Yoga helps Trauma Survivors

Story by Lauren Friederman | Photo by Corrie Coleman

For people who struggle with post traumatic stress disorder, simply living life can be challenging. Mundane tasks can become overwhelming. Especially for people who experience interpersonal trauma.

“In the perpetrators grooming of the victim, they strip the person of their sense of truth and self-awareness and being able to be present with things that feel uncomfortable and set boundaries,” Waco-area therapist Salley Schmid said. “They’re told things like ‘You’re safe, I won’t hurt you,’ and then they hurt them.”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, post traumatic stress disorder is defined as a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed trauma. People suffering from PTSD often experience intense, disturbing thoughts related to the trauma they experienced.

To further combat these symptoms, Schmid wanted to find a supplement to counseling. She discovered yoga.  

“It’s researched, it’s proven in a lot of the work that has been done by therapists and psychologists who’ve discovered changes that occur with their clients who participate in yoga,” Schmid said. “They dug in deeper and began to study it and determined that there were actual neurobiological, neurophysiological changes that took place that were positive and helpful for trauma recovery. I wanted that to be a resource I could offer my clients and other therapist’s clients as well.”

She reached out to Kim Damm, the owner of Yoga8, with the idea to begin a yoga workshop for people struggling with PTSD. Damm was immediately onboard, and within two weeks, they had a workshop.

To begin each class, Schmid talks about what happens in the brain of individuals with PTSD. This allows them to gain a deeper understanding of what the trauma exposure robs them of and what the healing process allows them to reclaim for themselves. She also discusses triggers, triggered states and gaining wisdom and discernment in who to trust.

Next, Damm discusses how the yoga practice will help trauma survivors heal.

Finally, the physical yoga practice begins. This practice focuses mostly on the connection between breathing and the body. The practice in this workshop isn’t physically strenuous, but it encourages students to feel what it’s like to be comfortable in their own skin.

For each session, there are several therapists present to assist students if they become triggered at some point during their practice.

“The presence of the therapist is to help facilitate that process for the yogi being able to name the triggered state as a triggered state not an actual threat,” Schmid said. “Then a process called grounding which is coming back to the here and now. So we have different things that we do to help them ground into the here and now and the fact that they’re in the yoga studio not in the place where harm has occurred to them.”

For trauma survivors, this is difficult to achieve, but by the end of the six-week course, many of them find the peace they’ve been seeking. Damm and Schmid hope give their students a safe space where they can connect to themselves.

“Most of the yoga survivors feel safe when they’re in the space and they’re breathing and they’re able to let go even if it’s just for that 60-minute class and to finally relax and maybe sleep through the night. I’ve had several survivor yogis say ‘I don’t know what happened but I slept and I haven’t slept that good in such a long time,’ So I feel like yoga aids in that in the fact that it’s a total mind, body, spirit connection and when you’re away from that that long, to be able to connect to that is wonderful.”

For the founders of the Survivor Yogi Workshop, seeing the trauma survivors heal through their yoga practice is an emotional experience.

“I think towards the end of every single workshop, Salley and I will just take a moment and see these wonderful students resting with their eyes closed in complete stillness, and we’ll both look at each other with tears in our eyes,” Damm said. “Just seeing them healing in front of us is the most beautiful picture because there’s so much movement and non-stillness at the beginning of the journey. It finally settles in that they’re finally okay to be in their own skin right now even if it’s for five minutes. It’s just so beautiful.”