What the human soul wants more than anything else is not to be fixed, saved, advised or corrected. It wants to be witnessed...it wants a deep bow.
— Parker Palmer

Preview:

  • What is yoga?

  • why yoga for trauma recovery and resiliency?

  • What is TCTSY?

  • How is TCTSY different from other yoga practices?


What is yoga?

Yoga is a 3,500 year-old philosophical, spiritual, and physical tradition that was developed in what is now India. Meaning to yoke or unify in Sanskrit, yoga is a practice of creating inner and outer liberation, union, and right relationship.

What we know as yoga in the West is only the physical aspect of a way of life. Yoga combines yama - ethical intention, niyama - right action, asana - physical practices, pranayama - breath, pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses, dharana - concentration, dhyana - meditation or contemplation, and samadhi - oneness.

Contrary to the common distortion presented in the West, a series of physical movements that are used to coerce our bodies into fitting a certain external ideal is much less ‘yoga’ than is responding to a challenging experience with curiosity and truthfulness. See here for resources relating to honoring the history, lineages, and wisdom of yoga.

 

why yoga for trauma recovery and resiliency?

Traumatic experiences often affect our whole beings during and after the harmful event. They can alter our relationships to ourselves, to other people, to spirit/God/the universe, to space, sounds, images, scents, sensations, language, and to our bodies, and they change how our brains work. Yoga - when offered with an understanding of trauma dynamics - can provide healing practices that directly address some of the most devastating consequences of trauma.

practice of liberation

Yoga is a practice of liberation - from false beliefs, from limiting ways of living, from harmful relationships - with the self, other people, and systems. The spiritual, philosophical, and ethical foundations of yoga can offer a way of being that contradicts the messages of trauma.

For example:

  • ahimsa - nonviolence - counters violence, coercion, and neglect;

  • santosha - contentment - counters messages that we are wrong or not enough;

  • svadyaya - self-study - counters the requirement to conform to external expectations;

  • satya - truth-telling - counters secrecy, denial and manipulation;

  • asteya - non-stealing - counters boundary violations and exploitation.

*Like other philosophies, yoga may be used as a way to manipulate, inflict harm, or dominate. See Practice and All is Coming, by Matthew Remski for a look into abuse within yoga communities.

healing our brains

Increasing research into both the effects of trauma and yoga/meditation on the brain show that yoga and meditation can address some of the most significant alterations in brain structure and activity that result from trauma.

For example,

  • Trauma often leads to over-activation of the amygdala, which is responsible for regulating traumatic memories and processing emotions, leading to experiencing life with more fear and reactivity. Yoga and meditation are shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, allowing for more spaciousness, ease, and self-reflection.

  • Trauma can decrease the size of the hippocampus, which stores new memories and processes long-term memories, leading to difficulty with memory storage and recall. Meditation increases the size of the hippocampus.

  • Trauma decreases the size and activity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which regulates stress and emotions, inhibits behavior, and helps moderate our fear response. Meditation is shown to increase the size and activity of the ACC, helping our bodies to respond accurately to stress and return to balance after stressful situations have resolved.

  • Trauma also decreases levels of GABA neurotransmitters - chemical messengers that help us to feel calm. Yoga is shown to increase production of GABA.

*See Reclaiming Life After Trauma, by Daniel Mintie and Julie Staples.

healing our bodies

Studies are also demonstrating the negative effects of trauma on our health as well as the positive health effects of yoga.

For example:

  • Trauma is shown to increase risk for inflammation-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Parkinsons, Alzheimers, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Yoga has been shown to change activity in the genes, leading to reduced inflammation and to decreased production of cytokines (which cause inflammation).

  • Trauma decreases the length of our telomeres, part of our DNA that protects our cells from deterioration and disease. Yoga practitioners are shown to have longer telomeres than people who don’t have a physical activity practice.

  • Trauma increases our allostatic load - persistently-high stress level, often due to repeated incidents of threat - which can be toxic to multiple body systems. Yoga has been shown to reduce measures of our allostatic load.

  • Trauma often negatively affects our sleep. Yoga and meditation are shown to increase the time, efficiency, and quality of sleep.

*Credit to Julie Staples, “How Yoga and Meditation Work to Heal Trauma Symptoms: The Scientific Foundations,” presented during the Embodied Philosophy Tracing Trauma conference. April 13, 2019.

 

What is Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY)?

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TCTSY is a physical practice that was designed to help people living with trauma symptoms. It is based on yoga shapes and movements and was developed at the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts as a way to bring the body into therapy and assist people whose trauma symptoms were not improving with conventional approaches. (Click here to learn more.)

The duration, level of physical rigor, types of forms, and particular focus of a TCTSY session can all be tailored to the group or individual ability and interest. A typical TCTSY class might include:

  • Physical movement

  • Stillness

  • Breathing

  • Noticing sensations

  • Making choices

  • Bringing attention to the present moment

See here if you’d like to try a short TCTSY video practice.

TCTSY is as much about how we explore yoga forms as the forms themselves. It can be tailored to the individual or group’s needs, bodies, or interests. No prior yoga or physical movement experience is necessary. TCTSY can be done standing, in chairs, laying down, or sitting on the floor. It can engage and strengthen the muscles, or not. All are equal choices.


How is tctsy different from other yoga practices?

TCTSY classes might involve many of the physical movements that you might see in a regular yoga class in the West. However, other aspects of a session will be different - even from most other ‘trauma sensitive’ yoga practices - because TCTSY is designed with the effects of long-term, relational abuse, neglect, and oppression in mind. (See Therapeutic Perspectives)

For example:

  • A key characteristic of trauma is one person or group having power over another or others. In order to avoid (or minimize) replicating this power dynamic, TCTSY facilitators practice alongside participants, rather than standing at the front and telling participants what to do. Thus, each person, including the facilitator, has their own authentic, but shared experience in each session.

  • In TCYTSY, your body is your own, as is your space. Facilitators stay on our mats or chairs. We do not walk around the room, touch any participants (no physical assists), or comment on anyone’s body or movements.

  • Loss of freedom and autonomy is another essential trauma dynamic. Therefore, each form in a TCTSY class is offered as an invitation - If you’d like, you might turn your head to the left.

  • Furthermore, the facilitator offers multiple choices in each form - You are welcome to choose to lift your arms to your sides, or maybe you choose to lift your arms toward the ceiling. It is expected that each participant and the facilitator will sometimes - or often - make different choices.

Photo credit to incredible meditation and mindfulness teacher, photographer, and human  Joy Jordan .

Photo credit to incredible meditation and mindfulness teacher, photographer, and human Joy Jordan.

Every time I go to [yoga] class, I am more comfortable in other situations saying what I want, and not feeling like I have to read the other person, and do what they want.
— TCTSY participant

  • After trauma, it is normal to be overwhelmed by physical distress or to disconnect from our bodies and feel a sense of numbness. TCTSY offers gentle opportunities to experiment with being in our bodies without judgment or efforts to ‘fix’ anything - If you’ve chosen to turn your head, you might notice some sensations in your neck. Or maybe you don’t notice any sensations at all.

  • In many yoga classes, each movement is paired with an in-breath or an out-breath. This can be overwhelming for people with trauma histories. In TCTSY sessions, attention to the breath is offered gradually and as a choice - If you’ve chosen to pause in this shape, you might notice that you are breathing.

  • Some yoga forms that can be particularly difficult or triggering for people with histories of violation are not offered in a TCTSY class.

  • The focus in a TCTSY class is on the present moment and each person’s internal experience. Facilitators do not use metaphors, guided imagery, spiritual symbolism, music, incense, candles, sanskrit language, etc. These elements may be distracting or triggering and take people out of the present moment.

  • TCTSY is not prescriptive and is not focused on outcomes. In many yoga classes, teachers will instruct students to “play your edge,” “go deeper,” or “relax.” This can replicate boundary violations and the focus on pleasing an external authority present in oppressive relationships. In TCTSY, facilitators offer opportunities to explore moving our bodies, making choices, and noticing sensations. You might feel relaxed, or you might feel anxious, or maybe bored. It’s all welcome. Your experience is your own, as are the ways you interpret your experience and the choices you make about it.

    (Click here for research and participant reflections on TCTSY).

Because I was in the yoga class experiencing all different experiences, from nothing to something really scary...it reminded me that I will have a lot of different experiences and that if I just wait long enough it will pass.
— TCTSY participant