Benefits of Yoga for Youth Who Have Experienced Trauma

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A growing number of studies are finding that specialized yoga programs can benefit youth who have experienced trauma. San Diego non-profit OG Yoga partners with several non-profit organizations serving at-risk youth to provide trauma-informed and mindfulness-based yoga classes to support healing, resilience, self-development and positive social change.

About Childhood Trauma

Trauma occurs when a child or youth experiences an intense event or events that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being. 26% of children in the United States will witness or experience a traumatic event before they turn four, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report (2011). 

While various types of trauma exist at different degrees of intensity, it is the individual’s stress associated with each trauma that affects how he or she responds to and behaves following a traumatic event. Children living in poor communities are at higher risk of experiencing trauma and have fewer resources and supports to aid in buffering the traumatic stress (Goodman, Miller, & West-Olatunji, 2012). 

The Effects of Childhood Trauma

Just as each person experiences and responds to trauma differently, trauma manifests itself in unique ways among youth. Trauma can often attribute to developmental problems for children and youth, negatively affecting their relationships, education and overall functioning. Research has also shown that being exposed to trauma early in life is linked to physical, emotional, and mental health problems in adulthood.

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How Yoga Can Help Kids Cope with Trauma

The core elements of yoga practice, such as breath work, postures, and meditation, help to equip youth with skills to handle stress and trauma-responses. A trauma-informed yoga practice can strengthen the mind and body connection, helping to reduce overstimulation and reactivity, and encourage relaxation. Yoga can help give youth the power to reclaim control of their bodies and experiences.

An April 2017 report released by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality calls for specialized yoga programs to be offered widely to girls in the juvenile justice system amidst growing evidence that yoga programs can help them overcome the harmful effects of pervasive childhood trauma.

The Georgetown Law report draws from pilot studies in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, an extensive literature review, and interviews with experts and girls throughout the country. It concludes that tailored forms of yoga and mindfulness programs can be uniquely effective in supporting traumatized girls. 

The report states that the benefits of yoga for at-risk girls include better coping skills, increased emotional regulation, improved neurological and physical health outcomes, and healthier parenting practices and relationships. 

Drawing from more than 40 published studies evaluating the use of yoga and mindfulness to address mental health conditions, The Georgetown Law report also found that the proven benefits of yoga could help with the unique effects of trauma on girls. For instance:
 

  • Yoga practice can restore neurological pathways in a region of the brain that processes emotion awareness, and decreases in size among female trauma survivors.
  • Trauma-informed yoga can help girls overcome a feeling of disconnection to their body that is common among survivors of sexual violence.

Pilot studies conducted by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and results from programs in the juvenile justice system showed that after girls practiced trauma-informed yoga, they:

  • Reported greater levels of self-esteem, self-respect and general wellbeing.
  • Showed declines in anger, depression, flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety.
  • Improved their ability to identify negative behavior patterns and resolve conflicts.
  • Used breathing techniques to avoid aggressive responses to provocations by peers and to manage the stress of appearing in court.
  • Reported past incidents of sexual violence to staff.

The Importance of Trauma-Informed Yoga Training 

Even though a yoga instructor may try to proceed with the best of intentions, they may not realize that without proper training on trauma-informed yoga, they could be leaving certain youth feeling disempowered and marginalized. In fact, The Georgetown Law report cited above emphasizes that to be successful in the juvenile justice system, yoga interventions should be trauma-informed and gender-responsive. This typically includes instructors using invitational language (allowing girls to feel in control of their practice), asking permission before engaging in physical contact, and not approaching girls from behind.

A child who has experienced trauma should never be forced to participate or be required to complete a practice or activity as directed, because this can cause the child to withdraw. Yoga instructors who are trauma informed should give the children the ability to choose by offering an alternative to a pose or giving permission to opt out of an activity. Giving a child the ability to make choices can help in their healing process and give them a sense of control. 

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How OG Yoga is Using Trauma-Informed Yoga to Empower Youth

Non-profit OG Yoga partners with other non-profit organizations serving foster kids, children from low-income neighborhoods, and other at-risk youth to support healing, resilience, self-development and positive social change. OG Yoga instructors are all trained in trauma-informed yoga and receive additional training on the latest work in trauma along the way. The Georgetown Law report found that trauma-informed yoga is cost-effective and sustainable, citing examples of successful and innovative regional programs.

If you’re a yoga instructor interested in learning more about trauma-informed yoga, consider joining OG Yoga for our April 2018 What Is Service Yoga 2.0 Workshop.