A trauma-based approach to yoga makes the practice safer and more accessible, addressing the unique needs of trauma survivors.
Yoga is supposed to heal, but for those who’ve experienced trauma, it has the potential to harm.
Trauma is widespread and deeply harmful for individuals and communities. In fact, about
If you’ve experienced trauma, it can affect every area of your life. By moving toward trauma-informed practices, many people can begin to build a sense of safety and find healing.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional or physical response to one or more harmful or life-threatening events or circumstances with lasting adverse effects on your mental and physical well-being, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA).
Trauma doesn’t just affect the mind — it can also be held in the body. This means that mind-body practices like yoga can be challenging, and even harmful, for those who have endured any form of trauma — whether acute or complex.
Trauma-informed yoga (TIY) describes an approach to the practice that addresses the specific needs and symptoms of trauma survivors.
“All yoga teaching needs to be trauma-informed,” says yoga therapist Jivana Heyman, founder of Accessible Yoga and author of Yoga Revolution based in Santa Barbara, California.
“Trauma-informed teaching means we assume that all our students have had some kind of trauma in their lives and that we teach in a way that offers a space for healing from trauma, rather than triggering it,” he says.
Trauma-informed yoga teachers are trained to be conscious of trauma and understand how trauma intersects with the practice.
This form of yoga may include self-regulation strategies to:
- increase body awareness (interoception) in a safe and controlled way, which can promote feelings of physical, emotional, and psychological safety
- address nervous system dysregulation, dissociation, and feelings of disconnection from the body or surroundings, which are common after experiencing trauma
Many yoga teachers aren’t trained to treat medical or mental health conditions. And many yoga poses can even be triggering for those who’ve endured physical trauma, particularly sexual trauma.
A safe, secure, and predictable environment surrounded by a like-minded community is the foundation for this type of practice.
While many regular yoga classes encourage students to move through emotional discomfort, trauma-informed yoga creates a safe space for people to pay attention to signs of dissociation and distress that may come up, and to stop whenever they need.
Trauma-informed yoga is less about how poses are executed and more about the feeling of embodiment (being within your body) within a pose. Establishing presence and finding a sense of grounding can help you connect to your mind and body in a way that feels secure.
As you are guided through a supportive experience, you may observe sensations and emotions that arise without feeling triggered or overwhelmed.
The intent of any yoga practice is to facilitate the “rest-and-digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system — which is the opposite state to the “fight, flight, or freeze” response that holds many trauma survivors captive.
However, this can sometimes backfire. For trauma survivors, some mainstream yoga techniques can reactivate the fight-or-flight response, putting the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive.
Examples of when yoga can trigger trauma include:
- holding postures for a prolonged period of time
- physical assists without permission
- certain breathwork (pranayama) practices
- artificially heated environments that exceed the body’s normal temperature
- when a teacher’s language and sequencing is exclusive rather than inclusive
- yoga postures that aggressively open the hips and spine
Against the status quo
Modern yoga in the West has been appropriated, commercialized, and whitewashed, emphasizing able-bodied strength and flexibility and often marketed to thin, affluent, white women. A one-size-fits-all approach to yoga is harmful since it discourages personal agency.
“The challenge for yoga teachers is to reflect on how we can teach safely, with clear instruction, and simultaneously offer students the options they need to make their own choices,” Heyman says. “The hierarchical top-down approach we are usually trained in is insufficient.”
Yoga is an internal endeavor. An advanced practitioner is not someone who performs feats of strength and flexibility. To be advanced is to navigate your inner world and know yourself on a deeper level; to tailor your practice to suit your individual, ever-fluctuating needs.
“Different people have different triggers, but there are some general things we can do to support a slow and safe reconnection with the body,” says Heyman. “For example, we can avoid telling people what their experience should be.”
Trauma-informed yoga teachers provide tools to help you turn your awareness inward in a way that feels safe — whether it’s finding different variations of a pose or skipping the pose entirely.
“Trauma-informed teaching begins with an emphasis on personal empowerment, choice, and agency,” says Heyman. “One of the most important concepts of trauma-informed yoga is that the student has a sense of control over their practice and their body.”
Trauma-informed teachers also make space for diverse experiences to promote healing. Inclusive language that prompts choices helps to create a safe and supportive environment. Instructions should be invitations rather than commands.
“Trauma-informed teaching also means we have a heightened awareness of our physical presence as a teacher,” says Heyman. “It can mean avoiding touching students, staying on our mat during practice, and giving students a sense that their mat is a safe space that won’t be interfered with.”
Trauma-informed yoga is a grounding practice with less emphasis on the poses themselves. “I don’t think there are poses that are specifically trauma-informed since it’s more the way they’re taught that’s the key,” says Heyman.
Still, some yoga poses and breathing exercises may be more helpful than others.
“Conscious breathing is my go-to either lying down or sitting up, depending on the trauma demographic,” says Weaver. “My focus has always been synchronizing movement with breath as the priority rather than the full expression of a posture.”
Postures considered generally safe may include:
- Staff Pose
- Mountain Pose
- Warrior Poses
- Gentle twists
- Most standing poses
It’s best to approach some postures, such as certain seated postures and backbends, with caution or avoid them entirely.
Teachers working with incarcerated populations should avoid asking students to put their hands behind their heads or face a wall. Those working with survivors of sexual assault should also avoid sexually suggestive postures, like Happy Baby.
“Child’s pose can be triggering for sexual abuse survivors,” says Weaver. “The reality is any posture can be potentially triggering and they need to be selected for the individual or group.”
What to do when trauma shows up in your body during a yoga class
Dissociation and distress may occur among trauma survivors in a yoga setting. If this happens, a student might respond to cues with the wrong side of their body, or experience rapid or shallow breathing, or general frustration.
Other signs include:
- a flushed face
- excessive perspiration
- uncoordinated movements
If you become triggered during a yoga class, try taking back control by bringing your attention back to your breath, a safe body part, or an object in the room, and moving into a posture that feels safe. You can also exit the room at any time.
Whether you’re a trauma survivor or have a mental health condition, it can help to work with a trauma-informed yoga teacher or therapist who has received specialized training, when possible.
Yoga therapists vs. yoga teachers
A certified yoga therapist (C-IAYT) has received additional training around potential trauma triggers in certain demographics, compared to the standard 200- and 500-hour certifications. Many yoga teachers also further their training to work with cancer survivors, incarcerated populations, and military personnel.
When looking for the right teacher, it can help to check their training credentials and read their bios. Find out whether they’ve received additional training that supports a more therapeutic or adaptive approach and whether they work with trauma-affected populations.
Many experts agree that all yoga teaching should be trauma-informed, but most group classes do not yet offer trauma-informed practices.
Still, many yoga teachers strive to help all students feel respected and safe within a group setting.
If trauma-informed yoga is not yet available in your area, there are a few things you can do to stay safe:
- Choose where you want to set up in a room; you might not want your back to the door or have other people behind you.
- Sign up for an all-levels class so you can practice at your own level.
- Modify postures or opt out of a pose entirely if you start to feel unsafe.
- Leave the room or studio if you feel triggered.
Keep in mind that whilegroup classes can offer a supportive community for practitioners, there’s often a greater tendency toward competition and externally-focused goals. “The teacher needs to find ways to avoid this through conscious language choices,” says Heyman.
Online teaching has the potential to be more trauma-informed than in-person classes, according to Heyman.
“In online classes, students are often at home practicing by themselves in a space where they feel safe,” he says. “If students have the option of turning off their video, they can avoid the feeling of being observed and find more independence in their practice.”
Online teaching may also be more accessible to those who can’t afford the cost of in-person classes or are short on time. “I think COVID has taught us that online teaching is an effective way for many people to integrate yoga into their lives,” Heyman says.
Depending on your specific needs, a number of resources and databases are available to help you find a trauma-informed yoga studio, school, teacher, or teacher training in your area or online.
Emerging research, according to a 2015 study, shows that clinicians and healthcare professionals may consider yoga as a supplementary treatment for those with trauma-related mental health conditions.
As a 2021 review notes, the clinical implications for a trauma-specific approach to yoga can be significant.
“Trauma disconnects the body and mind and this practice reconnects them,” says Judy Weaver, a yoga therapist and author in South Florida and cofounder of Connected Warriors.
Weaver, whose organization provides yoga to members of the military, says that a trauma-informed approach should provide opportunities for curiosity, creativity, and challenges, which can help strengthen their resolve and change their relationship with their body and mind.
Retired and active duty service members
Trauma-sensitive yoga can benefit anyone who’s served in the military, but for many service members, the trauma occurred long before the war.
“A large majority of our service members have had prior childhood trauma, which creates a deeper trauma groove as they move through life,” Weaver says.
A 2021 study found that yoga programs for active-duty military personnel can be beneficial for treating symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
“Our active duty practitioners sleep during Savasana because they feel safe and secure — they don’t sleep well otherwise,” Weaver says.
For veterans, a 2018 study shows that trauma-sensitive yoga interventions may improve symptoms associated with PTSD as a standalone or adjunctive therapy.
“Our veterans have fewer PTSD days at home; they have reduced some of their medications and are more involved with the family,” Weaver adds. “We hear about better sleep patterns, less anger, and a reduced startle response.”
Sexual assault survivors
A review published in 2016 showed that trauma-sensitive yoga helps reduce symptoms associated with PTSD among women who had experienced intimate partner violence.
Additionally, a 2014 study found that yoga helped reduce symptoms in women with treatment-resistant PTSD. The authors suggested that yoga could help people to tolerate physical and sensory experiences associated with fear and helplessness, while increasing emotional awareness.
Trauma-sensitive yoga may also be an effective treatment for PTSD among female veterans who endured military sexual trauma, as noted by a 2021 study. The findings show that TIY helped improve symptoms better than cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a type of PTSD treatment, with lasting effects.
Research from 2021 suggests that trauma-informed yoga can promote healing in high-risk minority populations.
Racial trauma has a cumulative negative impact on people of color, and other marginalized groups experience trauma at disproportionate rates. “Look at the ways that COVID has more severely impacted people with chronic illnesses, the Black community, and seniors,” says Heyman.
Because trauma can affect almost anyone, many people can benefit from a trauma-based approach to yoga, including those who have experienced:
- body dysmorphia
- chronic illness and pain
- intergenerational trauma
- suicidal ideation or attempts
- mass violence or war
In addition, people working in fields where they are more likely to encounter trauma — such as caregivers and first responders — may benefit.
Yoga can have many physical and mental health benefits, but a mainstream yoga class may not be suitable for everyone.
Trauma-informed yoga can support post-traumatic growth and healing for trauma survivors. A trauma-informed yoga teacher will emphasize your experience within a yoga posture, rather than performance.
The goal of trauma-informed yoga is to be able to practice different postures, breathwork, or meditation styles without becoming triggered.
“Trauma-informed yoga is an essential aspect of making yoga welcoming, effective, and safe for anyone who is interested in practicing,” says Heyman. “It’s not really a question of the style of yoga, but rather, the way the practice is being shared.”
Andrea Rice (she/her) is an award-winning journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a staff writer for PsychCentral, she covers mental health news and trending topics. Her work has appeared in news outlets such as The New York Times and INDY Week, and wellness publications such as Yoga Journal, Verywell, and mindbodygreen. As a yoga and meditation teacher since 2010, Andrea’s book, The Yoga Almanac, offers seasonal practices to nourish the body and mind. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and read more of her work on her website.