We have all experienced trauma in our lives in one way or another, but we often do not know how to heal it or to move on. Trauma has many forms, caused by physically terrible events, such as accidents, violence or natural disasters, but also emotional trauma caused by strained relationships or mental abuse.
Often, we do not acknowledge our trauma, at least not until we experience unpredictable emotions and flashbacks which can stay within us, in our body and mind, causing depression, unhappiness and pain. Moving forward with our lives and being able to help others can truly happen only when we are free of our own trauma. Many people enter the yoga world for exactly those reasons, to heal, so it is crucial for health professionals, from psychologists to yoga instructors, to learn the precise tools that can be truly effective in the process of helping others and themselves.
(Street Yoga and Yoga Behind Bars, are two non-profit organizations that support and offer yoga classes to underserved communities and “at risk” youth as well as men, women and youth behind bars. Both organizations have partnered to organize a three-day training called Yoga for Trauma that will take place on Feb. 6, 2015. The training, led by Hala Khouri, will focus on how we can use our mind and body as powerful resources to help us work with marginalized communities while being able to heal our own trauma.)
Khouri has been teaching yoga for about 14 years and prior to that she taught yoga for 11 years. Her academic studies, clinical training, trauma studies, yoga practice, travels and motherhood have shaped her lifework. Khouri’s efforts have been dedicated to helping others, and learning from them. Today, she teaches yoga, trains yoga teachers, teaches workshops worldwide and has a private somatic therapy practice.
Throughout college, she was a personal trainer and fitness instructor while she was studying psychology. So it was early on in her career that through her work with the body and the cognitive mind she started making those connections where people’s emotional experience was very connected to what was happening in their bodies and the way that they felt, including stress levels.
When she found yoga, she saw that the body and mind aspect were intertwined and that people worked with their bodies but were also tracking their sensations and acknowledging the qualities of their thoughts.
“You don’t do that in fitness,” she said. “The focus is [only] on the body.”
After completing her Master’s degree in counseling, she knew the direction that she wanted to pursue, but it was the trauma training that she took, led by Peter Levine (in 2003), that gave her the language and framework to why yoga works.
She discovered that yoga is trauma therapy, because it is all about self-regulation.
After she completed her training, she started to use the language and understandings that she had gained in the trauma training. She was invited to teach a group of young girls at a juvenile hall where she found that her trauma teachings were invaluable. She noticed and felt on the faces of these young girls the trauma that had happened in their life, from the physical to the emotional abuse. For her, this was the beginning of a two-year journey where she continuously worked with this specific group. Khouri ‘s yoga students often offered their assistance in working with the youth. However, she noted that they didn’t have the right tools to assist people who have gone through tremendous life experiences, and they felt that they weren’t as effective.
The staff at the juvenile hall also did yoga and “when they did yoga, it felt like a day off for them,” she said.
Discipline and regulation are some of the perks of Khouri ‘s teaching sessions.
There wasn’t enough of her. She realized she needed to train people so they could do this work. Her first training was in 2007. She was in a private practice for about four years, but she has worked with at risk youth since she was in high school. The development of the training took her five years.
She then wanted to work with yoga teachers to help them understand what is it that they are teaching when they are leading their classes.
About Yoga for Trauma training:
Often people who take this training want to take their experience beyond the studio walls, to places where there is likely poor communities, incarcerated or homeless youth and adults, but most of all a lot of people whowould leave the training, feel as if they have done a lot of healing work themselves.
It’s often our own trauma that makes us want to go and help others. Even though the focus is on how to teach in a trauma-informed way, at least once a day during the training there is a conversation of “how does this relate to your own trauma,” Khouri added. People should think about what is it in our own trauma that we need to resolve so that we are resilient enough to go to other communities?
(Sometimes people come in and it’s all about their own process, and that is fine, but the participants in the training should note that this is not a group or a personal therapy session where Khouri works directly and individually on the traumas in the space.)
The training can help you heal your own wounds, prepare you and give you that physiological framework of trauma, stress responses and the tools to heal stress, not only individually but also collectively, such as patterns of oppression. Trauma is one body that can have many faces. People deal with personal problems but also many cultural patterns of oppression. There are certain communities that are not only dealing with the violence, the poverty within their own families and themselves but also systemic oppression. Khouri incorporates all of these topics into the training (trauma imposed from the outside).
”The training is about understanding the trauma that lives in the body and how body-based practices, like yoga, can help you heal your trauma,” she said.
Who is the training designed for?
If you are someone who is actively working through PTSD, this is not an appropriate training because it might be overwhelming. Many people absolutely come to this training because they have had their own trauma and maybe PTSD as well, you just definitely want to have enough resilience that we can talk about trauma and you will not be triggered in a way that is overwhelming. Clinicians and social workers come to learn about yoga, then yoga teachers come to learn about the counseling aspect of the training.
Khouri believes that yoga teachers should be paid well, as they have been educated, some have years of experience and studies and work, and their positive impact on people’s physical, emotional and mental health shouldn’t be devalued. This is for yoga teachers:
Relational trauma exists in many communities, and people can feel like they don’t have secure attachments. So, the commitment is very important, because if “you go in and all the sudden you have to leave because you cannot afford to teach there (because you have to take a paying gig, which is completely understandable) then [we] can actually do some harm. This is why sustainability is really important,” she said.
If you are interested in helping others or deepening your understanding of the physiology of trauma and how trauma propels behavior in youth and adults labeled “at risk” due to poverty, racism, violence, abuse, accidents, and other factors, then this training is for you.
So, to the question “can yoga be used as trauma therapy?” the answer is yes, because yoga has many healing techniques. Note, that if you have never done yoga you should start with taking a regular yoga class rather than a specialized workshop. Work on releasing tension and breath control while learning to pay attention to the present; after you have built that platform you will be ready to deepen your practice through workshops, seminars and teacher trainings.
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