Drawing on recent findings in the fields of trauma psychology and interpersonal neurobiology, the idea behind trauma-conscious yoga, also referred to as trauma-sensitive yoga or trauma-informed yoga, is to alter the form of the class to create a safe setting that encourages neural integration through connecting with our students.
“When relationships are integrative, the brain becomes integrated. This may sound too simple, but every bit of evidence suggests that it’s true. In other words, healthy relationships stimulate the growth of integrative fibers.” according to Dr. Daniel Siegel.
It can be said without exaggerating that Liberation Prison Yoga’s founder Anneke Lucas experienced most atrocities known to humankind before she reached the age of 12. Seeking to free herself from her past, she found yoga, meditation, therapy and other healing modalities on a long and hard journey to recovery. However, true impact came only through humble healers who, instead of presenting as teachers or authority figures, made a connection through heartfelt empathy and understanding. These keys to healing – connection and creating a safe space – form the basis of trauma psychology as well as all our trauma-conscious yoga programs.
Rather than placing the entire focus on asana, mindfulness exercises and meditation are an essential part of a trauma-conscious class, and we also include other healing modalities such as support group-style sharing and stream-of-consciousness writing.
“With mindfulness, awareness brings the mind to a place that goes beneath automatic pilot and allows new combinations to be created, so that behavior can change. The mind can change the structure of the brain – which has been proven. When you teach people to use awareness to intentionally focus attention in a certain way, you change not only the function of the brain, but you change its structure.” says Dr. Siegel.
Yoga instructor David Emerson and Director of the Trauma Center in Boston Bessel Vander Kolk, MD, developed a yoga program for traumatized populations in a weekly yoga class Emerson offered at the trauma Center at Justice Research Institute to war veterans. In his book Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, co-authored with Elizabeth Hopper, PhD, Emerson introduces the term “trauma-sensitive yoga.”
“Trauma is an experience of no choice.” This definition of trauma from Emerson’s and Hopper’s book clearly shows the inherently traumatic nature of imprisonment. While jail and prison populations generally enter jail or prison with previous trauma – and 27% battle with severe mental health issues – the experience of being incarcerated compounds trauma. Our work is not only to address Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD,) but to address our students’ stressful conditions with exercises geared towards finding a sense of peace amid chaos and unrest.
Neuroscientist Dr.Stephen Porges, in his book “The Polyvagal Theory” speaks of the human need for a sense of safety in order for the vagus nerve to operate in a balanced way, affecting the whole body system. In his theory Dr. Porges points out that the nervous system is bi-directional; i.e. if the sub-diaphragmic vagus nerve receives a calming physiological prompt, it informs the brain that the body-system is safe. Many of our yoga exercises are specifically incorporated in our classes to stimulate calm in the system by affecting the vagal tone.
Many traumatized people have a disregulated vagus, creating physical problems which internists can’t properly address because they wouldn’t look at the psychological cause. Through the breath, or pranayama – listed by Dr. Porges as an important technique to regulate the vagus – the instructors’ reciprocity with students, and the regularity of and predictability in the classes, we provide a sense of safety, while offering tools such as guided meditations and relaxation exercises to balance the vagal nerve.
Our yoga programs also keep into account the fight-flight-freeze-collapse response in people suffering from P.T.S.D. The sympathetic (arousal) activation was long thought the only physiological marker of this disorder, but the body also has a defense system of shutting down. Mindfulness exercises, balancing poses and conscious breathing have all shown to improve dissociative states linked to fight-flight-freeze-collapse states. Triggers are internal or external cues that reawaken the life-threatening event to the former victim, as the body-system tries to complete the actions of either fight or flight. That response was formerly inhibited by the freeze response. Yoga poses, and the attempt to find relaxation in the poses, can often act as triggers for trauma survivors. Our instructors, several of whom are social workers or psychologists, have awareness of their own trauma – and hopefully more integration than the students – to stay connected to the student. Trauma expert Dr. Peter Levine refers to the process of “dipping,” when a student begins to feel the trauma and has a little bit of release. That student is then gently guided back to the safety of the mat or the classroom, encouraged to honor and accept the feelings that emerged, enabling him or her to feel and know the sensations surrounding the trauma without going so deep that it would be unsafe.
In Liberation Prison Yoga classes, the issues of incarceration are addressed, as well as the natural human responses to these issues, such as anger, frustration and depression. Several of our classes have discussion, free flow-writing components that can offer acknowledgment and temporary relief from these issues, and mindfulness exercises offer inmates tools to use on their own. The language we use helps students feel that they can be seen, heard and understood. Just coming in and treating inmates with basic respect, without judgment, has often been proven a powerfully positive experience for our students.
Many inmates are in excellent physical condition, while others can barely move. The physical yoga portion of the classes adapts to the group’s physical ability. Fit groups receive physically challenging classes whereas beginner classes are gentle. The instructor’s language throughout the class is kind and we use no commands, as is common in regular yoga classes. We explain the physiological benefits of poses whenever possible, while focusing on creating a safe space during the class and on the mat through focus on breathing, manipulation of energy, and visualization techniques that teach inmates to create their own safe space within. Bringing the mind in a relaxed yet alert state is the fist step in the ability to feel safe.
In classes with the general population, the greater purpose of yoga as a scientific tool for personal growth is mentioned – embracing the notion that hard circumstances such as imprisonment offer a unique opportunity for spiritual enfoldment. The classes we have with more severely mentally ill students are more purely therapeutic in nature.
Though our classes are secular – we don’t use Sanskrit or “yoga lingo” that prisoners might not connect with – our students are often spiritual or religious, and guided relaxations and meditations naturally awaken everyone’s spirituality.