Introduction to Trauma Sensitive Yoga


Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.

Dr. Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, clinician, researcher and author

Today’s my last day of yoga teacher training and I still can’t believe I decided to do this, and that I got through it! I’ll need some time to really process and absorb everything I’ve learned, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of the work I did on my final project.

Throughout my training, I became interested in the healing and therapeutic aspects of yoga. Therapists, counselors, and other mental health specialists have been incorporating yogic techniques in their treatment of PTSD and trauma survivors for years. It’s incredible to see how healing the practice can be to extremely traumatized persons like sexual abuse victims, veterans, and prisoners. It’s truly inspirational, and I wanted to learn more about it.

How Prevalent is PTSD?

For starters, I wanted to understand how many people have PTSD. I was surprised, but also not surprised, by how prevalent it is (Source: PTSD United):

  • 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. Up to 20% of these people go on to develop PTSD.
  • An estimated 8% of Americans24.4 million peoplehave PTSD at any given time. That is equal to the total population of Texas.
  • An estimated one out of every nine women develops PTSD, making them about twice as likely as men.

Since the chances were high that I would work with trauma victims, I wanted to understand how yoga could be healing for them. I understood how yoga had relieved stress and anxiety in my personal body, but how does that look in other bodies? I wanted to understand some of the basics on how to approach someone in a way that I could share yoga with them, but also be sensitive to their experiences.

Enter Trauma Sensitive Yoga

Discussed in depth in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the Body into Treatment, David Emerson outlines the way traditional yoga can be adapted to meet the needs of the traumatized individual, in a way that helps them re-establish a mind-body connection.


The objective of trauma-sensitive therapy is not to access emotions or dredge up trauma memories, but rather to help clients heighten their body awareness—to notice what is happening inside their bodies—and thereby learn to release tension, reduce and control fear and arousal, and tolerate sensation.

Some primary differentiators include:

  • Form-based vs. alignment-based
  • Breath awareness vs. Prescribed breathing
  • Interoception vs. General mindfulness
  • Invitatory language vs. Commands

Trauma and the Brain

Connecting deeply with our bodies is important because it creates balance in our brains. Our brains are split up into three parts, this is referred to as the Triune Brain. The three components are what make up our biology, emotions, behavior, and executive decision-making:


Brainstem (Reptilian Brain) – Develops in the womb, organizes life-sustaining functions. Highly responsive to threat throughout one’s lifespan.

Limbic System (Mammalian Brain) – Develops mainly during first six years of life. Connected to emotion and learning. Contains the amygdala which releases stress hormones and activates fight or flight.

Prefrontal Cortex (Human Brain) – Develops last and is involved in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.

Traumatic events can disrupt how the three parts of the brain communicate with each other. In turn, this can cause a person’s fight or flight response to either easily be triggered, or difficult to bring back to normal after it’s triggered. This can mean being in a constant state of fear, anger, tension, or even in a state of complete disassociation.

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk MD, discusses the effectiveness of a “Bottom-Up” approach to trauma healing. His thought was that if you reduce the stress in the body, this would have a positive effect on the emotions. Thereby giving the individual more control over their lives.

Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE)

Another advocate for the “Bottom-Up” approach was Dr. David Berceli. His Tension and Trauma Releasing exercises focused on the PSOAS muscle, a large muscle deep inside our bodies which rarely gets worked out enough.

Problems related to the tightening of the PSOAS muscles:

  • Problems related to Digestion
    Image result for psoas muscle
  • Problems related to the reproductive system
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Anxiety
  • Anger or Irritability

Benefits of TRE:

  • Reduces Insomnia
  • Sciatica healing
  • Helps with Fibromyalgia
  • Reduces chronic tensions and anxiety
  • Increases energy and stamina
  • Lower back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain reduced
  • Improves blood circulation and flexibility


The types of TRE exercises you might offer depends on the person. There is no one-size-fits-all sequence that you can use. Instead, you should understand the basic approach to take, and then modify based on your client’s needs:

Level 1 – Open up their comfort zones. These gentle flows should be used on trauma survivors in the initial stages of their shock and stress. Restorative and Chair poses are used to start the practice.

Level 2 – Get them feeling grounded and humble. Choosing seated poses will encourage them to feel safe and grounded while also building flexibility.

Level 3 – Bring in self-confidence and inner strength. Pranayama and Meditation bring balance to their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

Below are three excellent sample sequences that can be modified or added on to!

Level One


Level Two


Level Three

Click here for the full sequence, including detailed instructions and tips.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for reading! Until next time, Namaste!


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