by Nadine Fawell

By the time I first stepped onto a yoga mat, I was crawling out of my skin.

I’d run out of strategies for dulling my feelings. Starving myself hadn’t worked. Nor had eating too much. The door-locking, the hand-washing, the counting, the compulsive scratching at my face. I was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the anxiety, fear and self-loathing that went along with it.

I felt like I was going to explode. Then, quite randomly, I went to a yoga class, and, for sixty minutes, got some relief from myself. That feeling of lightness actually lasted for several hours after the class: it was the longest stretch of time I had felt at peace since I was eight years old.

That was my first inkling that yoga might help me deal with the trauma of my past. Research is now showing that yoga and meditation can activate the brain’s ability to make new synaptic connections (neuroplasticity) and can also reactivate old (healthy) pathways. Research conducted by The Trauma Centers in Masachusetts has shown that a 60 minute yoga class once a week in a 10 week session begins to reduce PTSD symptoms.

However, as I got more into yoga, I discovered that some ways of practising made things worse for me, not better. Once I qualified to teach I worked with many, many people who’d suffered quite major traumas. It was in South Africa, which has a high rate of violent crime, and I specialised in teaching one-on-one sessions tailored to the needs of the individual. My students had been through all sorts of things: being held up at gunpoint was a common theme, having armed men try to break down their bedroom doors.

You just never know what someone else has been through: life can be tough. And yoga helps, there’s no doubt about that.

Patterns started to emerge in my own practice, and in my teaching.

Most of us have, at some point, suffered trauma. Be it a car accident, sudden bereavement, or abuse. What people need, when they’ve been through a trauma is to feel SAFE and to feel STRONG.

Safety needs to be addressed first. In chakra terms, that’s a base chakra need: to know that your right to BE, to exist, is not under constant threat. People might not be ready to admit out loud that they have experienced trauma, or suffer from Post Traumatic Stress. Lord knows I wasn’t, for a very, very long time. They might not feel ready or able to make changes in their lives. But that doesn’t stop them needing to feel safe. Yoga can do that for people, if certain parameters are observed.

Trauma survivors may not want to be touched, they may get anxious in enclosed rooms. If you are lucky enough to teach a special class for trauma survivors or go to one, you will be able to control these things, but if you are teaching a general group class, what do you do?

Teachers must start with the basics:

  • Be mindful of your language. Suggestions rather than commands. You might steer clear of sexual reference of any sort. I often don’t, but then my students tend to know me well and know my background, so it opens a different kind of a conversation.
  • Be respectful of people’s limitations and differences in their bodies. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t – we are often quite unconscious of how we treat others in yoga class. I’ve certainly been guilty of slipping up here!
  • Be sure people always know where you are in the room.
  • Be careful what poses you choose: hip openers might be an issue, as might backbends. As might Child Pose. I hated Child Pose when I started yoga because it opened the back of my body, where I felt most vulnerable, and it meant I couldn’t see what was going on around me. Not good when you don’t feel safe. Learn modifications to give people.

Then, people need to feel strong. A natural conclusion, if you have been victimised, is that you have no control over how you are treated. That you have no power. And, because hurt is inflicted on bodies, we disembody, draw up into our heads, and do our best to stop feeling. I have found that practising and teaching in the Krishnamacharya tradition, where breath starts and ends every movement, and Ujjayi is woven into asana practice, to be the most effective way to come back into my body, and bring students back into theirs.

The other basic basic principle is to use the fight-or-flight muscles: quads and glutes. Warrior poses are GREAT for this, as are squats. Some forward bends are good too. This helps the body work some of the stress hormones off, and it also helps people to start feeling strong. Just about everyone can do a lunge, if it’s modified for their body, and in that way, just about everyone can start to experience the power in their legs.

Power that they could use to run if they needed to. Power to stand their ground. Power to hold themselves up as they go through the process of healing.

Nadine Fawell has been teaching yoga for about a decade now. She notices that her breath still gets short when she’s anxious, but at least she notices! She knows yoga can help, and believes it’s for everybody, no matter where they are at right now.

Note: this piece might be triggering if you have suffered a trauma of your own, and if that is the case and you find you need help, please call Lifeline’s 24 hour support line on 13 11 14.