yoga nidra for body scanning and awareness, as well as regulating brain waves
  • Restorative yoga for reducing stress, relaxing the body and mind, and preparing for pranayama (breathing practices)
  • Yin yoga for guided meditation, deep breathing, and reducing stress
  • Somatic yoga for bodily awareness and mindfulness

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t any specific set of yoga poses that can be prescribed for those who have suffered trauma. Not only that, but yoga teachers and therapists should take care to use invitational language rather than directives. This helps to ensure that someone who has experienced trauma always maintains their agency, making the right choices for themselves about what to do and what not to do.

Watch my video below for more insights about how yoga therapists can help a client who has suffered trauma by holding space that’s safe for them, while also giving them practices to use to process a traumatic experience and re-ground themselves.

Body-Based Yoga Therapy for Trauma

Details about the 5 koshas (Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vijnanamaya, and Anandamaya) as effective tools for trauma yoga therapy.

In my yoga therapy practice, I have found the five kosha model to be extremely effective with those suffering with trauma based issues. The samskaras, or patterns, left in the body, breath, mind, and heart need to be worked with in order to shift an overactive response to triggers.

What this means, in my experience, is that all trauma survivors need some sort of body-based approach in order to shift these samskaras. This can be asana or other body awareness approaches like body scanning in yoga nidra.

Mind-Based Yoga Therapy for Trauma

Trauma survivors often need practices to move the patterns of the unconscious mind to the conscious so that they can be reduced. This typically involves meditation practices that reorganize the energy of the unconscious mind.

These practices don’t need to address the traumatic event itself, but rather give the person an opportunity to connect with themselves on the unconscious level and allow patterns to shift. As yoga therapists, we often use meditation practices that allow one to move deeply into meditation without focusing on conscious thoughts or storylines.

I recommend adding some pranayamas (breathing practices) to stabilize and tone the parasympathetic system, including some form of ritualized surrender to allow the safety that comes with consenting surrender. When these practices flow together, symptoms are reduced and the strength of the samskara is lessened.

Yoga Poses for Trauma

In truth, there are no specific yoga poses for trauma. Helping someone who has survived trauma to heal through yoga involves maintaining their agency and right to choose throughout the process by inviting them to use a yoga pose or practice or not. It all depends on what they choose to do or not do.

With that being said, in my experience, many trauma survivors can find relief and peace by shifting the patterns in their mind, body, breathing, and heart. This can be achieved with yoga poses, body awareness practices, meditation, breathing techniques, or a combination of these.

To help learn these poses, practices, and techniques, many of those who have suffered trauma will seek the help of a skilled yoga instructor or yoga therapist. An ethical approach to trauma yoga therapy should invite survivors to take an action or not, rather than directing them on what to do without the option to decline.

Much of what a yoga teacher or yoga therapist might invite a trauma survivor to do will depend on unique circumstances. Often, standing poses can be empowering options for these clients. If you’re curious about some of the yoga poses that a trauma survivor might be invited to participate in, I’ve included a few below.

Mountain Pose

Someone standing in Mountain Pose as a way to get started with yoga poses for trauma.

Mountain Pose is a simple place to invite survivors to potentially get started with yoga poses for trauma. It can help you to work on improving your posture and bodily awareness from a place of tranquility.

  • If it feels right to you, you can stand on your yoga mat with your legs and feet together so your big toes are side by side, with your heels slightly apart. If you’re just getting started, you may want to spread your feet a few inches apart if needed instead if it feels right for you.
  • If it feels right to you, lift your toes and spread them apart, then rest them back on the mat.
  • You might find it helpful to find your balance by swaying slightly from side to side and back and forth until you achieve a centered balance if it feels right for you at this time.
  • If it feels right to you, you can straighten your posture by lifting your chest, pushing back your shoulders, lengthening your torso, and straightening your back.
  • If it feels right to you, drop your arms down and hold them slightly away from your sides with your palms facing forward.
  • If it feels right for you at this time, you can face forward and keep your head centered on your body above your shoulders, torso, and hips.
  • I recommend holding for 2–3 minutes or 5–10 deep breaths, but you are invited to stay in this pose for however long feels right for you.

Warrior 1 Pose

Someone practicing Warrior 1 Pose. This victorious stance can help boost self-confidence, one of the benefits of yoga for trauma.

Warrior 1 Pose is a full-body pose that’s great for increasing your bodily awareness, alignment, flexibility, strength, and focus. It’s also a victorious stance that can help to boost self-confidence.

  • If it feels right to you, start from Downward-Facing Dog Pose or, if that feels too vulnerable, another option is to start from standing up.
  • If it feels right to you, you can bring your right foot forward and point it toward the upper-right corner of your yoga mat.
  • Next, you can bend your right knee to form a right angle if it feels right at this time. I recommend that your right knee be placed directly above your ankle.
  • If it feels right to you, put your left leg behind you with your knee straight. You can turn your left foot so that your toes are pointing more toward the left and your heel more toward the righ if it feels right at this time.
  • If it feels right, you can try to move your left leg and foot directly behind you so they are closely in line with your right leg and foot. If you’re just getting started, you can take a wider stance as needed if that feels right to you.
  • If it feels right to you at this time,  inhale slowly and lift both arms straight up. You can hold your palms facing inward toward the rest of your body or however feels right to you.
  • I recommend holding for 2–3 minutes or 5–10 deep breaths, but you are invited to stay in this pose for however long feels right for you.

Warrior 2 Pose

Someone standing in Warrior 2 Pose as one of their yoga poses for trauma.

Warrior 2 Pose helps to strengthen your shoulders, core, hips, quads, and ankles, as well as stretch your legs and hips. It can increase your endurance, focus, and bodily awareness. As a pose of strength and empowerment, it can also help you feel grounded and boost your self-esteem.

  • First, if it feels right to you, stand on your mat, facing the long side of the mat.
  • If it feels right to you at this time, you can lift your arms on the left and right of your body. If it feels right, you can hold them straight out from your shoulders, parallel to the ground.
  • If it feels right to you, move your feet apart into a wider stance. You can keep your feet parallel to one another, with your ankles positioned below your wrists, if it feels right to you at this time.
  • Next, if it feels right to you, twist your right foot and knee to face forward, toward the front of the mat.
  • Then, if it feels right to you, twist your left foot so your toes are pointing to the left and slightly forward.
  • If it feels right at this time, you can bend your right knee to form a right angle. I recommend placing your right knee directly above your ankle if that feels right to you.
  • If it feels right to you, turn your head to face forward along the length of your right arm.
  • If it feels right at this time, you can keep your body straight from the hips upward, with your hips, shoulders, and head all aligned vertically.
  • I recommend holding for 2–3 minutes or 5–10 deep breaths, but you are invited to stay in this pose for however long feels right for you.

Eagle Pose

Someone demonstrating Eagle Pose, one of the more advanced yoga poses you might find in therapeutic yoga for trauma recovery.

Eagle Pose offers a little more of a challenge for advanced clients. This full-body pose can help build muscle strength, flexibility, stamina, and focus. Given its complexity, it’s also great for practicing alignment between your body and mind.

  • If it feels right to you, stand on your yoga mat with your feet a little apart.
  • If it feels right for you at this time, hold your arms up in front of your face. If it feels right, you can cross your left arm over the right arm, so your left elbow hooks under your right upper arm.
  • If it feels right to you, keep your forearms crossed and upright in front of your face, with your elbows at shoulder height.
  • Next, if it feels right to you, press your palms together and hold your hands vertically.
  • If it feels right at this time, you can keep your left hand around forehead height and slide your right hand up to the top of your head.
  • If it feels right to you, bend your knees slightly while keeping your hands and arms in this position.
  • If it feels right at this time, you can raise your right leg and cross your right thigh over your left thigh.
  • Next, if it feels right for you, curl your right foot and hook it behind your left calf. If it feels right at any time, please feel welcome to stop if your knees feel strained.
  • I recommend holding for 1–2 minutes or 5 deep breaths, but you are invited to stay in this pose for however long feels right for you.
  • If it feels right for you at this time, you can switch sides and repeat.

Staff Pose

Someone practicing Staff Pose, a great option for a seated yoga pose for trauma survivors to engage in if they choose.

Staff Pose is a great option for a seated yoga pose for trauma survivors to engage in if they choose. It promotes good posture, stretches your upper body, and strengthens your back muscles. As a simpler, more restful pose, it offers an opportunity to relax, focus, and practice mindfulness.

  • To start, if it feels right for you at this time, sit on your yoga mat with your legs straight out in front of you.
  • If it feels right to you, bring your big toes side by side, leaving a slight gap between your heels.
  • If it feels right at this time, you can bring your arms to your sides and hold them straight down, resting your hands on the floor.
  • If it feels right to you, pull your toes back toward the rest of your body, flexing in your ankles.
  • At this time, if it feels right for you, press down with your legs against the mat.
  • Next, if it feels right to you, straighten your posture by lifting your chest, pushing back your shoulders, lengthening your torso, and straightening your back.
  • If it feels right at this time, you can face forward and keep your head centered on your body above your shoulders and torso.
  • I recommend holding for 2–3 minutes or 5–10 deep breaths, but you are invited to stay in this pose for however long feels right for you.

Savasana

Someone lying down in Savasana, an excellent option for ending a session of yoga therapy for trauma.

Savasana can be an excellent option for ending a session of yoga therapy for trauma. It can help you release tension in your body, improve your bodily awareness, and practice mindfulness. Survivors can be invited to use this pose to relax, de-stress, and even prepare to enter guided meditation.

  • If it feels right for you at this time, you can lie down on your back on your yoga mat.
  • Please feel free to use a cushion or rolled up towel to support your head, neck, or back if it feels right for you.
  • If it feels right to you, extend your arms and legs. You can leave your palms open and facing up if it feels right for you. You are welcome to relax your arms and legs as they lay flat on the mat, spread out slightly from the rest of your body, if it feels right for you at this time.
  • If it feels right to you, keep your head facing up toward the ceiling and centered with the rest of your body.
  • At this time, if it feels right for you, I recommend closing your eyes. However, when using Savasana in yoga therapy for trauma, clients may choose to keep their eyes open—especially while building trust with their yoga therapist.
  • If it feels right to you, focus on breathing evenly and deeply.
  • Starting at the top of your body, if it feels right for you, focus on a single body part at a time. If it feels right to you at this time, you can build your awareness of the body part, where it’s touching the mat, and how it’s feeling. As you exhale, you can release any tension from that body part if it feels right to you and imagine it relaxing, spreading out, and sinking down into the mat.
  • If it feels right for you at this time, go through each part of the body this way as you feel comfortable, from head to toe.

What Is the Role of a Yoga Therapist in Healing Trauma?

The role of a trauma-informed yoga therapist is to establish a setting where trauma survivors feel supported, encouraged, and provided with an opportunity to heal. Here are some expectations for yoga therapists:

  • Create a safe space: Start by acknowledging your clients and providing positive affirmations that make them feel valued and supported. Use warm remarks and express gratitude. This will alleviate uncertainties and ensure your students see you as a trusted professional.
  • Bring sensitivity: Remain mindful of any phrases or actions that may trigger your participants. These actions include asking participants to conduct a certain physical pose or using phrases like “position” or references to the groin area.
  • Build a community: Everything is much easier when others around you understand your struggles. Establish a setting where participants can connect and rely on each other through difficult times.
  • Remain patient: Since there is no magical formula that can “cure” participants of their struggles, be patient. There is only so much you can do as a yoga therapist to help your students, so remain persistent in the face of challenges.

Working with a yoga therapist is often very helpful because the client’s story can be held in a safe environment. This allows the client to work with these practices with the knowledge that they are not alone when difficult emotions or states arise.

It also provides them with—maybe for the first time—the ability to build experience working with difficult states and continue to work to lessen their effect on the system. I have seen this numerous times with big shifts happening in session.

For more information about a yoga therapist’s role in helping clients process trauma, check out my video below.

How We’re Teaching Yoga for Trauma

At Breathing Deeply Yoga Therapy, we train yoga teachers and yoga therapists to apply the principles and practices of yoga in a variety of situations, including those where a client has experienced trauma. Consider the do’s and don’ts below, and if you’re ready to start your training as a yoga teacher or therapist, apply now to get started in one of our programs.

6 Do’s and Don’ts for Yoga Teachers or Therapists Treating Trauma

Every setting will be different, especially when it concerns trauma. Here are do’s and don’ts to consider when working with vulnerable clients.

Do:

  • Ask students what they want: Every student has a preference. Do they prefer sessions with the lights on or dimmed? How about the type of music played? The key is to create sessions that are safe and welcoming for survivors.

  • Treat poses as invitations: When sharing different sequences and yoga poses for trauma, ensure that your language uses invitations, not commands. Make it clear that your clients remain in control of their bodily movements and decisions. 

  • Invite others to practice non-judgmental behavior: Every person has a unique experience with trauma. Your trauma-informed yoga class or yoga therapy should be free of shame or self-deprecating behavior. Your clients should feel valued and supported without fear of judgment.

  • Stabilize and build confidence: When big shifts happen in session and a client may experience difficult emotions or states, it’s important to follow up with practices that stabilize and build confidence in their ability to recognize—and then lessen—reactions at the edge of their comfort zone. Over time, as with all practices, the individual shifts and becomes empowered to change themselves.

Don’t:

  • Don’t use physical contact or hands-on adjustments: Refrain from touching clients who have experienced trauma. Instead, opt for verbal invitations when giving recommendations. Any form of touching may trigger students who’ve experienced physical or sexual assault.

  • Don’t try to be a mental health therapist: Students who exhibit signs of severe emotional distress require help from licensed mental health professionals. Know your practice and refer your clients to counseling services if needed.

For more tips on teaching yoga for trauma or using yoga therapy for trauma, check out my video below about working with people who have suffered trauma and the differences between group classes and private sessions.

Start Training for Teaching Yoga for Trauma or Using Yoga Therapy for Trauma

Yoga therapy is positioned to be a perfect choice for those processing trauma and looking to reduce trauma. There are already yoga therapists around the world using these techniques to alleviate this kind of pain, as well as trauma-sensitive yoga classes available in many areas that can put people on the road to a more easeful experience of living.

Are you ready to be a change-maker in this emerging field? We offer programs for each level of yoga expertise, whether you are just starting out with a 200-hour yoga teacher training or you’re ready for an advanced program ending in the highest level of yoga therapy certification, C-IAYT.

Apply now and start your journey on a new and exciting career path.

Info Session

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