Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors:Yoga
How Can Yoga Help Me Heal from My Trauma?
A great number of child sexual abuse survivors feel disconnected from their body. Their brain may have learned to cope with the trauma of the abuse by dissociating from the present moment—resorting to numbness or detachment in order to avoid further pain. Other survivors may also feel uncomfortable or restless in their own skin. They may experience unresolved stress and tension that has been stored in their body as a result of their trauma.
One reason for this unreleased tension is the limbic system’s tendency to stay hypervigilant after a trauma such as child sexual abuse. It will remain alert for any signs of danger and can be easily triggered into a fight, flight, or freeze response, even when no threat is present. When these responses happen, the limbic system floods a survivor’s nervous system with energy. And though a survivor understands that they are not in danger and that their limbic system was triggered by a reminder of the past, that burst of energy can remain unresolved, and the stress that it caused can become stored in the body.1
Yoga can help you release some of this pent-up energy and tension, relieving symptoms of trauma that may have been stored unconsciously and physically for years.1,2 Doing so can help regulate your nervous system and provide you with a sense of balance and relief.
Yoga can also help you become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.1,2 It provides an opportunity for you to reconnect with your mental and physical experience, and to build confidence in being able to guide your thoughts and actions through intentional movement and focus. This confidence can increase your self-esteem and help build your appreciation for your physical self.
What Yoga Poses Do I Start With?
With yoga, you can do certain stretches and poses nearly anywhere that feels comfortable to you, whether it’s in a class, in a hotel room during a trip, or in your backyard. Yoga practices are also easily accessible online, with sources ranging from illustrations to instructional videos to apps. Search out what’s available and discover what types of yoga poses work best for you.
Below are three of the most common, easy-to-learn poses you can practice. Before you begin, here are a few tips:
- Find a comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted.
- Wear something you feel you can move around in.
- Be mindful of your breathing as you practice each pose. If you notice you’re holding your breath, gently remind yourself to continue breathing.
- Hold each pose for whatever amount of time feels comfortable for your body. Don’t push too hard.
If you want to take yoga a step further, you can use the instructional video below to practice more yoga poses from the comfort and security of your own home.
What Is a Trauma-Informed Yoga Class and How Can I Find One?
Trauma-informed yoga seeks to create a safe, supportive space for survivors of trauma to reconnect with their breath, release excess stress, and find relaxation.3,4 How do you know if a yoga class near you is trauma-informed? Some classes may state it right in their description, but even a regular yoga class can still be trauma-informed if you know what to look for, ask for, and expect. Below are a few steps to take to ensure that the class you attend is the best for you.
Talk to the Instructor Ahead of Time
Explain to the instructor that you are a trauma survivor or, if that makes you uncomfortable, explain that you have a few questions or requests that will make the class a better experience for you. This will include whether or not you’d like to be touched or physically assisted during class, whether tools like yoga straps will be used, and if you are allowed to leave class if you feel anxiety or become uncomfortable. You can ask the instructor if they will be walking around the room or doing hands-on assists, or if people will be coming and going out the door. It may also be helpful to ask what modifications or alternative pose you can do if you don’t feel comfortable with a current pose the class is practicing.
Arrive a Little Early
Give yourself a chance to acclimate to the new environment, especially if this is your first yoga class. Place yourself near the door in case you need to leave early. Take a few minutes to practice Mindfulness before the class starts, allowing you to begin the class feeling grounded to the environment.
Don’t Push too Hard
If something doesn’t feel good to your body that day or brings up negative emotions, make a conscious choice whether you will pull back or breathe through it. Remember, you have control over how mindful or how challenging you want each pose to be—regardless of what the instructor may say. Ultimately, yoga is up to your level of comfort.
You Have Options
Some trauma survivors can feel overwhelmed when they feel like they have no choice during a pose. If you are uncomfortable you can stop, leave a pose early, or make modifications. You can always stop. Put your mental and physical health first. By honoring where your body and emotions are that day, you’ll leave feeling more connected and with a better experience than if you do things out of pressure or obligation.
Count to Yourself if the Instructor Doesn’t
Many trauma survivors can dissociate or lose time if they’re in pain or uncomfortable. To prevent this from happening in yoga you can slowly count to yourself to stay connected to the present moment and in that particular yoga pose.
Remember That Healing Is a Process
Yoga is a tool on your healing journey. Make sure you are utilizing it in a way that helps you heal without hindering your progress. If you think your yoga class is not helping, switch to a different one. It’s okay to try different classes until you find one that fits your needs. Do what you feel is best for you so that yoga can become an additional anchor rather than a source of distress.
Practice Body Kindness
Whether you practice a few poses on your own, follow an instructional video, or attend a class, practicing yoga is an effective way to connect with your physical self, be fully engaged with the present, be intentional about your breath and movement, and feel appreciation towards all the incredible things your body can do.
Overall, yoga provides you with an opportunity to practice:
- Acknowledgement by observing the tension that may be stored in your body and how your intentional movement can help release that tension.
- Mindfulness by staying grounded in the present moment and guiding your attention toward your poses and your breath.
- Aspiration by working towards making peace with your body and reconnecting with it in a positive way.
Disclaimer: Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. If you are concerned about whether the exercises in this movement activity are right for you, do not do them unless you have cleared it with your physician. These exercises can result in injury. If at any point during your exercise you begin to feel faint, dizzy, or have physical discomfort, you should stop immediately. You are responsible for exercising within your limits and seeking medical advice and attention as appropriate. Saprea is not responsible for any injuries that result from participating in this activity.
- Emerson, D., & Hopper, E. K. (2011). Overcoming trauma through yoga: Reclaiming your body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Van der Kolk, B. A., Stone, L., West, J., Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M., & Spinazzola, J. (2014). Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 75, 559–565.
- Bond, Julia. (2015, November 19). “What Is Trauma-Informed Yoga?” Yoga Ed. Retrieved from https://yogaed.com/resource/trauma-informed-yoga
- West, J., Liang, B., & Spinazzola, J. (2017). Trauma sensitive yoga as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A qualitative descriptive analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 24,173-195.