Using Trauma-Informed Yoga To Treat Eating Disorders & Substance Use Disorders

Using Trauma-Informed Yoga To Treat Eating Disorders & Substance Use Disorders by Timberline Knolls

Many people struggle with the effects of trauma during their lives. But this can be especially true for people who are working toward healing from certain behavioral health conditions, including eating disorders and substance use disorders.

For those who are struggling with these concerns, trauma-informed yoga can be a powerful component of the healing process. Trauma-informed yoga is a gentle and person-centered approach to yoga practice that strives to empower participants and help them reconnect with their bodies in a safe and therapeutic way.

Characteristics of Trauma-Informed Yoga

Trauma is a person’s unique response to an overwhelming or distressing situation. According to survey data, about 61% of U.S. adults have endured at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), and almost 1 in 6 have been through four or more ACEs prior to age 18.

Trauma-informed approaches recognize the need to support people wherever they may be on their personal paths to healing from trauma. Key components of trauma-informed care include:

  • Physical and emotional safety
  • Choice and control for participants
  • Collaboration with providers
  • The presence of trust and respect
  • Opportunities for empowerment and success

Trauma-informed yoga embraces the above principles while also incorporating the potentially healing practices of mindfulness, breathing, and safe movement. Recognizing the way trauma can reside in the body, trauma-informed yoga invites participants to connect with their physical experiences in a safe, supported way. While trauma can disrupt self-regulation, harm self-esteem, and cause a heightened sense of danger, trauma-informed yoga can begin to repair these feelings of disconnection and reestablish safety.

How Trauma-Informed Yoga Can Help

The lingering impacts of trauma can contribute to or worsen the symptoms of an eating disorder or substance use disorder, as well as complicate the recovery process. So it can be crucial for someone who is in recovery and wondering whether yoga can help to find a safe trauma-informed program.

A trauma-informed approach to yoga involves helping participants access healing in an individualized and careful way. Participants should ideally experience the following qualities in a trauma-informed yoga session:

  • The facilitator uses accessible and inclusive language to guide the class and respects each person’s bodily autonomy.
  • Healing and safety are top priorities, and each person moves at their own pace and only engages in practices they feel comfortable with.
  • The experience supports nervous system regulation and helps each participant achieve a calm and present state. This can help someone who is receiving treatment for an eating disorder or addiction establish a sense of safety and stability that can promote recovery.

For those who have eating disorders, trauma-informed yoga can also help with managing some of the unique struggles that may come with these disorders, including feelings of anxiety, shame, and low self-worth. Because trauma-informed yoga uses simple, accessible movements and lets participants determine their own experience, it can offer a safe, nonjudgmental, and healing setting for participants. Additionally, it can help deepen the mind-body connection and promote needed relaxation.

Trauma-informed yoga can also help those who are suffering from substance use disorders navigate recovery and improve their well-being. One study looked at the benefits of trauma-informed yoga for various groups, including people who were receiving treatment for substance use concerns. The study found that:

  • After attending multiple trauma-informed yoga classes, 18%-36% more students stated that they were using self-regulation skills in their daily lives.
  • Among the students who were receiving substance use treatment, a majority said that yoga was a helpful part of treatment and that they learned skills that helped them abstain from substance use.

Finding the Right Trauma-Informed Yoga Programming

Trauma-informed yoga can offer many pathways to better well-being and be an excellent complement to traditional therapies. But it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. If someone is receiving treatment for an eating disorder or substance use disorder, it can be helpful for them to be their own best advocate. Many treatment programs and providers offer yoga that is trauma-informed, but an effective program ideally honors individual needs and promotes emotional and physical safety at each step. Recovery is a process, and yoga can play a healing role when it meets someone where they are on their journey.