Treating Trauma Through the Lens of Yoga and the Yamas

Yoga as a healing modality for complex trauma has been practiced successfully for years—yet it’s only now that it’s being recognized as a scientifically validated approach.

Since 2003, we have been using modified hatha yoga with clients at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. After thousands of client sessions and input from students, mental-health care clinicians, neuroscientists, and yoga teachers—along with scrutiny from the Western medical system—our yoga model, Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) is, as of 2017, listed in the United States as an evidence-based practice. 

Though we have purposefully pursued the path of validation for TCTSY within the Western medical context, there are two core, ethical frameworks (known as yamas) that are central to the yogic system that are also indispensable to the work we do: ahimsa (nonviolence) and aparigraha (non-attachment to outcomes).

Ahimsa

The harm associated with complex trauma is deep and pervasive, and requires an array of treatments or healing modalities. Complex trauma, as a phenomenon, refers to both the experiences (characterized by chronic coercion and abandonment within the context of relationships) and the outcomes of those experiences (which can be understood as symptoms).

Many of our students, for example, have experienced repeated physical abuse or chronic neglect by primary care providers during childhood. Others have experienced chronic sexual coercion by trusted family members or people with power in their community. These betrayals, perpetrated by the very people who should have had their best interests in mind and who should have been doing everything in their power to keep them safe, produce very deep and long-lasting impacts.

Chronic abuse and/or neglect create repercussions that extend into every part of a person’s self, from physical to social to spiritual. Complex trauma changes the brain and body chemistry; impacts all of our relationships, especially intimate ones; and leaves many survivors without a sense of protection or recognition from a higher power, however that might manifest. In this way, chronic abuse and/or neglect is, for a human being, a sort of “perfect harm,” deviously thorough, akin to a perfect storm.

Therefore, effective treatment for complex trauma requires, in a sense, a perfect non-harm as a viable counterbalance. The Hindu ideal of ahimsa, evolved over centuries to become a cornerstone of yoga philosophy, offers such an organizing principal. Orienting to the ethic of ahimsa, and what that specifically means in the context of complex trauma, has led directly to the TCTSY protocol. It includes aspects such as sharing power in the relationship between facilitator and student, no physical assists, every cue being preceded by an invitation, and the internal experience of the form taking precedence over the external expression.

Our effort is to align TCTSY with ahimsa as best we can, because the treatment of complex trauma requires that non-harm be a practice, a conscious undertaking, for both facilitator and student.

Aparigraha

Among the pervasive impacts of complex trauma is, for many, a deeply held sense of failure and self-hatred that becomes so fundamental that it is taken for granted. In fact, it becomes established as a core part of the self.

At present, the most predominant treatments for complex trauma, aside from talk therapy, are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE). What is important about both CBT and PE is that these treatments are organized around an end goal: to help people to be less responsive to stimuli that reminds them of their traumatic experiences. While CBT and PE have been shown to be effective for people with single-incident traumas like car accidents, natural disasters, and one-time assaults, these treatments have not worked well for people with complex trauma.

We speculate that one reason for this is the focus on an outcome. While the goal itself might have some merit, the problem is in the focus on any outcome. When core, formative experiences have been relationships that failed in their primary purpose—to keep us safe—it seems that many survivors internalize those fundamental failures and turn them on themselves. The result is that one’s existence, simply the act of being, can feel like a failure.

In the process of surviving chronically chaotic relationships, it may be that we come to understand ourselves through this framework of failure—a framework that is so broad it doesn’t accommodate the normal ups and downs of human life, in which failures are actually opportunities, experiences that we can learn from. Instead, each failure becomes a further reinforcement of the internalized sense of inefficacy and worthlessness. Unfortunately, when treatments focused on outcomes are introduced, along with them comes the possibility of failure.

Yoga, in contrast, provides a framework called aparigraha, or non-attachment to outcomes, that makes room for experiences that are not oriented to results—experiences that exist in and of themselves without being in the service of an end goal. Because there is no end goal, there is no way to fail. At the Trauma Center, as a core part of treatment for complex trauma, we use yoga to practice having experiences in which we cannot fail.

Together, ahimsa and aparigraha provide a context within which yoga can serve as a powerful and sustainable treatment for complex trauma.

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