What is Trauma Recovery Yoga?

When I meet someone for the first time, a topic that inevitably comes up is Trauma Recovery Yoga (TRY).  I often say that TRY saved my life, and what I mean by that is, it set me on a path of emotional and physical healing, as well as helping me discover who I am in this new life following a life-altering trauma in 2015.  I am a spousal suicide survivor. 

The road to recovery from a trauma may sometimes feel lonely, but in TRY, we say, “You are not alone.”

TRY got my attention two years ago when I started suffering from excruciating tension headaches.  I knew I did not want to continue on the barbiturates that the doctor prescribed for me.  While they controlled the pain, I certainly did not like the description of this drug:  “A barbiturate is a drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant, and can therefore produce a wide range of effects, from mild sedation to death.”  

In the summer of 2017 I saw a post for a Trauma Recovery Yoga class less than 5 minutes from my home. I don’t know why, but I felt in my heart that this might be something that could help me.  I had no previous interest in learning yoga and was unsure what to expect when I arrived at the studio.  It was a clean, calm welcoming space.  I had briefly met the instructor at a social event two years before, but had never had a conversation or other interaction with her.  She welcomed me warmly.  It was within that first hour of class I knew TRY was going to be instrumental in my healing.

People often ask me now what is different about Trauma Recovery Yoga versus a regular yoga class.  The first thing you will notice is there is no music playing, no incense burning, no chanting, and the instructor will speak in English, not Sanskrit terms.  The class may be held in a traditional yoga studio; or it may occur in a physical therapy room, or the auditorium of an old VFW hall, outdoors on a lawn, or in front of the Tim Bavington “Pipe Dream” sculpture in Symphony Park. If you are in the Army, it may happen during PT time.  If you are a student in a Title 1 school, it may be in a classroom.  As more and more helpers and  healers become certified in the TRY teaching method, the places in which you find a TRY class are growing. 

We start each TRY practice with a specific sequence.  First is orientation.  We take a moment to look around the room, moving our heads from side to side.  This will cause the body to physically calm and slow down.  Next is grounding.  It is literally finding the ground, feeling it supporting our bodies, noticing our seat bones or whatever part of our body is making contact with the earth or the mat.  Centering is noticing the center of your body.  We inhale while engaging our pelvic floor, like trying to pull our belly button to our spine.  And finally, perhaps the most important piece is breathing.  Breath is presence.  Noticing your breath is the quickest way for calming and often the fastest way out of anxiety.  We focus specifically on breathing in and breathing out, and we do so slowly and only through the nose.  In my very first TRY class, when the instructor said, “Notice, are you breathing in or are you breathing out?” that was the ah ha moment for me.  It took my entire focus to answer that question and drew attention away from the dark, heavy thoughts I had brought with me into the room.   These four crucial parts of TRY are designed to ready the body for the yoga healing to begin.  The sequence of orientation, grounding, centering and breathing can be used anywhere to bring one back to homeostasis, a relatively stable state of equilibrium.  We say that even if you never step foot on a yoga mat again, you have learned self-regulation tools for wherever you may need them. 

Self-regulation tools can be used anywhere.

Trauma Recovery Yoga uses a specific set of yoga postures in the method.  The postures are carefully selected.  People healing from trauma may be mentally and emotionally distracted by dark thoughts and feelings and could possibly have physical issues.  One’s balance may be affected by concentration so there are no balancing poses while standing.  There are no advanced poses such as placing your foot behind your head.  The instructor offers alternative poses throughout the practice for those who are uncomfortable with or unable to do certain poses.  Each pose is an invitation from the instructor, not a requirement.  “Your yoga, your way” is stressed throughout the entire practice, and there is no judgment or stigma attached with using an alternative pose.  Chair yoga is an option for those unwilling or unable to get down on the floor on a mat.  We start in a seated position and do some stretching, gradually moving more and heating up our body.  We progress to downward dog, a position where our body looks like an upside down V in which the head is lower than the heart.  

Downward facing dog (down dog) is where we say our self-affirmations.

The other thing about a Trauma Recovery Yoga practice is that the instructor talks during the entire class.  This is done intentionally to keep the flow of positivity throughout the practice.  If there is no silence, the mind will not tend to wander to the dark places.  We listen as the instructor’s calm words give us permission to release those thoughts and preconceived notions that no longer serve us.  Self affirmations in TRY start with “I am”.  The instructor speaks a variety of affirmations such as “I am beautiful”, “I am strong”, “I am safe”, and “I am OK”.  Participants are encouraged to say affirmations of their own ~ silently or aloud ~ as they are in downward dog, a resting pose for the internal organs.  It is a time in which you can have a positive conversation with yourself.  The repetition of our “I ams” is a corrective emotional experience in which we change our brains by creating a new neuropathway in the brain.

The pace of the practice is consistent but not usually prohibitive for most participants.  The yoga flow is designed to heat up the body and rid it of excess energy, and coupled with positive self talk and imagery, help to rebalance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, bringing about an overall feeling of well being.  Participants are constantly reminded of their freedom of choice as to what they want to do and to what extent.  At any given practice, you may see people just sitting and breathing on their mats, or taking “Child’s Pose”, a common beginner’s yoga pose that is often used as a resting position between more difficult poses. 

Child’s Pose is a resting pose and may be taken at any point during the practice.

In a traditional yoga class, the instructor may call someone out or walk around the room and put hands on participants in order to “correct” a pose.  This will never happen in a TRY class.  Survivors of trauma often do not want to be touched, and in their fragile state, definitely do not want unnecessary attention focused upon them. The instructor remains seated as they teach; there is no walking around the room. 

The level of activity continues to elevate to a point where you know you have participated in a physical activity but you are not exhausted.  We finish each practice in a pose called “Shavasana” or corpse pose; each participant may choose how they want to place their body.  There is no silence over 3 breaths in which the traumatized mind may wander to a “bad neighborhood”.   The instructor may deliver a body scan meditation, a guided gratitude slide show in one’s mind, or a loving kindness meditation:

“May I be well, happy and peaceful, may love come to me, may strength come to me, may harmony come to me. 

May my family be well, happy and peaceful, may love come to then, may strength come to them, may harmony come to them.

May my friends be well, happy and peaceful, may love come to then, may strength come to them, may harmony come to them.

May my neighbors be well, happy and peaceful, may love come to then, may strength come to them, may harmony come to them.

May all living beings be well, happy and peaceful, may love come to then, may strength come to them, may harmony come to them.

May the entire world be filled with love and peace.”

Shavasana looks different for every person. #youryogayourway

It is during this Shavasana meditation that the instructor will offer to share essential oils on the shoulders of the participants. This is completely optional and your participation or not is largely anonymous. Our eyes are closed during this time. If you choose not to accept the oils, you place one hand on your stomach and the instructor takes notice of who not to touch.

We close our practice by returning to a seated position.  Our eyes remain closed.  The instructor’s final words to us may be something like “There is a place of love and light in me that also lives in you, and when we are in this place together, we are one.  Namaste.”  Participants may say namaste in return.  Namaste is used both for greeting and leave-taking.  Namaste is usually spoken with a slight bow and hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, thumbs close to the chest.  In Hinduism,  it means, “I bow to the divine in you.”

Additional information about Trauma Recovery Yoga may be found on their website at traumarecoveryyoga.org.

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