Talking about Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery

We had the pleasure of being on the radio recently and we want to share our interview with you! We talked to A Mindful Emergence on WPVM-FM in Asheville, NC.

We talked for an hour about Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery!

We hope you can join us to listen to the show!

5 Practical Tips to Be Here Now: Decreasing Dissociation

Be Here Now. You may have seen those words on a bumper sticker, heard them in a yoga or meditation class, or even picked up the book of that name by Ram Das. How have these three words, intentionally placed beside another become so mainstream? Perhaps it is because, in today’s society of multi-tasking, the words “be here now” remind us that the present moment is a gift. A gift that when consciously acknowledged has the potential to offer clarity, peace, grounding and perspective.

Anxiety about the future or worry about the past may rob you of the ability to thrive in the present moment. It also may hinder you from understanding the concept of being in one place at one time. In traumatic experiences and memories, there is another form of disconnection from the awareness of here and now, called dissociation. Dissociation is ‘a coping mechanism used to create distance from emotions, cognitions, or somatic symptoms, (1)’ and often causes a separation between one’s physical self, the external environment and cues of danger. In this blog post, we offer five practical tips to decrease dissociation and increase connection to the present moment.

IMG_16745. Find your Feet

One of the key factors of dissociation is the feeling of separateness from the body. By intentionally focusing the mind on the physical aspect of grounding, you can increase present-moment awareness and potentially increase the feeling of being safe and supported. (1)

Our Tip: For this exercise, you may have your eyes open or closed, and you may be standing or seated with feet on the ground. It can be really helpful to do this practice without shoes or socks on, so that you can feel more sensations in your feet.

Bring your awareness to your feet. Wiggle your toes. Feel your feet on the ground, firmly planted. Notice any differences between the right and left foot. Shift your weight from side to side. Often swaying or rocking can have a calming effect on the nervous system, which can also help to increase a sense of awareness and focus in the present moment. Try to then place equal weight into both feet. Wiggle your toes. Connect to the ground beneath your feet, understanding that you are supported by the earth and by your physical body. Notice textures or colors, whether you are standing inside or outside, the temperature of the ground or air around your feet. Notice as many interesting details as you can about the world around your feet.

4. Orienting Practice

We all have orienting mechanisms within our bodies and minds. These mechanisms are what tell us where our bodies are in relation to space. Often times we are using these mechanisms in a Fight-Flight-Freeze response to stress. For example, if we are in the woods and there is a mountain lion, these are the mechanisms we would use to tell ourselves where we are in relation to that mountain lion. The more we can strengthen these mechanisms in a calm state, the more we can increase our ability to access them in a time of need and therefore begin to increase the body-mind connection more effectively. (2)

Our Tip: Here is an orienting exercise you can practice to increase your body’s awareness of where it is located in space, in a calm state. Any time you feel like you want to “check out” or are getting scared or triggered, feel free to practice this skill to help orient yourself to the present moment and self-regulate when needed.  

Calming Forward Folds: Start in a position where you feel comfortable. You can be sitting, standing, or lying down. As you inhale, place your hands at the top of your thighs, then run your hands down your legs (front or back) as you exhale. Inhale, slide the hands back up the legs. Repeat as many times as you like. Notice the sounds, sensations, etc. of this movement. Bring as many of your senses into this practice that feel comfortable and supportive.

3. Breathing Practice

Breathing is essential to life, yet we often go through our day unaware of our breath. The only time we typically become conscious of our breath is when it is shallow or small, or when there is an increase of demand for it. Certain breathwork, or pranayama practices, are specifically helpful in creating a calming experience in the mind, and a grounding presence in the body. Focusing on our breath is an excellent way to “be here now,’” because the breath is the one companion we have with us from the moment we come into this world until our last. (4)

Our Tip: If at any time you feel anxiety during this practice, return to your normal breathing.

First, begin to notice your breath. Try not to change anything about it. Just notice. Are your breaths shallow, or are they deep? Do you breathe through your mouth or through your nose? After several moments of observation, consider closing your mouth (if it was open), and breathe solely through your nose. Does it feel easier or more difficult? If you choose, continue nasal breathing, and noticing the qualities of your breath (1).

Another way to start a breathing practice is to notice belly or chest breathing. As you breath in and out, does your chest or belly move? Do they both move? If most of your breath is in your chest, try shifting it to your belly. With chest breathing there is less capacity for air in the lungs so when we can breathe in our bellies we can get a fuller, deeper breath.

General principles of breathwork state that extending the exhale can have a calming effect on the nervous system, while extending (or lengthening) the inhales can have an energizing effect on the body. Since there is never a ‘one size fits all’ answer, we encourage you to experiment with these practices to see what works best for your mind-body connection.

2. Yoga Practice

The practice of yoga has a way of helping us feel our bodies in the present moment. The body can give us real-time feedback about what is needed and appropriate at any given time. There are several poses that specifically aid in grounding and connecting, thus decreasing the feelings of dissociation.

Our Tip: There are many different styles of yoga that can be practiced to help ground and regulate in the present moment. Here are a few principles of Yoga for Trauma practices that can be a helpful place to start when learning new poses to increase awareness skills and decrease dissociation: (4)

  • Use repetitive, rhythmic movements along with mindful breathing practices to help regulate the nervous system.
  • Practice movements that involve coordinating opposite parts of the body in specific sequences to increase neuroplasticity.
  • Move mindfully into and out of each pose – transitions are key to pain-free yoga.
  • Using breath as a check-in for pain management/triggers/symptoms/etc. Ask yourself, ‘What is my breath doing in each pose? How can my breath be a tool to keep me in the present moment with my physical/mental/emotional experiences?”

IMG_14971. Practice Yoga Brain Games

Throughout our lifetime, our brains become accustomed to what we do and how we do it. Often, many of the things that we do on a daily basis, seem to be performed automatically, and without our conscious effort. Challenging our brain with exercises that are different from our normal routine not only builds new neural pathways in the brain, it also aids in bringing the present moment into our awareness. There are several types of brain games, ranging from crossword puzzles, to using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, or driving home a different way. (3) We have created a few Yoga Brain Games you can try as well.

Our Tip: Tip Tap Fingers (4): Begin to tap the tips of each finger with your thumbs, in no particular order. Then start with your right thumb on your right index finger and your left thumb on your left little finger. Begin to tap each fingertip until you end up with the right thumb on right little finger and left thumb on left index finger. Repeat this tapping back and forth several times. Practice with eyes closed, or try walking, talking or counting while doing the exercise to increase the mental challenge.

This blog post was co-authored by Melanie Trivette, Anna Ferguson, and Becca Odom. For more information about the authors, click here.

Please note that these suggestions and tips are based on our opinions, and should not be considered medical advice. If you are seeking to treat a traumatic experience, please consult a licensed mental health professional before engaging in these tips. You can find a practitioner in your area at the National Association of Social Workers web site: www.helpstartshere.org

References:

  1. Emerson, David, and Hopper, Elizabeth. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2011. Print.
  2. Walker, Julian. Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind: A Modern Yoga Philosophy Infused with Somatic Psychology & Neuroscience. N.p.: n.p., 2013. Print.
  3. Beck, Melinda. “‘Neurobics’ and Other Brain Boosters.” WSJ. The Wall Street Journal, 3 June 2008. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
  4. Odom, Becca and Ferguson, Anna Yoga for Trauma Manual. Asheville, NC, 2014. Print

5 Tips to Create a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Class

IMG_1155

Over the past two years, more than 200 wellness professionals have completed our Yoga for Trauma trainings and workshops throughout North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. The feedback we’ve received is that therapists use the techniques we present in clinical settings with their clients, and yoga teachers apply the skills they learn when creating trauma-sensitive classes. While many components go into the formulation of a trauma-sensitive yoga class, in this blog post we’d like to offer five tips that can start the class-creation process (1).

5. Learn the language of trauma.
Certain words, phrases, metaphors, and the like that may be commonly used in a ‘typical’ yoga class, may be trigger-inducing in a trauma-focused yoga class. Suggestions of ‘pushing further’ or ‘coming out of one’s comfort zone,’ which are meant to inspire students to be open to the practice, can actually have the opposite effect in a trauma-sensitive yoga class. An article published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, suggests using ‘Invitatory Language,’ or language that is exploratory, invitational, undemanding in a trauma-sensitive yoga class (2). Adding some simple cues along with instructions will help to create a safe, non-judgemental environment for your students.

Our Tip: Discover some new ways to invite students to participate in class using phrases such as, ‘when you are ready,’ ‘at your own pace,’ ‘I invite you to,’ and ‘if you’d like.’ Practice using these cues as much as possible so that they become second nature.

-14. Prepare the environment.
Providing a safe, inviting environment for yoga practice is of utmost importance. Limiting external noises, minimizing distractions, and giving ample, designated space to each student are some considerations in preparing the setting for a trauma-focused class.

Our Tip: Our suggestions are aligned with our friends over at The Breathe Network. Consider things such as the positioning of windows, doors and mirrors relative to the practice space. If at all possible, do not have people facing mirrors or with their backs to a door or window. Place a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the outside of the door. Lay out mats and suggested props for people ahead of time to orient people in the same direction and minimize potential distraction (3).

3. Give choice in EVERYTHING
Jenn Turner, the Coordinator of Yoga Services at the Trauma Center at JRI, says, “We know that complex trauma damages our ability to feel our bodies in the present moment, to practice interoception, and to feel empowered in our bodies; Trauma-Sensitive Yoga focuses on both. (4)” Giving choice to trauma survivors in a yoga setting allows each person to explore what is right for him or herself on a moment-to-moment basis, and empowers each person to make appropriate decisions.

Our Tip: Remind students often throughout class that everything is an invitation or suggestion, and that each student has the opportunity to make empowered decisions about how/when/if they join in the practice.  

Canvas_Assist2. Ask before assisting or don’t assist at all.
In a ‘standard’ yoga class, assists may be given to direct, deepen, or awaken a student’s pose. In a trauma-sensitive class, where the students are making empowered decisions about what is right for themselves, assists are oftentimes not necessary and can even become triggers.

Our Tip: Decide ahead of time if you are going to offer assists to your students. Communicate this decision clearly at the beginning of class. Before touching anyone, ask. Provide clear suggestions and consider demonstrating poses rather than physically assisting. Consider using “Flip-Chips” that each student can display on his or her mat. One side of the chip invites assists, while the other side of the chip alerts the teacher to not assist. The Flip-Chip gives the student choice throughout the entire class because it can be changed by the student at any time (5).

1. Let compassion be your guide.
Trauma can have enduring physical, mental, and emotional effects on people. Many times, these effects may not be communicated or noticeable among your students. While you may not know the extent to which your students may be dealing with trauma, you can relate to each person on a human level- in a kind, and supportive way.

Our Tip: Practice compassion by taking time to be present with your students, and meeting them where they are in their journey. Remember this quote from the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. (6)”

For more tips and techniques in creating a trauma-sensitive yoga class, we invite you to attend one of our trainings. Check our website for more information, upcoming dates, and details of registration.

 

About the Author: Melanie Trivette has received over 500 hours of formalized yoga teacher training, including trauma-focused modules. She enjoys working with Yoga for Trauma, and shares the passion to invite healing through ancient practices and modern neuroscience.

Please note that these suggestions and tips are based on our opinions, and should not be considered medical advice. If you are seeking to treat a traumatic experience, please consult a licensed mental health professional before engaging in these tips. You can find a practitioner in your area at the National Association of Social Workers web site: www.helpstartshere.org

References

(1) Odom, Becca. Top 10 Thoughts on a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Classroom. Comp. Anna Ferguson. Print.

(2) Emerson, David, Ritu Sharma, Serena Chaudhry, and Jenn Turner. “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice and Research.” Yoga Therapy in Practice. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 2009. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

(3) “The Journey to Heal: Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Yoga.” The Breathe Network. 4 Jan. 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

(4) “Question Answer with Jenn Turner: Trauma-Sensitive Yoga | ISHTA Yoga.” ISHTA Yoga. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

(5) “What Is the Flip-Chip?” Q+A. Flip Chip, n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2015. The Flip-Chip picture is a representation of the product being sold at www.yogaflipchip.com, and is being used for informative/educational purposes only.

(6) Smyth, Tracy. “Can You Teach Compassion?” Can You Teach Compassion? Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, 8 Dec. 2103. Web. 01 Oct. 2015.