Article about Trauma Informed Yoga
by Fiona Ward, interviewing Susi Wrenshaw
Glamour Magazine, November 2021
If you've ever found practicing yoga emotionally difficult, trauma-informed yoga could be worth a try. In a nutshell, it's a specific style of yoga which helps people recover from emotional trauma by replacing the negative emotions with feelings of safety and connection.
Most yogis would say that the practice of yoga has helped them deal with challenges in their lives – be it mental health problems, job struggles or day-to-day stresses. And though yoga is a powerful tool for many in reconnecting with themselves, it can also be a very triggering practice for some – particularly those dealing with ongoing and complicated trauma.
Sound familiar? We spoke to Susi Wrenshaw, a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance Professionals, to find out what trauma-informed yoga (TIY) really is, and how it could help almost anyone...
What is trauma-informed yoga?
“Trauma-informed yoga is a specialist branch of yoga which helps people recover from the impact of trauma on the body, brain, emotions and sense of self. The first stage is focused on creating safety, learning to manage difficult emotions and beginning to address trauma-related patterns,” she says.
"The second stage processes trauma held in the body, discharges survival responses and releases unresolved emotions. The final stage involves integration – reflecting on the recovery journey and planning for the next steps."
"It is delivered by Accredited TIY teachers and can be done in small groups or one to one. You will usually meet or speak to the teacher before signing up. There isn’t a universal definition of trauma-informed yoga so do ask the teacher about their approach, experience, training and accreditation."
Why might regular yoga be difficult for those with trauma?
"Through regular yoga practice, the mind can become still so we may experience connectedness and peace, free from our perceptions and projections. This can be difficult for trauma survivors as stillness can quickly trigger dissociation or overwhelm."
"People who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD may not benefit from regular yoga and can even be re-traumatised. Trauma-informed yoga can help people to build patterns of safety and connection in place of fear and disconnection in a supportive relationship with a specialist teacher."
How is trauma-informed yoga different?
“Trauma-informed yoga requires expertise in helping a student identify, and remain in, their 'window of tolerance' so they are neither over-activated (increasing risk of flashbacks or panic) or under-activated (leading to a shutdown of awareness),” Susi tells us.
"Trauma-informed yoga includes grounding, self-awareness, managing the stress-system and reducing the fear response. It can draw on the full range of yoga practices to work with these principles, depending on the student."
"No physical adjustments are used in trauma-informed yoga, the teacher does not place their hands on the student as is done in some yoga traditions. The teacher will also be aware of agreeing clear boundaries, using invitational language, offering choices and helping you to understand what’s happening in your body and your brain."
Who would benefit most from trauma-informed yoga?
"There are so many adults and children who could benefit from trauma-informed yoga, including those who don’t identify as trauma survivors and those who don’t have any experience of yoga."
TRAUMA IS NOT THE EVENT THAT HAPPENED TO US, BUT THE LASTING ADAPTATIONS THAT TOOK PLACE WITHIN US WHICH HELPED US SURVIVE.
- SUSI WRENSHAW
"Trauma is not the event that happened to us, but the lasting adaptations that took place within us which helped us survive. This can show up as low self-esteem, anxiety or worry, depression, fatigue, difficulty concentrating or being still, digestive problems, sleep problems, difficulty in relationships or with intimacy."
Can trauma-informed yoga help us process the aftermath of the pandemic?
“Some of the conditions which create trauma are fear, disconnection, overwhelm and uncertainty. People have been dealing with this alongside many losses - of loved ones, physical contact, socialising, activities, exercise, jobs, and income,” says Susi.
"This will have impacted our brains, nervous systems, and our bodies. Having supportive relationships, good physical and mental health act as buffers against these effects. For people who have previously experienced trauma, it could easily trigger a prolonged stress response or shutdown."
"Trauma-informed yoga can help people reset their nervous system, release physical patterns of tension or collapse, and make space for emotions that may have been put on hold."
What defines trauma?
Susi explains that there are two different types of trauma - micro and macro - and that they manifest in different ways.
"Macro trauma is a single event that overwhelms the individual’s brain and body causing them to go into a disconnected, shutdown response which continues to run in the background long after the event," she says.
"Micro traumas are the day-to-day oppressions, neglect and abuses which have a gradually corrosive effect on a person, their vitality, health and even life expectancy."
"Micro traumas can also be an absence of what we need to live a fulfilling life. Micro traumas include living in societies with institutional racism, gender inequality, economic disadvantage, lack of opportunity, poor living conditions, poor nutrition and so on."
Susi is a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance Professionals.