The Value of Yoga in Trauma Work

Yoga for exercise

Contributed by Rachel Sherron, MA, LPC, RYT, Coordinator of Trauma Awareness and Yoga Specialist, and Debra M. Cooper of Timberline Knolls

People often enter treatment due to some type of trauma. The genesis of the trauma could be emotional in nature, such as long-term childhood neglect, but frequently it results from physical violence, such as sexual assault.

The Impact of Trauma

The difficulty with understanding the impact of trauma is that the public at large wants to view it as a singular event. For example, say a young woman is raped; by anyone’s definition, this is a horrific experience. In time, the physical aspects of the violation heal, perhaps it is determined that no long-term negative consequences such as disease or pregnancy are in play. Well-meaning family and friends want to see her “get on with life.

What they don’t understand is that the trauma is still alive in her mind, and importantly, held in her body. She is frightened, anxious, experiencing flashbacks and nightmares; this is because her nervous system is radically disregulated, leaving her body ubiquitously tense and on high-alert.

“Trauma lives in the body,” said Rachael. “In approximately 70 percent of trauma victims, the body remains in a state of hyper-arousal, meaning the fight or flight response is always engaged.”

Fear is a driving force in the life of a trauma survivor. For years, these individuals have used drugs, alcohol, or food to numb the fear. “These women are terrified to go into their bodies or work on their trauma; they think they will open Pandora’s Box, then never be able to close it. One resident said, if I talk about my trauma, I will literally go crazy and never be normal again.’” Effective trauma work is not an opening of Pandora’s Box in any regard. It is slow and mindful—it works to keep these traumatized females out of a hyper-aroused state while teaching them the critical skills required to self-regulate.

Yoga in Trauma Work

Many therapeutic techniques must be utilized to help a trauma survivor. Increasingly, yoga is used as a complimentary strategy to talk therapy. Yoga is an ancient practice that strives to create union between the body and mind. It incorporates mindfulness, breathing, physical postures, movement and relaxation.

Young woman sitting on the floor doing yoga near wallMindfulness, a key component of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), encourages a person to remain in the present moment. This is important because when a woman is focusing on a particular posture or pose, her entire brain is active and engaged. Mindfulness keeps the pre-frontal cortex of the brain online. When this logical part of the brain is engaged, the emotional, lower brain centers are held at bay. Therefore, if there is a sudden loud sound, the woman will rationally interpret that a nearby door just slammed, instead of deciding to run for safety.

Perhaps the most key component of yoga is the focus on the breath. “I think the breath that is the basis of all trauma work. Heightened vigilance is characterized by short shallow intakes of air; the body is preparing to confront danger. Conversely, slow, deep, fluid breaths tell the body that it is safe and allows the nervous system to relax and calm down. “Although this attention to breath may start on the yoga mat, it is a calming strategy that can be utilized during any stressful life situation.

As mindfulness and breathing provide physical regulation, the poses offer something else altogether. Trauma survivors often have decreased Interoception, which refers to the nervous system connection between the mind and body. At the least, they are disconnected; at the most, they exist in a state of hatred. “When the mind sees the body as separate, that’s objectification—the body is a thing. We want to work on integrating the mind into the body, so that women can be one with it.” This is accomplished through various poses that are designed to build strength, confidence, resiliency and respect. Initially, a woman may perceive herself as weak and incapable of achieving certain poses; in time, as she grows in confidence and strength, she experiences success. Small victories on the mat are ultimately very juxtaposable to huge victories in real life.

Woman doing mindfulness yoga at the beachThose who utilize yoga in trauma work, witness the evidence of its effectiveness every day. Many research studies also validate its efficacy. In one study, 64 women with chronic PTSD were randomly assigned to either a ten-week trauma informed yoga class or to women’s health education classes. Ranging in age from 18 to 58, these were women who had not responded to previous treatment. At the conclusion of the study, 16 out of 31 (52%) of participants in the Yoga Group no longer met criteria for PTSD compared to 6 out of 29 (21%) of those in the education classes. Moreover, the Yoga Group reported reduced dissociative symptoms as well as a decrease in affect dysregulation and an increase in tension reduction activities. [1]

The human mind and body are inextricably linked; therefore, simply treating the psychological effects of trauma is only doing half the job. Using a practice such as yoga allows a trauma survivor to move from a constant state of fear and arousal to one of peace, respect and harmony with her body.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

How has regular healthy exercise and yoga impacted your recovery from trauma?

About the Authors:

Debra M. Cooper, a graduate of Arizona State University, has worked as a professional writer for 30 years. She is the author of Behind The Broken Image, a novel about families and eating disorders. Today, she writes full-time for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.

Rachel Sherron, MA, LPC, RYT, is a Yoga Therapist and Trauma Specialist, and Debra M. Cooper, BA is a writer, both are at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

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