Healing Trauma with Yoga: Yoga and Intersectionality

I presented this paper in April as part of the UBC Women and Gender Studies undergrad conference the F-Word.  I wrote it after having had reflected a great deal on my experience learning about trauma sensitive yoga. It is by no means a complete reflection of my views, which I feel are more animated and interesting to listen to in person. I would be more than happy to give presentations on the ideas presented in this paper to anyone who would be interested.

Healing Trauma with Yoga: Incorporating Intersectionality into Trauma Sensitive Yoga Classes

This past summer I took my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Since then I’ve taken two additional trainings in trauma sensitive yoga (TSY) and offered a yoga class at a low-barrier, young women’s social housing project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside[i]. I feel it’s important to acknowledge my privilege and social location as a white, able bodied, university student and yoga teacher. This privilege has granted me access to valuable teachings that I recognize are inaccessible to many people [ii]. Studio yoga classes are typically expensive and usually offered in spaces that are unsafe or unwelcoming to marginalized groups. I also wish to acknowledge how lucky I am to have a small studio in my home, where I can practice in peace and truly tune into the needs of my body. Finally I acknowledge that much of my practice has taken place on un-ceded Coast Salish territory.

This paper focuses on yoga as a tool for recovery from trauma. TSY is a valuable practice because it moves beyond conventional methods of talk therapy to incorporate the somatic, body-based impacts of trauma (Emerson, Yoga Outreach). Trauma is experienced in the body as well as the mind, making it important for healing practices to address both levels of experience (Emerson, Yoga Outreach, Street Yoga and Yellow Horse Brave Heart). Survivors of trauma often learn to disassociate from their bodies as a way of protecting themselves from painful memories or triggering sensations. TSY offers survivors an opportunity to return to their bodies in a safe and gentle way.

TSY is a valuable step forward from traditional talk-based therapy, but much of the literature on this topic  fails to consider the systemic circumstances impacting trauma survivors – factors that can lead to trauma occurring and re-occurring. It is my contention that TSY teachers could greatly improve the effectiveness and usefulness of our classes by utilizing an intersectional (Crenshaw) framework[iii]. Below are examples from TSY handbooks and manuals that would benefit from the additional understanding offered by intersectionality.

Trauma Sensitive Yoga

TSY classes are designed to reacquaint students to their bodies and to positive sensations that can come from slow, deep breathing and gentle movement. TSY classes are different from regular, Western yoga classes in several key ways. Poses are usually modified to avoid placing students in positions they might find triggering. For example rather than doing a standing forward fold, where student’s bums would be exposed to the air and anyone standing behind them, students in a trauma sensitive class might be offered this pose sitting on the floor. These changes makes the poses more accessible by shielding body parts that students might not wish to expose, as well as making the poses easier to achieve physically. Another common modification is to offer chair classes where students remain seated for the whole class. Seated classes can make it easier for students to bring focus to one body part at a time and they also allow students to practice for longer without getting tired. They are also useful for people in wheelchairs.  Also, students’ mats or chairs are usually arranged in a straight line so that no one is behind them while they practice, increasing their sense of privacy.

TSY teachers are encouraged to guide classes with language of inquiry rather than language of demand or instruction. While in a studio-based yoga class a teacher might list a sequence of poses, which students will then perform – in TSY a teacher will use language like, “if you like, bring your hand above your head and notice how it feels”. In this way TSY is focused on subtle sensations, rather than rhythmic movement requiring high levels of strength and stamina. Following this language of choice is a desire on the part of teachers to offer our students the opportunity to make empowered choices in their bodies. We want to create a space where our students feel respected.  A space where they can practice setting boundaries and making decisions that will help them feel good and learn to take care of themselves. It is also common for TSY teachers not to touch their students, which runs counter to the practices in many studio based classes.

Finally TSY is designed with accessibility in mind. Classes are offered on site: in prisons, group homes, schools, rehab programs and wherever they might be useful. Props are limited and the spaces we teach in often double as libraries, rec-rooms, basements and even sometimes hallways. It is our job as teachers to create sacred space for our classes, no matter how temporary or surrounded by chaos.

Example 1: Overcoming Trauma through Yoga

“Overcoming Trauma through Yoga” draws it’s lessons from a TSY program developed at the Trauma Center in Boston. The book offers many valuable lessons on making yoga more accessible and safe for trauma survivors such as modified poses, creating sacred/safe space and invitational language. Many of the ideas in this book are included in the training manuals I look at further in this paper, making it a foundational text.

The book’s strength is its explanation of yoga’s usefulness in helping trauma survivors because it relies on the body as an entry point to healing:

“Many types of traditional therapy rely upon a cognitive or “top down” approach to treatment, while yoga based interventions utilize a “bottom up” approach that draws on somatic experiences as an entry way into a person’s life… Body-oriented therapies such as yoga prioritize making a connection at the somatic level, and then moving from that entry point to addressing emotion and cognitions.” (23-24)

While it’s true that TSY offers something that traditional therapy cannot, the book’s approach leaves much unaddressed underneath the bottom they claim to work up from.

When teaching yoga to people who are healing from trauma it can be useful to understand the forces of power that shape their social location, which in turn may shape the trauma they are experiencing and healing from. Exposure to traumatic events is higher amongst oppressed groups due in part to their decreased access to resources. This can lead to relative instability, lack of safety and potential victimization, particularly for people whose identities line up with multiple axes of oppression – for example women of colour. An intersectional lens offers yoga teachers the opportunity to find a deeper understanding of their student’s unique subjectivity.

In the introduction to “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga” Bessel van der Kolk (a medical doctor and trauma expert) writes:

Most people I see in my practice have become experts in bracing against their inner sensations and in ignoring the inner world of their bodies. The lives of trauma survivors come to revolve around isolating and neutralizing unwanted sensory experiences… Many traumatized people learn that self injury such as cutting can make their sensations go away. Others race motorcycles or engage in other high risk activities like prostitution or gambling..” (xxi-xxii, emphasis added)

This passage homogenizes the experiences of trauma survivors because it doesn’t acknowledge the various circumstances under which someone might participate in any of these activities. Of particular concern is his inclusion of prostitution[iv] as a voluntary, high-risk, self-harming activity.  There is a difference between voluntary prostitution and survival sex work. This difference lies in whether or not the person has other means for economic survival – whether the person feels they have any other choice.

Using an intersectional approach, sex work (which van der Kolk acknowledges is practiced by many of our potential students) can be understood as practiced by various different people for a wide range of reasons. It is important to consider whether someone is practicing sex work as a means of survival because they are facing systemic barriers to other, safer forms of employment. For example these barriers could be due to race, gender, class, sexual-orientation or several of these factors, or many others, combined.  Keeping these factors in mind, the reasons why a person might engage in sex work become more complex and therefore resistant to the lense provided by van der Kolk, which pathologizes, individualizes and generalizes prostitution as a reaction to trauma.

Example 2: Street Yoga Training Manual

Street Yoga is an incredible program from the western United States. They provide TSY classes to youth living on the street and in various institutional settings such as rehab, group homes and correctional facilities.

Last fall I took Street Yoga’s 16 hour teacher training in Seattle. While I learned a lot from the training I felt the manual and the trainers could have done more to acknowledge the systemic, rather than personal, reasons why their students found themselves in these yoga classes and the institutions that host them. Compared to “Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga”, which never once mentions the word poverty throughout the entire book, Street Yoga’s manual takes steps to acknowledge poverty as a factor that impacts their students. They list several causes for youth homelessness under the headings of “family problems” (14), “economic problems”(15) and “residential instability” (15). The manual acknowledges broad issues such as lack of affordable housing and goes on to sensitively explain some of the consequences homeless youth live with such as survival sex, difficulty attending school and substance abuse (15, 16).

The considerations brought forward in the training are a valuable step toward understanding the students’ lives, but they neglect to go into depth by exploring the unique subjectivity of each student. Further on in the manual several examples of locations where classes might be offered are listed. These examples include a residential treatment facility, youth drop-in center, elementary school and a transitional home for youth mothers (23-26). All the examples include physical details of the setting as well as the students’ appearance and sometimes a reason why they are attending yoga class, or present at the facility in the first place. For example here is the part of the description for the residential treatment facility:

“ Today is your first class at a secure, lock down facility for teenage girls in foster care. The building is old and run down with fluorescent lighting. You enter the multi purpose room where seven girls and one staff member have gathered for class. All but one girl appear to be overweight and several of them are still wearing flannel pajama pants.” (24)

The example goes on to describe a conflict between two of the students. This description is useful in that it paints a picture of what yoga teachers can expect when we walk into the facility, but it offers us no information about the forces of power and the life experiences that have brought the students to this space. Spaces where attendance of yoga classes is sometimes mandatory.

We know from earlier that the students’ have likely experienced poverty and from the description that they are in foster care, but are the students racialized? Have they experienced adverse impacts to their safety due to their gender or sexual orientation? Certainly this might be the case since they are all women. Are all of these girls American citizens or are they struggling to stay in the country? Is English their first language? Is their family far away or close by? Did they come from a reservation or urban slum? How do these factors interact to bring them to our classes and how do they work in our student’s lives to prevent them from safety, independence and freedom? Most importantly, do these factors make our students prone to trauma or do they set up barriers to healing the trauma they have already experienced? All this information is left out of the Street Yoga manual.

It’s important for yoga teachers to be aware of this information so that we can understand how oppression works in our students’ lives, especially when you consider that oppression itself can be traumatic (Akili). Without this awareness we may view all groups we offer classes to as relatively the same, when our students are unique and have unique needs, triggers and life experiences. Further, not situating and socially locating our students may lead us to pathologize and individualize their struggles, rather than see them as systemic and requiring of our solidarity, compassion and presence as allies and not simply just as yoga teachers.

Example 3: Yoga Outreach Manual

My final example is from Yoga Outreach, another wonderful program that offers TSY to a wide variety of groups, right here in Vancouver. I took the Yoga Outreach training this past winter and was impressed by their trainers’ breadth of experience and awareness of anti-oppression – although it is only referentially mentioned in the manual as something to seek education about elsewhere (5). It was clear to me though, that many of the trainers were aware of the systemic forces (poverty, racism, colonialism, sexism etc) that shaped their students’ lives and ultimately brought them to their classes.

I highly enjoyed and learned a lot from the Yoga Outreach training which, like Street Yoga’s training, ask teachers to role play several examples of locations where we might end up offering classes. Rather than offer example locations in their manual Yoga Outreach list sets of populations with statistics and information teachers should be aware of. For example they list corrections and offer a profile of the groups that often find themselves incarcerated (24). They also give details for women who have experienced violence and abuse, even breaking women down into various sub-groups including sex workers and aboriginal women, to name a few[v]. It is valuable to offer yoga teachers profiles of these communities but it is also important to acknowledge how these communities can and frequently do intersect. For example a much higher percentage of survival sex workers are aboriginal and trans women than are reflected by the general population.

That being said the creators of the Yoga Outreach manual have clearly taken considerable steps to offer yoga teachers some insight into the unique lives of their students. One thing I would love to see in their manual that is currently missing though – and I would like to see this added to all the texts I’ve looked at so far – is an inclusion of the concept of historical trauma:

“Historical trauma (HT) is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.” (Yellow Horse Brave Heart, 7).

Historical trauma is a concept that can and should be utilized when teaching to populations who have experienced trauma, particularly to groups in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, where Yoga Outreach offers many classes. Considering that a high indigenous population makes up the Downtown East Side, historical trauma is a useful concept to understand for example, the cascading impacts of residential schools. So when we offer classes as teachers we can understand that even if our students are not or have never been in a residential school they have likely experienced trauma passed down from their family members and also simply from belonging to a group of people who are in a deep and continuous process of grieving over the profound losses brought on by colonialism. In this way we can deepen our sensitivity, expand our compassion and offer classes that work to acknowledge our students as whole beings, who are often still actively entrenched in the damaging forces of oppression.

Without this information we run the risk of ignoring all the different paths our students’ have taken to find themselves in our classes. It is important that we keep this information in mind and that we don’t simply learn to see ourselves as offering charity from the front of the room. We are there to hold sacred space, offer useful teachings and create a sense of peace, no matter how temporary. I feel we have an obligation to do this from a place of deep respect for our students as whole beings and people we can find solidarity with.


Activist and yoga teacher Yolo Akili recently wrote that “Oppression is trauma” in his article titled “The Immediate Need for Emotional Justice”. I agree with him and feel that it is my duty as a yoga teacher to deepen my understanding of power and oppression so that I might better understand the impacts forces of oppression have on my life and the lives of my students. I feel it is my responsibility to acknowledge the ways in which I am oppressed, but also the privileges that I hold, particularly as a healthy, able-bodied, white yoga teacher. Without this knowledge and awareness perhaps I would run the risk of offering teachings to my students that ignore and erase the knowledge they bring to the mat – knowledge I don’t hold, but seek to honour both as a teacher and as an ally. It is for this reason that I encourage all TSY teachers to use an intersectional framework to deepen their understanding, awaken their compassion and expand their hearts and minds.

Hopefully this knowledge will encourage us to work together to overcome the forces that keep us away from the “deep abiding center” (Emerson, xxiii) and connection to each other and the world around us that we all hope to cultivate, on and off the mat.

Works Cited

Akili, Yolo. “The Immediate Need for Emotional Justice.” Crunk Feminist Collective.             November 16 2011. Web.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and             Violence Against Women of Colour.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991). 1241-            1299. Accessed Online.

Emerson, David, and Elizabeth Hopper. Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga:             Reclaiming Your Body. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2011. Print

Lilly, Mark and Kate Arrants et al. Street Yoga: Teacher Training Manual. Street Yoga,             2011. Print

Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Maria. “The Historical Trauma Response Among Natives             and It’s Relationship with Substance Abuse: A Lakota Illustration.” Journal of             Psychoactive Drugs 35.1 (2003): 7-13. Accessed Online.

Yoga Outreach. Core Training Manual. Vancouver: Yoga Outreach, 2011. Print.


[i] The class has since been cancelled because of low attendance. There were too few students and too many programs being offered for such a small facility. All the potential students were in the midst of extreme drug addiction, survival sex and deep poverty and therefore yoga was not an appropriate offering for them at this time in their lives.

[ii] However it should be noted that much work is being done in Vancouver and across North American to offer free or by donation yoga classes that are welcoming to marginalized populations, including the work by Yoga Outreach and Street yoga, who I refer to in this paper.

[iii] Intersectionality is a theory created by feminist legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw that seeks to acknowledge the way people can experience marginalization at the intersection of multiple axes of oppression (ex: race, class, gender etc). The theory seeks to illuminate the way these systems of power operate simultaneously, rather than independently or in opposition to each other.

[iv] Categorizing prostitution as a form of high risk, self-harm could also be problematized in other ways as well since some people see sex work as healing and empowering, but that is beyond the scope of this paper.

[v] The entire list includes: aboriginal women, women with disabilities, immigrant and refugee women, sex workers, younger and older women and sam sex relationships.


One thought on “Healing Trauma with Yoga: Yoga and Intersectionality

  1. My sense of it is that yoga was developed for everyone with a mind and a body, including “white” bodies and the charlatans in the yoga world come from all ethnic backgrounds. The answer IS simple…just not easy. Well yes lululemon is no yoke

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