Yoga can be a great tool for recovery, but only if yoga teachers understand how to shape the practice to the needs of people healing from trauma.
It had been a pretty tough yoga class. Everyone in the packed classroom was sweating, and we had finally made it to Savasana, that few minutes when you get to lie down and rest at the end of a practice.
I was sprawled out on the floor. The yoga teacher put on a recording of a woman’s voice, a harp tinkling in the background. “You are a very powerful being,” she crooned. “You create everything that happens to you in your life. You may wonder to yourself, ‘Why did that person do that bad thing to me? I didn’t deserve that! Well, actually, you did! You manifested that situation at some point in your life. You are just that powerful!’”
I felt tears starting to flow down my cheeks. I got so angry that I couldn’t stay still. I got up, pulled my hoodie down over my head, and ran out of the class, barely suppressing my sobs on the way out the door.
Why did the tinkling harp recording make me run for the hills so violently? Because I have been sexually assaulted, and at the time I had been working for weeks with my therapist on trying to understand that it wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t do anything to deserve being treated like a piece of garbage by another human being.
I was just barely catching on to what my therapist was saying when my yoga teacher basically told me that, nope, I did deserve that treatment. I probably was a piece of garbage.
Telling me that I created everything that happens in my life is another way of saying, essentially, that what happened to me was a result of my karma. If you do good, good comes back to you. If you do bad, bad comes back to you, right? So on some level, I deserved what happened.
In classical Hinduism, karma means that our actions have consequences—the word itself means “action.” But the actions of our lives have consequences we can’t predict. They have butterfly effects: What we do will matter in some way, we just can’t control exactly what wind the butterfly will catch that ends up in a typhoon.
As the god Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna in the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita, we must let go of the fruits of our actions because, while our intentions and choices matter, we simply can’t control how things are going to turn out.
The Hindu gods do not judge the actions of humans and give them presents if they are good and lumps of coal if they are bad, like the Judeo-Christian god (or Santa). We have to take responsibility for our actions, but there’s no point in blaming ourselves for their unintended consequences. We don’t construct our own reality, no matter how hard we think about everything we want and avoid thinking about what we don’t want. We don’t invent our traumas from some unconscious corner of our unenlightened minds. None of us deserve to be treated like garbage.
Yoga teachers would do well to remember that most of their students have experienced some kind of trauma at some point in their lives.
A traumatic event can take a lot of forms—a violent attack, a natural disaster, sexual abuse, a car accident, a divorce, a miscarriage, even the ambient threat of being assaulted at random for being black or visibly queer. All these things can be traumatic depending on how our nervous systems interpret them. A lot of us are holding some degree of trauma in our bodies right now. Yoga and meditation practices can really help—but they can hurt, too.
I’ve come to think of trauma as something that happens inside of our bodies. It is defined by our internal reactions to an event rather than by the event itself.
If 100 people survive the same plane crash, some of them will experience some traumatic stress that resolves in a few weeks, others will have full-blown, long-lasting posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others will walk away with a new lease on life, not a trace of trauma to be found.
Trauma isn’t about what happens to us, it’s about how our brains and nervous systems process what happens to us, and that’s not something we can consciously control.
A hallmark of trauma for many survivors is shame. We feel that we did something to cause the trauma or didn’t do enough to stop it. We feel ashamed of having survived something others didn’t. We feel that something ugly happened to us because we are somehow fundamentally ugly on the inside. While guilt is an appropriate response to having done something bad, shame is the feeling that we are bad, at the very core of our souls. Shame is self-absorbed and self-punishing. It nudges us into behaviors that make us feel worse about ourselves. It refuses kindness from others and will not entertain the possibility of change. Shame can massively block our path to healing trauma.
Unfortunately, some yogic practices are very shame inducing. When we get the message that being a yogic person means we should never feel anger, sadness, or desire, our natural human emotions become reasons to see ourselves as bad yogis. We think that people who practice yoga must be raw vegans who are living in a state of blissful Oneness all the time. They love and forgive everyone automatically no matter what wrong has been done. Feeling pressure to forgive our perpetrators is not generally very helpful for trauma survivors.
Feeling like we need to be pure, grateful creatures who never have a trace of anger at the injustices of the world to be worthy of a yoga practice can really hold us back from rolling out a mat from time to time.
In the right context, however, yoga and mindfulness can help us heal our shame. When we practice being present with whatever we feel, being kind to whatever that is, and being willing to watch it change, the shame in our hearts can slowly dislodge.
Yoga and meditation can help us feel our anger more clearly, articulate our feelings of hurt and helplessness, and acknowledge that it’s okay that we aren’t ready to forgive. But yoga is only accessible if we feel that we can do it no matter how bad we feel (or how many doughnuts we ate) that day.
When we are holding a trauma in our bodies, the stress cycle hasn’t ended: the stressor is gone, but the stress is not. The body thinks the threat is still present. Most stressful events have a beginning, middle, and end, and, then, ideally, we complete the cycle somehow: we sigh, we shake it off, we cry, or we hug someone we trust. With most forms of traumatic response, the stress cycle can’t end. We are stuck in fight or flight. We can tell ourselves we’re safe all day, but the nervous system doesn’t really listen to reason. Luckily, the nervous system does understand breath, movement, physical sensation, and touch, which are all potentially aspects of a yoga practice. Yoga can actually repattern the nervous system to help release traumatic effects and return to a calmer state.
Restorative yoga, which involves lying still in comfortable positions, can be magical for trauma survivors. The whole point of that style of yoga is to calm down the nervous system. For some people, however (including me at the beginning of my recovery), trying to relax in stillness is just a painful exercise in intrusive thoughts.
For these survivors, a dynamic, flowing, breath-focused Vinyasa class is key: The mind has to stay with the breath and the body in the here and now, so there’s no time for intrusive thoughts. It gives the mind enough to do that the nervous system can begin to relax in the background.
For this same reason, sitting in meditation without specific guidance can be an anxiety-inducing, thought-spiraling disaster. Guided forms of meditation, however, can be very helpful for occupying the mind and helping the nervous system recalibrate back to baseline.
As long as the guided meditation isn’t telling you that you created your own trauma, of course.
Touch is a controversial issue within yoga, especially from a trauma-informed perspective. Many survivors of trauma were touched non-consensually, so for some survivors, touch is triggering. At the same time, touch is one of the most powerful ways to complete the stress cycle.
Gentle, consensual touch can be incredibly healing for a survivor, and the yoga room provides a space where there are (or should be) appropriate boundaries between student and teacher. In the right context and with explicit consent, touch can be a keystone to healing. I love to offer hands-on assists in my yoga classes, but I try to make sure the students know that it’s not a one-way thing that is happening to them, but an experience they are co-creating with me. I want my students to always feel empowered to communicate with me and to know that they have choices about what’s happening to their bodies.