When you hear the term trauma, what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s surviving a natural disaster, like a tornado, flood or hurricane. Or maybe it calls to mind images of victims of war, Veterans combatting post-traumatic stress disorders, or a survivor of abuse and violence. Trauma can come from big events, or from more private experiences – but only the person who has survived can tell you whether or not it was traumatic.
The term “trauma-informed” is beginning to make its way to mainstream conversation across St. Louis, with efforts led by organizations such as Missouri Department of Mental Health and Alive and Well STL. In a nutshell, becoming more informed in the topic of trauma means shifting our perspective from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” Understanding the biological and physiological implications of trauma is imperative to being able to change the way we respond to clients, patients, friends, family, and strangers on the street.
Over the past few years, Yoga Buzz has been studying trauma with our colleagues, and watched as the term “trauma-informed” and “trauma-aware” has become more and more of a buzzword in yoga on both the local and national level. We are proud to announce that in collaboration with a committee of yoga teachers, social workers, professors, and resilient trauma-survivors and thrivers, this year we are launching The Missouri Model for Standards in Trauma-Informed Yoga. What does this mean, and why is it important? I’m glad you asked.
What is trauma?
noun: trauma; plural noun: traumata; plural noun: traumas
1. a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
2. emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis.
A trauma might be a result of a public event, something that multiple people experience at once. This could be a natural disaster, war, an act of terrorism, oppression, or intergenerational discrimination. Trauma might also be the result of a private event, such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, verbal abuse or manipulation, abandonment, or malnourishment.
I’ll repeat what I said earlier – only the person who has experienced an event or occurrence can define whether the event was traumatic for them.
The body is hardwired to respond to distressing and disturbing events by launching into Fight or Flight (aka, the Sympathetic Nervous System) – if, for example, we are suddenly being chased by a bear in the woods, adrenaline will kick in, sending blood flow to our arms and legs so that we either fight back against the bear, or flee to get out of harm’s way. After the danger has passed, the body regulates itself to homeostasis, blood flow is redistributed evenly, the Rest and Digest programming of our central nervous system helps to calm the body so that it can rest and heal from any injuries it may have sustained in the fight or flight.
But here’s the thing – the Sympathetic Nervous System isn’t just Fight or Flight. It also includes a third component, Freeze. Think about an opossum. When a possum is threatened, it plays dead; falling onto its back, holding impossibly still, and the predator leaves, uninterested in a dead possum. Freeze is also a way of self-preservation – and obviously an effective one for the opossum. After the predator has left and the possum feels safe, the possum appears to shake itself out of its frozen-trance, and then walks away seeming relatively unscathed. But if you watch a possum in slow motion, the possum isn’t just shaking – its legs are moving in the air as if it was running. The possum fulfills the physiological response of “flight.”
The issues live in our tissues
After one experiences a trauma, the brain and body has a variety of possible responses. This might include flashbacks, outbursts of emotion such as anger or sadness, chronic pain (such as headaches, low back pain, neck pain, fibromyalgia), insomnia, depression, anxiety… and on. These are normal responses to abnormal events.
Let me repeat: trauma responses of the brain and body are completely normal, and are not the fault of the person who experiences those responses.
The body is hardwired to heal itself – when you break a bone, the bone immediately begins to build itself back together. The doctor puts on a cast to support the bone in healing in the most optimal way. But without a cast, without that boundary for healthy healing, a bone will still rebuild itself, although it may be less optimal. The same is true with healing from trauma. The body and brain tried to reconcile itself, to protect itself from perceived threats of safety, but if not provided with a support system, the long-term effects may be discomfort, dis-ease, and chronic illness.
Let’s go back to the possum for a second; when it allows the body to release the physiological need to “run away” by moving its legs, the possum is able to soothe the part of its brain that needs closure (in the form of chemical release). For some who have experienced trauma, the body has become a place that feels unsafe, or they may have completely disassociated from the sensations within their body as a way to avoid painful memories.
This is where the practice of yoga comes in. Yoga and mindfulness offers an incredible tool for resiliency and healing for those who have experienced trauma and chronic stress. For people who have been stuck in Fight or Flight, yoga can stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or the body’s Rest and Digest center, and offer a much needed break from over- or under-stimulation. When the body is offered an opportunity to move and release long-held patterns of discomfort, it can be a very freeing experience. But it can also be scary, and even potentially re-traumatizing.
But I’m a yoga teacher, not a therapist.
I have personally experienced first-hand the blurring of lines between yoga teacher and therapist. At the time, I didn’t realize it – I was surrounded by a community who said things like, “When you have yoga, who needs therapy?” It wasn’t until I experienced my own trauma, which happened in tandem with the discovery of my own anxiety disorder, that I began seeing an actual therapist. I was mortified when I realized that conversations I was having with a trained therapist were not that different than conversations I had been having with a yoga teacher and mentor – aka, completely inappropriate crossing of boundaries, of which I had been pushed to “explore my edge” and “step into the conversation” of my deepest insecurities and personal reflections.
So, when I have conversations about trauma with other yoga teachers, I can completely understand their concern that working with a population that has experienced high rates of trauma might feel like it’s beyond their wheelhouse. In fact, I applaud them for being committed to holding appropriate professional boundaries. But whenever a teacher tells me they will simply avoid the issue by not working with people who have experienced trauma, it makes me worry – the chances of never encountering a student who has experience trauma are very, very slim. Reports show that one-third of the population in the U.S. has experienced at least one traumatic event – although I would challenge that number, as I imagine that there is another third of the population who doesn’t realize they have experienced trauma.
Like anatomy, understanding trauma gives the yoga teacher a better understanding of what is going on underneath the skin.
Learning about trauma and the biological, physiological, psycho-emotional, and social impact it plays is every bit as important as learning about anatomy in a yoga teacher training. Just as learning about anatomy in a 200-hour yoga teacher training doesn’t make you a doctor, or equipped to diagnose or treat someone’s tendonitis or sprained ankle, learning about trauma does not place upon you the responsibilities of a therapist or social worker. Like anatomy, understanding trauma gives the yoga teacher a better understanding of what is going on underneath the skin. Just as you are 100% likely to encounter a student in a public yoga class who has anatomy, you are 100% likely to encounter a student in a public yoga class who has experienced some form of trauma.
This is why we have created the Missouri Model for Trauma-Informed Yoga Standard, inspired by The Missouri Model: A Developmental Framework for Trauma-Informed developed by the Missouri Department of Mental Health. The Missouri Model states that the framework is “a profound paradigm shift in knowledge, perspective, attitudes and skills that continues to deepen and unfold over time.” We believe it is imperative to educate and inform the community of local yoga teachers about what trauma is, and its prevalence on the yoga mat. Creating a standard is important to us – the depth of knowledge within this topic is absolutely necessary to ensure that we, as yoga teachers, do no harm, no matter how good our intentions.
The first step will be to empower yoga teachers to become Trauma-Aware, supporting teacher in becoming aware of how prevalent trauma is, and challenging them to consider how it might impact their students and colleagues. The next step will be in empowering teachers to become Trauma-Informed. Teachers will have the opportunity to participate in ongoing education specifically within the topic of trauma, yoga, and other somatic practices, and if they so choose, agree to uphold the standards of trauma-informed yoga.
Long-term, this will result in a database of yoga teachers throughout the St. Louis area who are committed to certain standards of education, implementation, and support. This database will be an invaluable resource for therapists, healthcare providers, and social workers to use for referring clients and patients to trauma-informed yoga classes in the area. The list will also provide any professional specialization yoga teachers may have – there are a number of teachers in the city who also come from a background of social work, certified therapy, and healthcare.
Some additional resources will include:
- Video tours of local yoga studios
- Videos of yoga poses, modifications, adaptations, use of props
- Videos and audio recordings of meditations, breathwork, and other mindfulness tools
- List of ongoing education for yoga teachers, professionals, and students alike
- Resources of yoga teachers for adults as well as youth
These resources will benefit so many within our community – educating yoga teachers, providing resources for professionals, and, most importantly, empowering those who are actively participating in their recovery from trauma to become more resilient. We plan to make this model available in Columbia and Kansas City, and eventually empower the entire yoga community throughout the state of Missouri to become trauma-aware.
Stay tuned as we finalize programming. If you are interested in joining our mailing list to receive updates, please sign up here.
Our Trauma-Informed Yoga Committee is: Sue Tebb, Ph.D., Sunyata Kopriva, Amber Howlett, Gladys Smith, Samantha Grodecki, Victoria Emmanuela, Brittany Hill, and Elle Potter.