Have you heard about the recent miracle that is yoga for trauma survivors?
Trauma survivors are using yoga to regain their strength. And science shows it works.
Yoga is giving hope to the 7.8% of people who experience symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) at some time in their life  and for the 70% of people who experience traumatic events at least once in their lifetime.
Unlike traditional use of the 13 major forms of yoga, when practicing (or teaching) yoga for trauma, the focus is on developing a nonjudgmental, accepting attitude founded on self compassion.
Today I had the pleasure of discussing the use of yoga for trauma survivors with Rich Filc [Yoga Instructor, De La Sol, Hamilton ON] at our local coffee shop.
Filc—who entered the coffees shop with intimidatingly perfect posture—tells me, “There is a growing body of research that shows that yoga is beneficial for a variety of mental health conditions, [including trauma].” The bulk of that research comes from Yoga researcher and Trauma Sensitive Yoga founder David Emerson ], which evidenced the efficacy of yoga for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and trauma-related disorders such as acute stress disorder.
Here’s the deal:
This style of yoga is not just for those suffering with PTSD and other serious conditions (which psychologists term “Big T Trauma”]. There are also myriad benefits of yoga for trauma of the “little T” kind—trauma that is related to the many stressful life events we all experience.
Filc has witnessed firsthand the transformative effect yoga has on trauma.
“One [of my yoga students] would initially come to my yoga classes and be nervous and agitated,” says Filc. “Only a few weeks later this same person would come, sit on the mat, focus on their breath, and be calm.”
This is something Filc remembers warmly. “It’s one of the most rewarding things as a yoga instructor to be able to teach someone and see these changes,” he says. And in return, his yoga student was able to teach him a new technique. “[My student] said that they would just close their eyes and imagine doing yoga, and it would create a sense of peace.” This, Filc says, was a new idea even for him.
What Filc and other yoga teachers have witnessed firsthand, science is beginning to prove: There are major benefits of yoga for trauma survivors. And this new couldn’t come soon enough, given that levels of PTSD and trauma-related conditions are the rise,.
Yoga For Truama Survivors is Becoming More And More Important
Trauma is more common than most people realise.
Major steps are being taken to help people with PTSD [including the military’s use of TM for PTSD)
But trauma is not just about the “Big T Trauma” suffered by the survivors of sexual abuse and other traumatic events. It’s also about “Little T trauma”.
Little T Trauma occurs when a series of stressful life events that exceed our capacity to cope and lead to disruptive emotional functioning.
It all begins with one traumatic event.
Whether it’s peer pressure, societal pressure, or a major change in life, billions of us (this author included) have experienced major stressors in life that lead to little T trauma.
While the number of people who suffer from major traumatic events, such as sexual assault, may be comparatively small, the number of people who suffer from trauma related to a series of smaller, less severe events, like bullying or emotional abuse from parents, siblings, and colleagues, is alarmingly high.
Events that cause Little T Trauma include:
- Personal conflicts
- Legal trouble
- Sudden death of a parent of loved one
Then there’s secondary trauma
Even those of us who have not experience trauma firsthand may very well have been exposed to secondary-trauma.
Secondary Traumatic Stress is a type of trauma in which the individual witnesses or hears accounts of traumatic events of other people . This can be especially harmful for kids and teens.
KidsMatter.edu tells us, ‘Secondary trauma can arise in children who are indirectly exposed to a traumatic event. Indirect exposure comes from being around people who have been traumatised, perhaps, by listening to their graphic stories or even experiencing their erratic behaviours.”
Sources of secondary trauma include:
- Being around people who have experience trauma (this is especially damaging for highly sensitive empaths).
- Media (violence and disasters depicted on TV, for instance)
- Social media
- Abusive parents
- Witnessing bullying (this is relevant to both kids and adults)
- Witnessing acts of violence
All in all, these various forms of trauma effect an estimated 70% of the population.
In other words: we all either have experienced trauma or are very close to someone who has—probably both.
Eating disorders from trauma
Not only is trauma the cause of numerous mental health conditions, it is also a leading cause of eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia.
Research shows that traumatic events lead to a significant increase in the risk of developing eating disorders.
Filc, who recently completed a thesis on Trauma Sensitive Yoga at McMaster University, tells THE DAILY MEDITAITON, “Most eating disorder begin from a moment of trauma… There is a high degree of prevalence in coincidence between trauma and eating disorder. Rarely does someone develop an eating disorder [or alcohol or drug disorder] without an element of trauma.”
Research conducted by T.D Brewerton in 2008 revealed that 74% of a group of 293 women in residential treatment has experienced trauma [Brewerton,T.D, 2008]. The primary purpose of eating disorder symptomatology is to prevent the individual from having to face painful emotions or thoughts. In other words: comfort eating to stop trauma.
What science says about yoga for trauma survivors
The good news is this:
Whether it’s the “big T trauma” of past abuse, the little “T” trauma of life stressors, the “secondary trauma” of having been exposed to other people’s trauma, or an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia, yoga can help.
Numerous studies have shown that yoga reduces stress and the symptoms of anxiety, and helps treat depression and PTSD. Yoga has also been shown to improve emotional regulation. One such study researched the effect of yoga on women exposed to domestic violence, and found a significant reduction in symptoms and an increase in coping skills.
A 2014 study  took 17 men and women with PTSD and taught them yoga for 12 weeks (one 40 minutes session a week). The results showed that 12 weeks of trauma-sensitive yoga led to significantly less depressive symptoms and less anxiety. Based on these results, researchers are calling yoga an effective treatment for trauma and one with very few side-effects.
By all accounts, yoga is one of the safest and arguably one of the most effective way of increasing coping skills related to trauma.
So how do you practice trauma-sensitive yoga.
- The best book: Trauma Sensitive Yoga: Bringing The Body Into Healing [AMAZON]
The Best Style Of Yoga For Trauma survivors
Filc tells THE DAILY MEDITATION that it is important to choose the right style of yoga, both in terms of the traditional yoga form and the way in which we approach it.
Interestingly, Filc tells us that some forms of yoga can have a negative effect.
In one research paper, a group of overweight adolescents and teens with anxiety were taught Ashtanga yoga. While half the group witnessed a drop in anxiety levels, the other half actually witnessed increased levels of anxiety.
There are lessens to be taken from this.
“Ashtanga is taught in the way that there is a right and wrong way to do a posture,” says Filc. “For people with body image and anxiety issues you can see how being instructed in [such a precise and strict way could cause an elevation in anxiety.”
So, would a more flow—based style of yoga be better for anxiety?
“When it comes down to it, [what matters is that] the yoga be taught in a nonjudgmental way and from a sense of acceptance rather than focusing on the particular posture or how the body looks in a specific position .This would make yoga more accessible, more beginner friendly, and less likely to provoke anxiety,” says Filc.
Filc recommends this nonjudgmental attitude both in the studio and when practicing yoga at home. “It feels best to teach in a style that is accessible to everyone,” he says. “I want to teach in such a way to facilitate a process of healing and growth physically and emotionally for anyone who comes to a yoga class.”
This attitude is the key to practicing and teaching yoga for mental health, rather than for just the exercise.
“Some people come to yoga class just for the workout,” says Filc. “But if you’re interested in developing your level of awareness or mindfulness, yoga can play a role in the transformation.”
How To Practice [Or Teach] yoga for trauma survivors
Through his experience teaching yoga to trauma survivors, Filc has learned a great deal about the right and wrong way to approach trauma sensitive yoga. It’s a subject he researched while writing his thesis at McMaster Universty.
Flic tells us, “In a paper by [yoga researcher and founder of Trauma Sensitive Yoga] Emerson published in 2009 , he outlines 5 key elements that a yoga class should have to be trauma sensitive or trauma informed. He advocates for:
- a nonjudgmental, welcoming space;
- a lack of mirrors because someone with body issues might [experience discomfort seeing themselves in a mirror];
- and invitational language [such as “If you would like to move your leg…” rather than “Move your leg”]
I asked Filc what tips he could give THE DAILY MEDITATION’s readers to successfully practice trauma-sensitive yoga.
Let’s take a look.
Top 6 tips for using yoga for trauma survivors
Use these tips for mind-friendly yoga, whether you’re learning with an instructor or practicing yoga at home.
1: Explore different studios, different studios, different yoga styles.
Filc recommends trying various yoga styles to find the one that feels best for you as an individual.
“For instance, there is Yin, which is very slow and challenging for some people,” says Filc. “Then there’s Vinyasa which is faster and more flow, which some people might enjoy.”
Filc himself mainly teaches Hatha yoga, which is a gentler form of yoga ideal for beginners and trauma survivors.
2: It has to be maintained.
“Nothing in my life have I found to be dramatically transforming in one incident,” says Filc. “We all want the quick fix. We want to sit down and feel peace. But fundamentally that is not how it works. Anything less than once or twice a week will not produce a lasting benefit.
3: Open mindedness:
“I try to teach open-mindedness, patience, and acceptance,” says Filc. “It is very easy to bring your old behaviours, judgments and criticisms onto the mat, and then to put that on yourself and think ‘I’m not good enough’. Or we might judge the instructor—and that’s just more of the same. Listen to what is being said and listen to what is happening in your body. Bring a sense of appreciation for what you are learning.
4: The goal is not to make the thinking stop and make the mind quiet.
“The goal is to listen to the thinking taking place,” says Filc. “Hear the noise of the mind, and bring a sense of nonjudgment and equanimity.
“Moving forward in life from a point of acceptance, grace and ease is so much easier than the alternative.”
5: Use Invitational Languagew-to-live-in-the-moment:
“When it comes to eating disorders or addictions, what often happens is that there is a lack of personal power,” says Filc. “The person has become a victim. They have become subject to external circumstances outside of their control and they have lost the ability to choose what they experience in life. They become disempowered. Invitational language re-empowers the person.”
The key to invitational language is essentially compassion.
6: Approach discomfort mindfully:
“A lot of people report mild discomfort in yoga,”’ says Filc. “My personal take on this is that I have to learn to take a certain degree of discomfort because that teaches me how to cope with similar discomfort in real life. In yoga we learn that we can navigate in and out of [comfortable and uncomfortable] experiences and we can breathe and be less reactive.
*At home adopt this attitude as a manner of Self talk.
And that is how you do yoga for trauma survivors
We all know about the physical health benefits of yoga. But yoga is about the mind as much a it is about the body.
Practices such as pratyahara yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga offer healthy and effective ways of improve coping skills for trauma survivors. And many people are becoming yoga teachers and becoming meditation teachers specifically to help people with the traumas they have experienced in life.
Next time you hit the yoga mat, remember: an asana is for the mind, not just the body.
Huge thanks to Richard Filc for the interview. You can follow Richard on Facebook.