Transcending Trauma –Bringing Awareness To Teaching Yoga

“We will now prepare for Yoga Nidra,” the instructor informed us. These are usually magical words for someone who has experienced the deep, relaxation of Yoga Nidra. I was very much looking forward to the opportunity to let go and just breathe. Leading up to this point, it had been a stressful week. I had a hectic work schedule and had just driven 10 hours to a yoga training program. I knew how beneficial this practice was, so I happily prepared my ‘nest’ of blankets and bolsters to settle back into Savasana.

The instructor told us she would be staying in the front of the room while guiding us in this practice. She also informed us that eye masks were available if anyone wanted to place them over their eyes to shut some of the light out and perhaps deepen their relaxation experience. I chose not to take an eye mask and instead just closed my eyes, awaiting the start of the practice.

One of the assistants for the training walked around the room to make sure everyone had all the props they needed to be comfortable for the practice. When she came to me, she noticed I did not have an eye mask. She quickly and quietly placed one over my eyes as the instructor began guiding us into the practice.

Laying there, initially I was uncomfortable having the eye mask on my face, but I talked myself into giving it a try. My body was all tucked in under a blanket and it just seemed like too much of a distraction to try and take it off.

Things seemed to be going quite well with the Yoga Nidra practice. We had relaxed the body, part by part, and we were beginning to watch the breath. I was relishing the longer moments of silence between words as I felt my body sinking heavily into the mat and some of the tension from the drive melting away.

What happened next for me is still a blur of panic, anxiety, and confusion. The instructor began to speak her next words, but instead of her voice coming from the front of the room as it had the entire practice, her voice projected loudly from right next to my head. I was so startled that my entire body literally lifted off the floor in one massively tense twitch. As I crashed back to the floor, I was painfully aware of a sickening tension pulsating throughout my entire body. I could feel my heart racing, pounding out of my chest, and suddenly I could no longer distinguish the instructor’s words. I could only hear my heart beat echoing in my ears so loudly I wondered if the people next to me could also hear it. I started to go numb. I couldn’t breathe. I felt my chest tightening as I was gasping for the little bit of air that was coming in. My thoughts were racing. Everything was telling me I had to get out of the room as soon as possible yet I couldn’t move. I felt as if I was cemented to the floor. I was dizzy with fear. Nauseous. Completely incapacitated.

I knew exactly what was happening. I had been triggered. Being previously diagnosed as having PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), I even knew what I was supposed to do in this moment to try and break the cycle. But I could do nothing except lay there frozen for what seemed like eternity, feeling as if I was under attack by some invisible enemy.

Maybe because I had been wearing the eye mask, I wasn’t able to distinguish the change in light as the instructor moved from the front of the room to standing next to me. Maybe it was because I was so relaxed that I hadn’t felt her close physical proximity either. My brain suddenly felt I had no control over my environment and what was happening in it. It misunderstood the situation as a threat to my safety. And even though I had learned to manage PTSD symptoms well, for some reason that day, I was triggered.

Hyperarousal (a high sensitivity, heightened anxiety and altered arousal responses) is a common symptom experienced by people who have PTSD. Bessel Van der Kolk author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma explains that in trauma survivors, the parts of the brain that have evolved to monitor for danger remain overactivated. Even the slightest sign of danger, real or misperceived, can trigger an acute stress response accompanied by intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations.

Eventually I was able to focus on what I knew was real. I felt the floor underneath me. I felt the heaviness of the blanket on top of me and the eye mask that was still covering my eyes. I told my mind that I was not in a harmful situation. I focused on exhaling. I allowed myself to notice my heart beat, the tension in my body, and all the racing thoughts. What seemed like hours after being triggered, my arms felt light enough to remove the eye mask from my face. The warm sunlight flooded my wide open eyes as I laid there, still struggling to complete a full exhale.

The rest of the Yoga Nidra practice was a blur. I was unable to reach the blissful state of complete and total relaxation, but I was able to successfully manage a few rounds of Sama Vritti (equal breath) by the time I heard the new magic words that our practice had come to an end. I had survived.

I share this scenario as an example of how the most well-intentioned yoga experiences can be perceived as traumatic by someone with a history of trauma. I knew it was not the intention of either instructor to be harmful or create a stressful environment for anyone. However, a combination of factors had added up to cause my trigger in this particular case, even with the amount of work I had been doing up to this point to “manage” my symptoms.

Trauma-sensitive yoga is a hot topic in the yoga community. Knowing that 10% of American women and 4% of American men develop PTSD in their lives, (Yoga International), it is quite likely that there is someone in your yoga class who has experienced trauma. Keeping in mind that many cases go undiagnosed/unreported, these statistics may not accurately reflect the true percentages of PTSD cases in America. As yoga teachers, it is easy to believe that if we are not specifically teaching a ‘trauma-sensitive’ yoga class, we don’t necessarily have to know much about it. My belief is that every yoga teacher can benefit from trauma-sensitive training no matter what population they typically teach. Bringing a trauma-sensitive awareness while teaching any yoga class can help to make students feel comfortable, empower students to connect with their bodies, and enable them to make choices that are in their own best interests during the class.

It is important to remember that not everyone who has experienced trauma will develop PTSD and that every person’s experience with trauma/PTSD can be quite different. When teaching a yoga class, a teacher can never know the extent to which his/her students have experienced trauma (unless being explicitly told); and therefore the teacher can only bring with them compassion and commitment to ahimsa (an intention to cause no harm). As teachers, we can have an understanding of typical trauma triggers in a yoga class and an awareness of the best ways to manage a class in order to minimize discomfort for those who have experience with trauma.

PTSD United, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing support and resources for sufferers of PTSD, their families, and caregivers provides the following statistics:

70% of adults in the US have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives which equates to approximately 223.4 million. Up to 20% of these people go on to develop PTSD, equaling about 44.7 million people in the US. It is also reported that 8% of Americans are struggling with PTSD at any given time. That is 24.4 million people or the amount of people equal to the entire population of Texas.

The encouraging news is that evidence now shows the mind/ body practices of yoga and meditation have the potential of reversing the negative impact of the initial traumatic events. Molly Birkholm of Warriors at Ease, an organization that trains yoga teachers for military settings, explains that yoga can be an empowering tool that helps people to transcend their traumas. Practicing yoga in a trauma-sensitive way helps the student to develop resiliency which promotes wholeness and personal growth. (Yoga International Interview with Molly Birkholm)

When teaching with an awareness of trauma-sensitive techniques, the yoga teacher creates predictability and an atmosphere of safety within the classes as well as providing opportunity for the student to have options and personal choice during their practice. Bessel van der Kolk explains that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience extreme disconnection from the body. By applying trauma-sensitive principles in a yoga class, it enables the student to begin to heal the relationship to their bodies and listen to the messages they are receiving. Then they are better able to do what is best for them in each moment, not just simply going on auto-pilot and doing what they are told during class. The teacher has given them permission to be in control.

Amy Weintraub of Life Force Yoga, an organization that uses yoga practices to help manage the moods of people who experience conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, reinforces students’ connections to their bodies by pausing between postures to cue the students to feel the different sensations in their bodies. We can also ask the students to notice their breath. What movements does the breath cause in the body? Where do you feel this posture in the body? Do you notice a difference between the sides of your body in this posture? These are a few of the techniques that can help an individual re-connect if they had temporarily drifted off or strengthen the practitioner’s mind/body connection whether it is in a challenging vinyasa class or a senior chair class.

By implementing a few simple techniques that are trauma-sensitive in any yoga class, yoga teachers can provide an atmosphere that not only limits adverse or negative experiences but is comfortable and nurturing for all students, including those who have experienced trauma. Teaching this way allows students to cultivate a healthy relationship with one’s body and mind which results in empowerment, resiliency, and growth. And by implementing the tools yoga has provided me daily, I personally am able to stay grounded in my practice, maintain inspiration for teaching, and continue my healing process.

“One does not have be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.

Nobody can “treat” a war, or abuse, rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event, for that matter; what has happened cannot be undone. But what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul: the crushing sensations in your chest that you may label as anxiety or depression; the fear of losing control; always being on alert for danger or rejection; the self-loathing; the nightmares and flashbacks; the fog that keeps you from staying on task and from engaging fully in what you are doing; being unable to fully open your heart to another human being.

If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations — if you can trust them to give you accurate information — you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and yourself.” ~Bessel van der Kolk MD

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Dayton, OH, USA