Author’s Note: This is an edited and updated version of part 4 of a 4-part series I wrote for Yoga Journal in November of 2016. As my teaching style has evolved through more experience and studio ownership, it seemed appropriate to revisit these articles, dust them off, and give them an update with a fresh perspective. In 2020, Covid-19 began to spread, changing the landscape across the world and opening the doors for discussion on mental health and trauma. Experts and new studies conclude that nearly every person on the planet has experienced trauma either first hand or indirectly.
5 Ways to Make Every Yoga Class More Restorative and Therapeutic
By Daniel Sernicola
Originally published in Yoga Journal, December 2016. Updated in January 2022.
One of yoga’s primary aims is to bring us squarely into the present moment, which is especially important and especially difficult for trauma survivors. Present-moment experiences offer trauma survivors a chance to live “without feeling or behaving according to irrelevant demands belonging to the past,” according to Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., author of The Body Keeps the Score. But it’s also more challenging for traumatized people than non-traumatized people to be present, says David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga. The good news? We can all get better at it with practice. “Over time through a mindfulness practice, we can build a map of the mind, notice our habitual thought patterns, and develop patience and compassion for our minds,’ says Christopher Willard, PSYD, author of Growing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience. Here, a few key strategies for helping trauma survivors—and everyone else—in your yoga classes get grounded and present.
Anchor the mind.
“All practices that strengthen concentration or mindfulness use an anchor,” Willard says. He recommends inviting students to rest their attention on something—the body, the breath, movement, the senses, an image, numbers, a word or phrase—to anchor them to the present moment.
Cultivate mindfulness from the ground up.
I start almost every class with students lying down. They are led through a small body scan awareness beginning at the feet, traveling to the arms, and back to the head. From there, they are invited to turn their eyes inward and begin to explore the mind then drop awareness into the heart. The prompts of inquiry questions are helpful here: Does your mind feel active or calm? Is your heart beating fast or slow? Does your heart feel heavy or light? Throughout the class you can ask questions such as, "How does this pose feel? What sensations are you feeling? Where are you feeling those sensations?"
Be sure to include breath practice.
We are seldom taught how to breathe and yet, a number of studies “cite evidence that yogic breathwork may be efficacious for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder and for victims of mass disasters,” says Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management. She suggests using three-part breath and breath retention among other techniques, adding that “control of the breath not only enables language but gives us a measure of control over our mood.” Ancient yogis knew that breath regulation could help manage and regulate feelings and moods Studies have shown that breathwork may be helpful in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and for victims of mass disasters. “Finding and experimenting with new ways of breathing may be a way for folks to feel better in their bodies,” Emerson says. Breath practice is an effective tool all students can take home and use to help with anxiety outside of class. Try the 7-11 Breath, as taught by Christopher Willard, PSYD. He suggests breathing in for a count of 7 and breathing out for a count of 11, suggesting that this practice can reset the breath to “regulate, shift, and stabilize energy and mood.”
Give a nurturing savasana.
For some, Savasana is the most welcomed pose of a yoga class. For others, it can be a difficult and uncomfortable experience. Offer choices for resting by providing suggestions on how to set up for Savasana or encouraging students to do what feels comfortable for them: sit up, lie down, use a bolster under their legs, a folded blanket under their head, a folded blanket over their belly, or a blanket to cover up with. Encourage students to close their eyes or soften their gaze, knowing some may only feel comfortable keeping their eyes wide open. Remind students that Savasana will only last a few minutes and that they can come out whenever they like.
Take it to the next level with Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra is a yoga practice also known as yogic sleep. Though this guided progressive scan of the body students are invited to move into a deep state of conscious awareness sleep, which is a deeper state of awareness and relaxation. Yoga nidra works with the autonomic nervous system which regulates processes of the body that take place without a conscious effort (heartbeat, breathing, digestion and blood flow). This system also includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Many populations have benefited from Yoga Nidra including those suffering from anxiety, trauma and PTSD. Don’t be surprised if your students fall asleep, as their mind is able to release and relax in this deeply grounding practice.
Author's note: Yoga Nidra is an ancient practice. More recently, Richard Miller, PhD, created a form of Yoga Nidra called iRest. As a studio we do not use or endorse iRest as Miller has been accused of sexual assault by several students.