Helping the Helpers: Yoga for Trauma Stewardship
Interest in yoga as a therapeutic modality for healing trauma has grown exponentially during the past several years. More and more yoga classes are being offered in settings that serve populations with a high incidence of trauma, such as prisons, community health clinics, and low-income schools.
As evidence of the beneficial effects of therapeutic yoga for trauma mounts, it’s becoming increasingly accepted as a valuable resource among mental health workers and other members of the helping professions. Consequently, we can expect to see the opportunities to teach trauma-informed yoga continue to grow.
There is not yet adequate recognition of the fact that those who work closely with traumatized populations could use the support of trauma-informed yoga classes themselves. In Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky explains that repeated exposure to the trauma of others commonly generates a “trauma exposure response.”
Also known as “secondary trauma,” this term refers to a process in which externally encountered trauma becomes internalized within the care provider’s own body and mind. While such internalization usually occurs unconsciously, it commonly manifests in symptoms such as emotional distancing and numbing; feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and inadequacy; and chronic exhaustion and other physical ailments.
Secondary trauma not only takes a huge toll on those experiencing it, but reduces their ability to work effectively with others as well. As Lipsky explains, the work of “trauma stewardship” involves tending to “the hardship, pain, or trauma experienced by humans, other living beings, or our planet itself” on a regular basis. Given the high incidence of human suffering, species extinction, and environmental devastation today, such work is clearly invaluable.
Yet, as a society, we don’t recognize the need to support those who have taken on the challenge of helping others. On the contrary, social workers, teachers, nurses, international relief workers, social change activists, and both family- and professionally-based caregivers commonly struggle to do their jobs under conditions of high demand, intense stress, and low pay.
How Yoga Can Help
Yoga can help support such “trauma stewards” in three key ways. First, as is always the case, yoga offers an exceptionally practical, effective, and efficient means of engaging in holistic self-care. Although everyone can benefit from practicing yoga, those whose work involves caring for others and healing trauma are in particular need of a practice offering both physical revitalization and psychological renewal.
Second, appropriately structured yoga classes are an effective therapy for secondary trauma, just as for trauma in general. As research and best practices in the field demonstrate, however, teaching yoga that supports healing from trauma requires elements that may or may not be found in mainstream classes, such as an emphasis on mindfulness, energetic grounding, compassionate self-awareness, and safely processing and releasing difficult emotions. Ideally, appropriate classes could be offered at workplaces where multiple trauma stewards are employed, such as hospitals and mental health facilities.
Finally, yoga offers an excellent means of cultivating mindful awareness, which, as Lipksy repeatedly emphasizes, is critical for working effectively with traumatized individuals and communities. “The most important technique in trauma stewardship,” she writes, “is learning to stay fully present in our experience, no matter how difficult.”
Again, while this quality of presence is important for everybody, it plays an especially critical role in the work of helping professionals, first responders, and others who work routinely with trauma. Specifically, it enables them to work more conscientiously and sensitively with others, while at the same time maintaining their own physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual health.
Although Trauma Stewardship doesn’t focus on yoga per se, Lipsky mentions it several times as an important means of cultivating presence, healing secondary trauma, and supporting trauma stewardship. As the yoga service movement continues to grow, its supporters would do well to advocate for bringing the healing possibilities of yoga to our “trauma stewards,” whose work involves working with traumatized individuals and/or communities on a daily basis.
Such “helping the helpers” can leverage an exceptional multiplier effect, with the positive effects of the practice radiating out to support countless others working to heal the debilitating effects of trauma on the body/mind.
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at carolhortonphd.com.