The unexpected ways yoga can trigger trauma
While it seems counterintuitive, a yoga class can be anything but relaxing and grounding for some people. “The teacher asked us to come into tadasana — mountain pose. She put one arm across my chest so that her hand touched my breast and one on my back. She didn’t ask if it was okay to touch me. It wasn’t. I collapsed,” says Leslie Tomlinson, a yoga and swim instructor in Rockville, Maryland. “When I came to, I ran out of the class and fell on the floor outside the door,” she continued. When I asked how the teacher responded, Tomlinson said, “She acted like I had a problem. She asked what was wrong with me.”
Tomlinson survived childhood sexual abuse and continues to grapple with her trauma as well as the anxiety that partially stemmed from it. She’s been practicing yoga since 2002 and while she says that it has helped her heal in many ways, this experience really threw her off. “What she did really triggered me. The way I responded was instinctual,” Tomlinson says. But the effects didn’t subside right away, and Tomlinson was unable to teach for a while because of it.
The incident Tomlinson describes happened after she’d already sensed something was off about her yoga teacher; the instructor was combative, and even aggressive about her instructions in class. “During downward dog, she grabbed my legs and pulled on them,” Tomlinson recalls. “I was already kind of freaking out. I knew I should leave, but I was [frozen].”
As a yoga teacher for over two decades, I can safely say that so many things are wrong with this story, it’s hard to know where to start. I wish I could say that Tomlinson’s story is unusual, but it’s not. The truth is that, while yoga has proven benefit to folks struggling with trauma, most yoga classes aren’t trauma-sensitive at all. It takes a certain level of awareness and experience to make everyone feel as safe and comfortable as they should feel during a yoga class.
In the past few years, prominent trauma researchers and therapists, like Bessel Van Der Kolk have become vocal proponents of yoga’s therapeutic benefits. This important work is helping people, but the way that it has gotten diluted by the popular media makes it seem like all yoga is good for all people with trauma, and that’s simply not the case. The studies that researchers like Van Der Kolk cite take place in extremely controlled conditions, are led by experienced instructors, and are supervised by clinicians.
In contrast, most yoga teachers undergo 200 hours of training of dubious quality. In order to become a certified yoga teacher, you have to have taught a whopping 45 hours of yoga, slightly more than a full work week for most people. You do not need to have taken any courses in trauma sensitivity, although Yoga Alliance (yoga’s ad-hoc governing body) suggests that teachers “create a safe space” so that you can “minimize the chance of activating your students’ sympathetic nervous system.”
When I did my first yoga training in 2006, we talked about trauma exactly zero times. But the industry, thankfully, is getting more sensitive — or at least it seems that way. Due to the combination of the integration of yoga into trauma research and the continued publicity of yoga scandals, trauma-informed yoga trainings are popping up everywhere. There are 277 “yoga for trauma” workshops currently approved by Yoga Alliance. While it’s great that there are such widely available resources, many are a few-hour-long workshop on a Saturday. Teaching yoga for a week and taking a weekend training isn’t the kind of expertise that is compelling psychologists to recommend yoga to people managing past trauma.
I have evolved my yoga teaching practice over decades, specifically to help people suffering with trauma, and I’m imploring my peers to do the same.
I currently teach yoga to veterans who are required to attend as part of their psychological care. I also teach yoga to people with substance abuse disorder at a residential addiction recovery center. All of my students in these contexts are in treatment, at least in part, due to trauma. I have evolved my yoga teaching practice, over decades, specifically to help people suffering with trauma and I’m imploring my peers to do the same. In both cases, the folks I work with are involved in a strategically designed combination of therapies. They don’t just come to yoga and then expect to spring back into their best selves.
I have seen the ways that yoga can be an aid to healing and I have been healed by it. And I also believe that we need to stop telling people with trauma to just “go to yoga class.” Yoga can help anxiety and depression that stem from trauma. But studies show that in order to be considered therapeutically effective, it needs to be combined with other kinds of therapy, and again, it needs to be taught by someone who understands how trauma can affect a person and leads their class accordingly. No yelling, and certainly no touching without consent.
I am not trying to scare anyone away from yoga; I am especially not trying to scare folks with trauma away from yoga. If you want to find a well-trained instructor, the Trauma Sensitive Yoga Trauma Center runs an evidence-based training program whose facilitators are frequently engaged with clinical research. You can find a trauma therapist through The Trauma Institute.
Most importantly, if you are dealing with the mental health repercussions of trauma, talk to your yoga instructor first and see if you feel comfortable with them. Set touch and voice boundaries if you want to. If you are comfortable with them, let them know if there’s any other way they can help you. You don’t have to go into detail; you can just say, “Hey, I’m processing some hard things right now.” And you have blanket permission to walk away from any human who doesn’t treat you with empathy and care in this vulnerable and important space.