“One of the first exercises I did during my first 200-hour yoga teacher training was to look for the beauty in the movement or yoga practice of another student. That exercise really stuck with me because I had to learn to look, really look, at another human being to identify not what their pose or alignment looked like, but what their humanness looked like. I could see vulnerability, determination, courage, grace, struggle, quietude, effort and ease. I was a devoted witness to that student for those few, short minutes and it is my belief that in the trauma-informed setting, this is the most valuable gift we can offer.”
That is a quote from Living Yoga volunteer, Jill, on her experience teaching trauma-informed yoga for students in recovery. Jill is one of 150 Living Yoga volunteer teachers offering trauma-informed yoga throughout the Portland metro region. While Living Yoga offers trauma-informed classes for a variety of populations, it is a particularly effective practice for students in recovery.
We know that those who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction often have a history of trauma. And, due to modern advances in neuroscience, we can better understand how that trauma affects the brain, and how it can sometimes lead to addictive behavior. Trauma can cause the amygdala (our brain’s threat detection center) to become overactive as it constantly looks for and assesses threatening situations. It can also affect the hippocampus (our brain’s center for processing memories), resulting in the re-experience of intrusive and uncomfortable recollections. It can even cause the cortex (our brain’s center for executive control) to become interrupted by survival-oriented, fight or flight instincts that ultimately disrupt cognitive processing and decision making.
For a person who has experienced trauma, addictions are often formed in an attempt to reduce these post-traumatic sensations of overwhelm, anxiety, and disconnect. This is where yoga comes in. The theoretical basis for trauma-informed yoga as a treatment methodology is grounded in the idea that people who have undergone trauma often feel disconnected and unsafe in their own bodies. Yoga is a means of reconnecting with the body. The goal of a trauma-informed yoga practice is to create a safe environment in which the practitioner can learn to befriend bodily sensations, increase self-knowledge, improve self-regulation, and create a place of refuge within oneself.
Living Yoga volunteers teach three donation-based classes every week for those working through addiction and recovery. These classes are both recovery-informed and trauma-informed, and are specifically designed to help students reconnect with their body and gain self confidence with community support.
We asked some of our Living Yoga teachers to share with us about their experience in the recovery classroom, and specifically how yoga addresses the negative effects of trauma and addiction that some of their students experience. Here are some of their responses:
“Yoga gives the students a positive way to use their body and mind together to support their recovery. A key to recovery is learning to work through difficult moments without drinking. Yoga teaches us to breathe through challenging poses and gives us permission to take a pause and give ourselves a break” - Rhonnda, The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class
“I would say that yoga gives recovery students an opportunity to pause. When we pause we give ourselves the chance to build awareness. And through awareness, we empower ourselves to make more informed choices. I don’t mean to make it seem all neat and tidy. It’s not. But each time a student who has experienced trauma in any form comes to the mat, they give themselves the gift of pause. They sit, they breathe in and out, and in some way or another, they try to connect--with their body, their breath, their thoughts, their emotions, the words the teacher is speaking, the movement, other students. We can’t connect or grow our awareness if we don’t take that pause, I think” - Jill, Unfold Studio, recovery-informed class
“Yoga is a safe space to explore with curiosity what it feels like to live in your body. Many times with trauma, people dissociate. They leave their body because at some point it was not safe to experience life in the moment. In my classes, I use a lot of ownership words. Their mats and their yoga is their own safe space to explore their life experience. I remind them that we can explore how things feel without judgement. We can practice letting go of judgement, even just for the hour we have together. Creating a safe, non-judgemental space for students to breathe, stretch and build strength creates a powerful healing experience.” Kelli - The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class
When asked what pose or series of poses are most beneficial for their students in recovery, Living Yoga teachers said:
“I always feel like my students really connect to the standing series. I invite them to ground down through the earth, get firm in their legs and open up into their Warrior II. It’s a very empowering moment. I invite them to feel the strength of the pose. In Five-Pointed Star, I invite them to get big and take up as much space as possible. I let them know that this space is their birthright. Many times, people come from backgrounds where there is abuse, where they have had to apologize for taking up space. In yoga, we acknowledge the beauty of our being, the fact that there is no one like us, and we can take up a very special place in the world that is interconnected to all other beings.” - Kelli, The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class
“I really like legs up the wall. Many people in recovery have trouble sleeping. I always share with them that legs up the wall, or legs up the headboard when they can’t sleep, can help with insomnia.” - Rhonnda, The Portland Alano Club, recovery-informed class
As the experience of Living Yoga teachers and students proves, yoga and other mindfulness practices can help to heal trauma and other underlying causes of addiction. They can be immensely helpful on the road to recovery as students learn to feel safe in their bodies, reduce anxiety and fear, and better manage their impulses and emotions.
For a full list of Living Yoga’s free and low cost trauma-informed yoga classes, including the recovery classes offered at Unfold Studio, The People’s Yoga, and The Portland Alano Club, click here.
For more information on Living Yoga’s programs, partner sites, yoga teacher training, or how you can support trauma-informed yoga throughout Portland, visit www.living-yoga.org.