Tips for a Trauma-Sensitive Practice

“Trauma-sensitive” seems to be the latest buzz in health and wellness. This is wonderful news, but what does it really mean for a personal yoga practice? Working with trauma is a long journey and I urge you to get support from your networks and healthcare professionals. Although I am no trauma-sensitive expert I want to offer you some techniques to use as a jumping off point.

Generally speaking, all of these tips are moving the practitioner towards feelings of safety and wellbeing while minimizing feelings of discomfort, lack of control or powerlessness. I know listening to the body can sometimes be difficult and it may seem that the body speaks in an undecipherable secret code, but over time the communication between mind and body should become more clear. It is also important to note that feeling physically challenged (like holding a pose for a whole minute while your muscles shake) can feel safe so long as it is done in a way that makes you feel empowered. Part of the journey is learning to be curious, patient and remembering that YOU are always in control of the practice.

Guided practice or practicing alone? For some, having a live, guided class feels better and for others, an individual or at-home practice is preferred. Try both and see which works for you. You may find that large groups feel very crowded and produce social anxiety, or you may like the energy or practicing in a large group. You may prefer to practice with a buddy who helps you to feel safe and supported. This includes support animals!

Sounds in your environment? White noise? Music? Silence? I prefer to play gentle, ambient music with no lyrics to soften the silence in a yoga class. Others prefer white noise (pink noise or ASMR) feels more comfortable. Music with lyrics is a great way to boost the energy and enjoy friendly voices. If you are practicing in a noisy area, you may like to crank the volume to tune out distractions.

What about lighting? Personally I prefer bright lighting to wake me up for a vigorous practice and very, very, very dim lighting for a restorative practice. Those two extremes are overwhelming for lots of people. Generally, complete darkness is not trauma-sensitive and a warm glow from a lamp or electric candles can make the environment more soothing and comforting. You may like to let in natural light from outside or prefer to close the blinds to feel more cozy and protected. It often depends on what your windows reveal to you. Looking out at trees or a garden gives a very different feel to looking out over an empty lot or busy street.

It’s okay to fall asleep! Often, the environment that is the most relaxing and restful is a yoga class! And since rest is the bridge to sleep, sometimes your body may decide to cross that bridge to sleep town. If you end up falling asleep, that’s okay! Your body will receive the health benefits of a relaxed sleep instead of yoga.

Type of yoga? Length of practice? My rule of thumb is to allow enough time for the body to shift in to a different feeling state, but not to work for so long you feel overwhelmed or don’t want to go back. If a full-length class is too long, you could start by adding 3 minute long practices to your day. What can you do for 3 minutes??? 3-part breathing, hold a mudra or simple circle sweep your arms in time with your breathing.

Feeling “grounded” works for many people. Try lying under a weighted blanket, using an eye pillow, holding a small touchstone etc. Even practicing in a small room rather than a large one or avoiding practicing on an empty stomach can make you feel more comfortable.

Feeling “free” also has many benefits. Avoid feeling tethered, trapped or weighed down with straps, sandbags, bolsters etc.

Scent is a powerful emotional trigger. You may like to cover an unwanted scent with the scent of an essential oil. Any scent that makes you feel like you can take a deep breath and sigh would be a great one!

Take a break, start again. You may have a “bad” practice. Not every yoga practice will end with blissful feelings of relaxation. Remember that you can always take a break and then try again another time. Your body is different every day and your practice can be constantly changing and evolving along with it. Some days some techniques will work, and other days, something else will work.

I hope these tips help your nervous system to feel safe and happy!

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