Yoga Therapy for Trauma Recovery: Your Questions Answered

Oct 7, 2023

How does yoga therapy help with trauma recovery?

Yoga therapy offers a targeted approach to trauma by directly addressing nervous system dysregulation. When an individual experiences trauma, the body’s natural response mechanism can become overwhelmed. If the sympathetic “fight or flight” response is overridden, the parasympathetic “freeze” response takes over, essentially putting the body into a lockdown mode. This heightened state of alertness means the body is constantly detecting threats, even when there aren’t any immediate dangers. Over time, this can manifest in symptoms such as dissociation, a sensation of being disembodied, or feeling like a “floating head”.

Such physiological responses are deeply embedded in the body’s nervous system as a consequence of traumatic events. However, with the right approach, these responses can be regulated. Yoga therapy works by helping individuals re-establish a felt sense of safety. In doing so, it allows the autonomic nervous system to regain its resilience and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

All these states—fight, flight, and freeze—are essential for survival. However, it’s the ability to transition between them smoothly that signifies a healthy and resilient nervous system. Unfortunately, this essential adaptability is compromised in trauma victims. Yoga therapy aims to restore this equilibrium, ensuring that the nervous system is responsive and adaptive, rather than perpetually on high alert.

How does yoga therapy differ from regular yoga classes?

Regular Yoga Classes

While regular yoga classes offer general practices for overall wellness, they might not always cater to the specific and sensitive needs of individuals with trauma. Many yoga teachers, especially those trained at the 200-hour level, might not have specialized training in trauma-sensitive yoga. Public yoga classes can be challenging in several ways:

  • Class Environment: Public classes can sometimes be crowded, possibly making individuals with trauma feel boxed in and trapped.
  • Consent and Physical Touch: Yoga instructors in public classes often offer hands-on assists. Even if they seek consent, some individuals might agree to physical touch without genuinely feeling comfortable, just to avoid drawing attention.
  • Privacy and Emotional Release: The public nature of yoga classes doesn’t always offer the privacy individuals with trauma might need. Certain yoga postures can elicit strong emotional responses that individuals may not feel safe expressing openly in a group setting.
  • Body Image Concerns: Joining a public class can also trigger body image issues. Being amidst experienced practitioners can feel daunting for beginners, exacerbating feelings of self-consciousness.

Yoga Therapy

By contrast, yoga therapy stands out as a dedicated health care modality for trauma treatment. Yoga therapy sessions are one-on-one. Beyond just creating a trauma-sensitive environment, it offers specialized methods tailored to an individual’s healing journey:

  • Personalized Plans: Yoga therapy isn’t a standard yoga class; it’s a structured therapeutic session tailored to address trauma symptoms. A specialized home practice plan is designed and prescribed with each individual’s healing path in mind.
  • Safety and Comfort: Central to yoga therapy is facilitating a felt sense of safety. The sessions focus on techniques that regulate the nervous system, gradually retraining it to relax and helping clients feel in control and safe. Yoga therapists never touch their clients in this context.
  • Expertise in Trauma: Yoga therapists aren’t just aware of trauma; they’re specifically trained to address it. They teach techniques designed to help trauma survivors reconnect with their bodies and foster trust and control. Through directed awareness exercises and grounding techniques, clients are gently guided in re-establishing connection with themselves.
  • Agency and Self-Care: Beyond physical exercises, yoga therapy nurtures self-compassion and fosters a healthier relationship with oneself. The aim is to empower clients, continually getting consent for the plan, and fostering agency, choice-making, and proactive self-care. Establishing a sense of agency is an important step in trauma recovery.
  • Progress Monitoring: An important aspect of yoga therapy is its feedback-driven approach. Yoga therapists use specific criteria to track trauma-related symptoms, ensuring care is effective.

In essence, while trauma-sensitive yoga classes offer an understanding environment, yoga therapy provides a more comprehensive, targeted care specifically designed for those who are recovering from trauma.

Are there scientific studies supporting the use of yoga therapy for trauma recovery?

Yes, yoga therapy has been shown to alleviate symptoms of PTSD and has been particularly helpful for women who have faced abuse. For a comprehensive overview of these studies and their findings, please refer to this article.

Who is qualified to offer yoga therapy for trauma? What should I look for in a yoga therapist?

A qualified yoga therapist will have completed 1000+ hours of specialized training and supervision from institutions accredited by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). This training is in addition to their 200-hr or 500-hr yoga teacher certifications. Many yoga therapists offer complimentary phone consultations, giving you a chance to discuss their qualifications and expertise in working with individuals who have a history of trauma.

Is yoga therapy safe for everyone, including those with severe trauma?

Indeed, yoga therapists are uniquely qualified to work with individuals facing severe trauma. It’s important to select a yoga therapist whose specialty aligns with your needs, as some focus on mental health while others concentrate on physical conditions. In cases of profound trauma, yoga therapists collaborate with other mental health clinicians to ensure holistic and comprehensive care. This is the essence of complementary medicine.

How does yoga therapy complement other traditional therapeutic methods used for trauma?

Yoga therapy provides a multidimensional approach to trauma recovery, addressing both the physical symptoms and the mental barriers that can emerge in traditional talk therapies. Through movement practices and meditation, yoga therapy allows for transformative shifts in perspective. These shifts often build on the progress made in talk therapy sessions. Developing emotional resilience and increasing the capacity for present-centered awareness, yoga therapy paves the way for more effective and sustained therapeutic outcomes.

Unlike many trauma treatment methodologies, yoga therapy is inherently non-triggering. It offers a healing avenue that doesn’t necessitate the retelling or re-living of traumatic events. This positions it as a valuable alternative to methods like EMDR or exposure therapy, where there may be a risk of re-experiencing discomfort.

What can I expect in a typical yoga therapy session for trauma recovery?

The first session usually begins with a conversation about your current interests, goals, and challenges, as well as a review of your health history and daily habits. Since yoga therapists focus on the physiological aspects of trauma, you don’t need to discuss the specifics of the traumatic event(s), unless you feel it’s necessary. Your yoga therapist might introduce some yoga practices at the first session, with your consent. They then develop a yoga practice that will help you reach your healing goals in the most efficient way. Your yoga practice might include gentle movement, breathing exercises, meditation, or relaxation techniques.

Follow-up sessions often start with an update on your home practice progress and any questions you might have. The remainder of the session involves practicing yoga. There may be some education component as well. You will usually receive visual, audio, or video aids to support you in your home practice. 

Most people choose to wear comfortable loose-fitting clothing, with socks or bare feet. It’s okay to wear shoes if you prefer. All supplies are provided. There is no need to worry about being flexible or athletic enough to do yoga. Generally, yoga for trauma recovery is gentle and accessible.

How does yoga therapy help with symptoms commonly associated with trauma, like anxiety, insomnia, or flashbacks?

Yoga therapy promotes positive changes in the brain through meditation techniques, such as mudra meditation, yoga nidra, and body scans. By shifting the brain’s patterns, it helps support healthy function within the interconnected systems within our bodies. This leads to better outcomes such as improved sleep, fewer or less intense flashback episodes, and increased tolerance for discomfort due to phobias, sensitivities, or aversions. 

To address specific symptoms, evidence-based practices such as yoga nidra may be used for PTSD and insomnia, while therapeutic breathwork may be used to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

Beyond that, yoga therapy adopts a systematic approach by tracking specific symptoms to gauge the effectiveness of the practices. By keeping an eye on these indicators, your yoga therapist can fine-tune the methods used, ensuring they’re as effective as possible in alleviating trauma-related symptoms.

There is no single protocol for working with trauma recovery because symptoms can differ amongst individuals with trauma. Your yoga therapist will keep your specific symptoms in mind when developing your yoga practice.

How long does it typically take to see benefits from yoga therapy for trauma?

The benefits of yoga therapy can be felt at varying rates, greatly influenced by the nature of the trauma. With consistent practice, some individuals experience immediate relief in areas such as relaxation. Anxiety-related symptoms often start diminishing within a few weeks or less. Disturbances in sleep patterns may require around 4-6 months to stabilize. For deeper, more ingrained patterns of hyper-sensitivity or outlook, consistent practice over 6-12 months is usually preferred. 

In cases of severe or developmental trauma, the healing process might extend over a year. However, It’s heartening to know that with techniques like meditation, the brain can undergo significant positive changes within a year of dedicated practice.

After the initial phase where weekly appointments might be common, yoga therapists typically meet their clients every 2-4 weeks for longer-term support and guidance. Remember: always communicate with your yoga therapist to get a clearer picture of the expected time frame and approach tailored to your specific symptoms and needs.

Can yoga therapy help with Complex PTSD and developmental trauma?

Yes. Given its holistic approach, yoga therapy is particularly suited to address the multi-faceted impacts of Complex PTSD and developmental trauma.

Do I need to have prior experience with yoga or meditation to start yoga therapy?

No. Yoga therapy sessions are tailored to the individual, making them suitable for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.

How does yoga therapy address the brain-body-spirit connection in the context of trauma?

Yoga therapy taps into the body’s inherent wisdom, steering trauma survivors towards a path of recovery and rediscovery of their innate sense of wholeness. By recognizing the uniqueness of each individual’s spiritual beliefs and practices, yoga therapy can be tailored to incorporate these personal elements. This unique approach fosters a deep and holistic healing process that resonates with the whole self.

What styles or techniques of yoga are commonly used in yoga therapy?

Trauma-informed yoga therapy often uses postures, movements, breathwork, chanting, study, dozens of styles of meditation, and countless relaxation techniques. These are sourced from a wide range of yoga traditions, and are complemented by evidence-based practices grounded in neuroscience.

Is yoga therapy suitable for children or teens who’ve experienced trauma?

Yes. With trained yoga therapists who specialize in pediatric or adolescent care, yoga therapy can be a valuable tool for younger individuals.

How can I integrate yoga therapy with my existing mental health care plan?

Open communication is key. Inform your mental health provider about your interest in yoga therapy. Collaborate with both your therapist and yoga therapist for a synchronized approach.

How Do I Pay For Yoga therapy?

Currently, most insurance plans don’t cover yoga therapy. However, you can reimburse yourself for yoga therapy using your Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA). To use those accounts, you need a letter of medical necessity from your doctor.

For victims of crimes in Connecticut, the Victim Compensation Program (VCP) offers full reimbursement for eligible individuals, making it a financially accessible avenue for trauma recovery. 

What if my question wasn’t answered?

Ask us! Please feel free to contact us and we would be more than happy to set up a time to answer any questions you may have about yoga therapy for trauma recovery.

Yoga Therapy Associates offers yoga therapy at four locations in Connecticut and via telehealth. Schedule your free consultation today to find out how yoga therapy can help you on your healing journey.

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