Guest contributor: Kirsten Voris on Trauma Sensitive Yoga

We’re really busy these days with farm work, visiting groups, plus a new project at the local parish. At the same time our Helping the Helpers planning continues, and we still need your support. If you have not done so already, consider donating today to cover a portion of the transportation, lodging, food and training material expenses for people working to welcome refugees across Europe. The goal is not simply to offer a one-off training, but to develop a well-informed cohort of trained individuals who will bring their knowledge back to their work across Europe and Turkey. This is the first step.

We’ve gotten several questions about our Trauma Sensitive Yoga portion of the program. What is trauma sensitive yoga?  Kirsten Voris, our instructor for the training, offers this guest piece to help explain:

Trauma Sensitive Yoga 1Trauma Sensitive Yoga 2Trauma Sensitive Yoga: Teaching Trauma Survivors to Feel Safe in their Bodies 

Kirsten Voris

“I was looking for a way for people to regulate the core arousal system in the brain and feel safe inside their bodies. My interest came from doing research that discovered how trauma affects the brain. Yoga turned out to be a way to get people to safely feel their physical sensations and to develop a quiet practice of stillness.”
-Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, “Yoga and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Integral Yoga Magazine

As a yoga teacher I have a certain level of comfort with my body. But recently, I tried something I never thought I’d do; Open Floor dance class. Hippie dancing, I would have called it back when I couldn’t imagine participating. But I felt ready. Sort of.

As I stood in a circle with 7 strangers, the facilitator invited us to put our hands on our rib cages, to consider their expansion and contraction. Then, she turned up the music. After a moment of hesitation, I began to move, letting my ribs lead. It took courage for me to get over myself and dance. So did touching my rib cage. There was a time when I couldn’t do this without feeling ill.

I thought of the woman in my Trauma Sensitive Yoga class, who told me she couldn’t bring her hands together. Touching her own skin made her feel ill. She came to class to practice bringing her palms together. This took courage for her.

Without a sense of being at home our bodies, we’re only half alive in the world. Moving back into ourselves is an important part of trauma recovery.

Trauma is not just something we remember; it is something we hold in our muscles. Flashbacks can be triggered by a smell or sensation that propels survivors back into the moment they are trying to forget.

Survivors develop strategies for dealing with unwanted sensory memories and these can include neglecting or abusing their bodies. Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) is a research-based protocol developed by Dr. Bessel van Der Kolk and yoga instructor David Emerson to teach people how to navigate their physical selves in the wake of trauma. They discovered that trauma survivors can learn to tolerate physical sensations, instead of feeling overtaken by them when they have a safe way to work towards this.

Just as we work with memories of trauma in talk therapy, we can address the trauma that lives on in our bodies using Trauma Sensitive Yoga. In a TSY session we practice two things: choosing how to move our bodies and noticing the sensations that arise. My job as an instructor is to offer authentic choices regarding how to move and to suggest sensory cues as we move through basic yoga forms.

In TSY, much like Open Floor dance, there is no correct way to move. The yoga forms used offer a comfortable framework, because although there are choices, the number of choices is manageable.

Trauma breaks our connection to our bodies. Physical sensations carry stories that are painful to remember. When we practice being present in our bodies, we can begin to accept sensation, maybe even enjoying a stretch along the side of our body. Or the feeling of our hands coming together.

It all begins by acknowledging we have choices. In TSY we can practice this in a very concrete way: by choosing how to move our bodies.

The Trauma Center study, “Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Study” is available at: