There's no chanting, no meditation, no hands-on assists. Postures are referred to as "forms," and the teacher may not even make eye contact with students.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) might fly in the face of everything you've ever learned about teaching yoga, but a recent study shows that it has reduced symptoms for survivors of complex trauma when little else had previously helped them.
"Trauma Sensitive Yoga is a movement-based practice focused on choice-making and interoception," explained Jennifer Turner, yoga program coordinator at the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, where TSY was developed.
Interoception is the practice of noticing sensation in the body. TSY students are encouraged to notice these sensations, and to then make choices about relating to them, such as whether they want to feel more or less intensity. "We focus on empowerment as opposed to a hierarchical methodology," Turner said.
In one study, 60 women with a history of repeated childhood trauma participated in hour-long TSY classes once a week for for ten weeks. The women suffered from treatment-resistant PTSD that included feelings of low self-worth, shame, reduced body awareness, and difficulty with communicating.
After the TSY treatment, 52 percent of the women no longer met the criteria for PTSD and reported many positive results, such as greater self-compassion, self-acceptance, body awareness, and feeling more related to others.
In a TSY class, the instructor might invite students to notice sensations, or suggest they experiment with variations, but never command or direct them to do it. Language is kept as simple as possible, and teachers avoid Sanskrit terminology or descriptive language. "Part of this is not to be imaginative or get a story involved because [in trauma] that is what the body is tied to," Turner said. "The word ‘form' is used because the idea of posing can be triggering for many clients who have been asked to pose—but also because ‘pose' implies doing it for an external opinion or view.
"We strip away any adjectives that we can, we're not looking to label the experience," she continued. "Our job is to help people feel and notice their bodies and, possibly down the line, to use their bodies [for greater self-awareness]."
Classes are somewhat gentle, but not restorative, and long holds aren't emphasized. "There is movement from one form to another, but not vinyasa," Turner said. "Forms are held for 3-5 breaths and then we move to another form so people don't feel trapped, stuck, or held." Students can choose to practice a form, possibly exploring two or three simple variations, or choose another form, if they wish.
TSY was developed between 2006–2008 by David Emerson, a yoga teacher at the Trauma Center that is headed by Bessel Van der Kolk, a neuroscientist specializing in the neurobiology of trauma and the efficacy of using the body in its treatment. TSY is taught to a wide-ranging population, including survivors of childhood abuse and combat veterans.
Turner, who trained as a Kripalu yoga teacher in 2003, came to the work as a graduate student interested in trauma. Now a licensed mental health counselor, she began teaching at the center in 2008. She believes it is important for all yoga teachers to understand this work.
"One in four women will be assaulted by the time she's 21," Turner says. "In my training, we didn't talk about it at all. It's important for us to know the potential impact of what we're doing."
Turner will be leading a TSY weekend workshop at ISHTA Yoga, downtown, on May 22–24. She says that relationship is key for working with people with complex trauma.
"For so many of our clients, the trauma was born out of relationships that were supposed to be safe and trusting," she says. "We try to be as transparent and honest as we can about the work we do and the intention behind it so we don't become the focus or distract, and people can get to the work of being in their bodies."
Turner says that teachers at the center do not know their students' stories. There is a screening process that is conducted by staff, and all students need to have a therapist, but beyond that, teachers maintain a consistent style and try to remain detached from the results.
"Someone might have a triggering experience and they might not come back, or they might come back in a year," she says. "We try our best not to look for progress." Allowing students to have and to control their own experiences is the core of TSY philosophy. "Even when you see someone struggling, that can be more powerful than anything we could prescribe."
For more information about TSY, click here. For more information about the upcoming training, click here.
—Karen Schwartz is a NYC-based yoga therapist and writer. For more information about her, click here.