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Hope and Healing: Trauma-Informed Yoga for Women

A trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness program helps over 700 women cultivate self-confidence, clarity, and peace.

BY Amy Karafin ON June 11, 2013

A woman in a Boston-area drug treatment center recently recounted the details of a harrowing court date to yogaHOPE founder, Suzanne Jones. A mother of three and a recovering crack addict, the woman had been racked with anxiety, wondering how she could hold herself together during the hearing that would determine whether she would regain custody of her children. But as a participant in yogaHOPE’s pilot Trauma Informed Mind-Body (TIMBo) program, she was newly armed with techniques for dealing with difficult emotions. “When I was in court,” she told Jones, “my stepmom kept attacking me, and I just kept breathing. I told myself, ‘Just breathe, just breathe.’”

The program consists of asana, group discussion, and guided meditation centered on a different emotional theme in each of 16 weekly sessions.

The nonprofit yogaHOPE has been offering yoga classes to women in transitional centers—drug rehabs, domestic-abuse safe houses, homeless shelters, and a prison—for five years. Jones, 46, created the organization following a dark period in her own life. In 2005, she was depressed and suicidal, and yoga, which she had recently taken up, helped her through the difficult time. She began to think about other women who were feeling hopeless and how yoga might support them too.

YogaHOPE was born several months later, and Jones and a handful of volunteers began teaching trauma sensitive restorative yoga, eventually reaching 700 underserved women a year. But Jones found that the women needed more than just postures and breathing: “They needed to know that they have an emotional anatomy that is operating of its own accord. There are tools for identifying the emotions that are coming up in the body and not making bad choices in response to them.”

To put the yoga practices into context—and to help mental-health professionals incorporate yoga into their treatment programs—Jones created TIMBo last May. The program consists of asana, group discussion, and guided meditation centered on a different emotional theme in each of 16 weekly sessions. For example, one week might focus on fear: the group would talk about the role of fear in their lives and where it manifests in their bodies (often the lower back, knees, and ankles, according to Jones); practice asanas that work with that area (such as forward folds); and learn a meditation technique that addresses the emotion (perhaps guided imagery or compassion meditation). TIMBo participants learn that unpleasant emotions cannot be banished through self-destructive behavior. “The only way to actually make the feeling go away is to ride it through,” says Jones. “We’re teaching processes that make that tolerable.”

Clinical social worker Donna Weintraub sat in on the TIMBo sessions at the substance-abuse treatment center where she is director, and saw firsthand the positive effects on both herself and the participants: “Because most of our residents have trouble regulating their emotions, learning to pause between an automatic ‘triggered’ reaction and a response has been an empowering experience for them.”

I tell my body, “I’m not going to let you get me upset and react badly. I’m going to breathe into you and you will calm down, and we can respond calmly.”

Many participants have continued to practice after completing a yogaHOPE program, overcoming their addiction and getting their lives back on track. But an even bigger success may be the new awareness they have gained. The woman with the court date later told Jones, “I can feel when my body is responding to something and I use my breath. I tell my body, ‘I’m not going to let you get me upset and react badly. I’m going to breathe into you and you will calm down, and we can respond calmly.’”

ABOUT Amy Karafin Amy Karafin is a writer, editor and translator. She is the co-author of the Lonely Planet travel guides India and South India.

#yoga in action Photo by Ray Mucci
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