One Last Word on Yoga and Trauma

06/20/2013 05:17 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2013

Let me not miscommunicate. All this talk about how people can be re-traumatized in yoga class is not to discourage people from doing yoga. In fact, yoga may be one of the most promising therapies for healing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For me, yoga has been tremendously healing. Through several years of regular yoga practice I felt aspects of my trauma healing, parts that talk therapy had not been able to touch. Why? Because trauma is an injury to the nervous system and is held in the body, and yoga offers healing there. So do other modalities, like sensorimotor psychotherapy, that address the body.

Therapies that depend on talking about the story of the trauma can just end up rekindling it, driving it deeper into the body. Cognitive Behavioral Therapies appear to work for a while, but then the nightmares and the pain come back.

An essential aspect of recovering from trauma is learning ways to calm down, or self-regulate. For thousands of years, Yoga has been offered as a practice that helps one calm the mind and body. More recently, research has shown that Yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation, and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life. (2009, International Journal of Yoga Therapy, p. 124; Vol. 19)

And because trauma is endemic in our culture, with, according to Kessler et al in the Archives of General Psychiatry, more than half of the U.S. general population experiencing exposure to at least one traumatic event during their lifetime (1995;52(12):1048-1060), we really must assume that every class has at least one student who has experienced a traumatic event.

Yes, yoga can be a very effective way to heal from trauma. But as my stories in Part III illustrate, lack of trauma awareness and training can cause harm, nonetheless. Like the doctor who makes a mistake and accidentally harms a patient, yoga teachers without training in trauma can accidentally harm a student. We criticize physicians, as an example, for being closed to the idea that they might make a mistake or need to learn something new. Yoga teachers are generally thought of as being open, progressive people. There is no reason for us to be resistant to new ideas, new trainings, to looking at our practices and teachings and making those adjustments that will benefit our students.

For all of us who work with human beings, our humility brings us always back to: First, do no harm. Sometimes that's hard. Sometimes we make mistakes, notice things we wish we'd known before, or had been able to handle or perform better. I know I sure have. But once we know, hopefully, we are moved toward change and growth. I believe this gap in yoga teacher training is an opportunity, a space now recognized and waiting, and that the filling of that gap will open the beauty and healing of yoga for many, many people who do so very much need it.