By Christa Chantelois BSN, MAC and Heather Chantelois MA

Our bodies are ingenious at ensuring our survival.  People who have lived through adversity and whose bodies have adapted are experts in crises and conflict.  In situations of immediate danger, they are most prepared to succeed.  However, the adaptations our bodies make in response to adversity are designed to allow us to survive; they are less helpful if the goal is to thrive.  Consequently, practices such as yoga that invite the body as an ally in recovery and growth are essential.

Psychiatrist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk writes that positive adaptations to adversity become maladaptive when we are not able to process our experiences and return our bodies to a state of equilibrium.  Long after a traumatic event occurs, our bodies continue to orient toward that trauma, often resulting in prolonged stress response, hypervigilance, dissociation or shut down, exaggerated emotional reactions, expressive language difficulties, lacking or inaccurate awareness of internal states (such as emotions, hunger, fatigue, pain, pleasure), and intrusion of trauma-related sensations and memories.

Because trauma lives in our bodies, they must be included in recovery.  Yoga is especially promising because it works directly with body systems that are disrupted during trauma, and it builds connections between the mind and body that are critical to resilience.  Numerous studies have demonstrated yoga’s effectiveness as a mental health intervention, including for anxiety, depression, stress, eating disorders, substance abuse, schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and complex trauma (see Moving to Heal, by Jennifer West for a review and bibliography).

Nevertheless, how we bring our bodies into recovery is key.   In The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk writes that symptoms of trauma “can be transformed by having physical experiences that directly contradict the helplessness, rage, and collapse that are part of trauma, and thereby regain self-mastery.”  Therefore, we conclude with several questions to consider on your own or to discuss with teacher(s).   These questions are likely helpful to any practitioner.  However, they are especially relevant if your aspiration is trauma resilience or if adversity has been part of your story.

Knowing it’s the right time and choosing the right yoga practice:

  • How much practical stability, emotional reserve, and physical wellness do I currently have and might I need to add yoga to my life?
  • What does my support system look like? Who will I turn to if I experience difficult memories or emotions?
  • How physically demanding would I like the practice to be? (There is yoga for seniors, for athletes, for paraplegics, for brain injury survivors, etc.).
  • Would I like to practice at a gym, in a studio, privately, as part of my mental health therapy? What can I afford?

Identifying potential triggers or power imbalances:

  • Who are you practicing with? Men and women? Will the group be consistent, or might new students join at any time?
  • Are the exits clearly marked and accessible?
  • What is the teacher’s background? How well do they understand trauma?
  • Do you feel comfortable with your teacher? Do you feel at ease being yourself around them?
  • Does the teacher offer choice? Do they push you to ‘try harder’ or ‘stay longer’? How comfortable do you feel saying ‘no’ to your teacher, taking an ‘easier’ option, modifying, or resting during class?
  • Does the teacher seem to be interested in achieving certain poses, or do they offer space for you to have your own, unique experience in your body?
  • Does the teacher use physical assists?
  • Does the teacher practice with you, or do they watch or walk around the room while students practice?
  • Does the teacher use Sanskrit? Do they include spiritual or religious language or practices?
  • Are the music, scents, and lighting consistent? Are they distracting or triggering?

As Dr. Judith Herman asserts in Trauma and Recovery, “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”  May this guide aid you in taking the brave step of exploring being in your body.  May your yoga practice always be empowering.  May you find there respect and celebration of the wisdom you hold!

Published in Nature’s Pathways, December 2017