Yoga's Positive (And Negative!) Impact on Trauma

Lisa Martens

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When I entered my first yoga class, I was about 25. I couldn't even squat. My wrists hurt from working on my laptop. I had been in an abusive relationship, and I was triggered by the most mundane daily sounds and tasks. For years, I didn't even get food delivered, because the doorbell ringing terrified me.

Was that him?

Now, I'm a yoga instructor. I'm teaching a hatha yoga class tomorrow.

My trauma has not fully resolved. I still have my moments...all the time. I would not say I am fully healed, but yoga has significantly improved my quality of life, in conjunction with therapy and hard work.

The main difference is that it's more manageable. It doesn't take up my entire life or dictate my decisions. My trauma is there, but it's smaller. Me, my identity, is larger than my trauma, and I feel like I am in control of my life.

Yoga's positive impact on trauma:

Getting in touch with my body

I spent many years trying to ignore my body. I thought of it as a kind of burden...I had to feed it, water it, take care of it. I felt like I was dragging around a pile of bones and skin. In short, I didn't appreciate it.

Yoga first started to wake me up to the range of motion I had lost, and then to what my body could do. As I regained flexibility, I began to enjoy the progress. When new people came into the class, I could recognize how much more comfortable I had become in my own skin. Instead of wanting to sever my mind-body connections, I wanted to strengthen it. I wanted to know what made me feel sick, and what made me feel good. I started becoming more picky about what I ate, because, for the first time in years, I was really listening to my body.

Feeling my emotions, and working through them

I used to believe that I had to push down any "bad" feelings. Holding uncomfortable yoga poses required me to breathe through those feelings, and practicing this made me realize that I could feel my feelings without being overwhelmed or controlled by them.

Breathing through back bends and Camel pose is a good way to practice an anxiety attack or a flashback. This helped me begin to manage my feelings outside of the yoga studio.

Setting boundaries and checking in with myself

Sometimes, a yoga instructor would want to adjust me, and I would say no. I would sit in the back even if they asked me to sit in the front. I would rest or go into a safe pose if I felt like I was in danger.

Yoga classes taught me boundaries. Instead of going along with what someone said, I began to check in with myself and decide what was best for me. Slowly, this skill began to translate outside of the yoga studio.

Calm breathing

Calm breathing helped me release my anxiety and slow my heart rate. As I practiced this during yoga, it became something I did when I had flashbacks or anxiety attacks. I learned to listen to my body and change my body’s response to calm myself.

Releasing feelings trapped within myself

I didn’t really believe in this when I first heard of it, and then I began to notice that whenever I stretched my hamstrings, I felt a bit nervous, and after, I felt incredibly alert and awake. I began to wonder if there were certain feelings trapped within my body.

Back bends used to trigger anxiety within me...a feeling like drowning. The more I practiced, the more I found that a certain pose could bring up certain memories or feelings. Memories I hadn’t thought about in years would pop into my mind during certain poses.

What was happening? Was I really releasing trapped emotions?

I’m unsure, but there seems to be something to this. The more I practice yoga, the more these feelings are uncovered.

Yoga's negative impact on trauma:

We hear a lot about how good yoga is for someone, but if you're particularly sensitive or traumatized, parts of a class might not be right for you. There have been bad moments in yoga classes that drove me to consider dropping the practice entirely. Here are some things to look out for.

Adjustments and eye-closing

Being touched can trigger fear in me. Many people find adjustments in yoga class to be relaxing, but not me. I need to be aware of who is touching me and where. There have been times where I thought an adjustment would be all right, and then I was triggered and my day was ruined. Sometimes it’s not the fault of the instructor, and sometimes an instructor does touch me without asking. I had an instructor once say that he thought it was okay to touch me because I had been okay with adjustments in a previous class.

If you have or work with people with trauma, the consent needs to be ongoing. It’s okay to want to be touched one day, and say no the next. The control and feeling of security trumps what you’re trying to do. If a person does not feel safe in their yoga class, they won’t be following along with the meditation or pose or whatever you’re trying to do.

Eye-closing is another one. I have had instructors tell me to close my eyes, and I have decided not to. Sometimes, they seem to get pushy. This pushy behavior is extremely detrimental and triggering, and I’ve stopped going to certain instructors and studios if their approach is too pushy.

Feeling an "authority figure" present

This does exist in the yoga community—the idea that you must follow your instructor no matter what they say. There’s something there that I don’t agree with or participate in. My yoga journey is about discovering myself and unearthing my trauma, and this involves boundary-setting.

As a person with trauma, the strict idea that I must do whatever my instructor says calls me back to how trapped I feel in my abusive relationship. I do not agree with this approach. If I have to leave, I will leave. I do not do it to be disruptive, but to prove to myself that I am not trapped, and that I am safe and free.

Having a protocol in class is always a good sign...I do not agree with classes that demand you not leave.

Unexpected Meditations

I feel yoga instructors must divulge the point of their meditations first. I have been on a meditation journey more than one where the end restored some lost memory that I did not was restored in that moment.

Unexpected meditations can be very psychologically damaging. They can throw me off for a whole week or more.

I am hesitant to do any meditation if I don’t know what it is or what it’s for. I usually listen to the instructions and then do the meditation on my own time, if I feel like it. Or, perhaps, with another person.

Fast breathing

When an exercise calls for fast breathing, I opt out. Fast breathing raises my anxiety and quickly puts me into a state I need to claw myself out of with calm breathing. Now, I opt out of the fire breathing. Perhaps someday I can explore this aspect, but it’s not yet safe for me. Restorative, relaxing yoga is what I need at the moment.

Inversions, back bends, and other poses that can trigger attacks

Just like certain poses release stress and anxiety, other poses can trigger those emotions.

Some instructors act like they know you better than you know you, and I'm here to tell you that this is not true. If you know a particular pose will trigger you, you have every right not to do it, and not to go along with it. You can revisit the issue on your own time when you feel safe.

What is the right path?

An instructor is guiding you through your practice, but ultimately, it's your practice. You can take or leave whatever is being offered. If an instructor is too pushy, there will be others. There will be other practices, other studios, and other guides who will fit what you need.

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