Trauma + The Body Part II: Yoga

Jun 30, 2023

 By Athena Phillips, LCSW

Trauma has historically been looked at through a western lens, which often separates the mind from the body. Mental and physical health have been viewed as distinctive and considered to operate independent of each other. Contrary to this orientation, our minds and bodies are intertwined and mutually influence our overarching health. 

I might go so far as to argue the post-traumatic stress is a neurological and physical syndrome versus a mental health condition. 

Let me digress a moment to explain my position. 

Interpersonal neurobiology differentiates between mind, brain, and body. Mind could be thought of as where who we are resides. Our personalities and things that make us unique are housed here. Our brain is the machine the holds the mind and operates the body, and the body carries the mind and brain.

I like this model because it acknowledges the reality that we are dynamic beings, where our mind, brain and body work in sync. Each has a different role, but each role is equally important and interdependent. And, each component of the system is primed to help us connect with and relate to others, creating this lovely interpersonal circle between people that is vital to our wellbeing.


If you want to learn more about Interpersonal neurobiology, here is a link to Dr. Dan Seigel’s website:


Our bodies are the instrument through which our minds can interact with and make meaning of our experiences. Our experiences (especially those involving other people) shape how we interpret life events as well as develop expectations about the future. 


Why does this all matter? 


Because the truths we carry around about what has happened, what will happen, and who we are is carried in our bodies in addition to being held in our minds. This means that our bodies are the point of entry for any kind of experience, whether it be good or bad. In other words, we feel and experience before we think about an experience.

Given the involvement of all these aspects of being and how they relate to experiences, it makes sense that we would want to include the body in the healing process. 


So, on to yoga. 


Yoga is unique in that it incorporates mindful practices and breathwork with physicality. In fact, a lot of the time the goal is to synchronize our breath with physical activity.  The magical thing about breath is that it is directly linked to our nervous systems, which provides us with an opportunity to exert some control over how we feel.


If you are running, you are breathing faster. If you are sleeping, you are breathing slower. In both cases, your heartrate, respiration, and focus are all going to respond to the demands on your body. 


When you engage in a practice where there is focus on controlling breath and working with the body, you are assuming some mastery over the nervous system. And the nervous system is where trauma lives. Essentially you are bypassing the mind and working directly with the body and brain.

A well-regulated nervous system is an anecdote for trauma. Notice I didn’t say it was the anecdote…there is no one thing that works for everyone or solves every problem, but I would argue that when the nervous system is peaceful, so are you. And when you are peaceful, so is the nervous system.


So, yes, yoga is one of several options for regulating the nervous system to shift the way the body experiences its’ environment. When the body feels different, the brain and nervous system don’t have to work as hard, and the mind can adjust its’ how it perceives itself, others, and the world around it. If you are curious about yoga and trauma, here is an article on the topic:


To make this concrete, let’s talk about common symptoms of trauma. Here is a list of some of them:


  • Hypervigilance (scanning for safety, increased startle response)
  • Intrusive thoughts 
  • Intrusive memories 
  • Flashbacks (reliving past trauma as though it is happening now)
  • Isolation (to avoid these other experiences since they can be fatiguing)
  • Dissociation (an experience of separation from self, the body, or the world)


All these symptoms are generated by our nervous system - our thoughts are secondary. Traumatic memories are encoded by different parts of the brain that are designed for ensuring safety. If we explicitly store a memory in detail alongside the painful emotions that go with it, we are likely to attempt to avoid repeating whatever had happened. These highly uncomfortable responses to trauma are essentially extreme forms of learning that are efforts to prevent repeating dangerous parts of our past, even if it was something we didn't have control over in the first place.


Trauma happens to the body, the body stores the trauma, and the body responds to it. The mind is the part of us that creates stories around what happened and while these stories matter, they are only one piece of the puzzle.


So yes, yoga or other mindfulness-based activities can be utilized to facilitate an experiential shift in how our bodies are experienced by the mind. Here is a link to my last blog article on Mindfulfulness + Meditation, which is part one of this series on Trauma + The Body:


Don’t like yoga? That’s okay! There are other things you can do, such as:


-Walking while focusing on regulating your breath

-Tai chi (

-Qigong (

Including our bodies in the healing process is really the only true way to facilitate recovery from trauma. Working with our thoughts or stories alone is insufficient.

Trauma coaches and therapists alike can support their clients in exploring holistic approaches to recovery by presenting a menu of options the extend beyond the story.

It is important to acknowledge the gifts shared by other cultures, including yoga. Yoga originated between 5-10,000 years ago in northern India. Many of the benefits have been recognized by western practitioners, who have adapted it for its' audience. Learning about the roots of yoga and the cultural lens through which it was developed further highlights its' value while honoring where it originated. For a more in-depth understanding of yoga and its' history, here is an article:

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