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Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse with Yoga

For someone to heal from PTSD, one must learn how to control bodily reflexes. PTSD causes memory to be stored at a sensory level-in the body. Yoga offers a way to reprogram automatic physical responses…What is beautiful about Yoga is that it teaches us-and this is a critical point for those who feel trapped in their memory sensations-that things come to an end.

--Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Trauma Specialist

As therapists working with sexual abuse survivors, we treat children and teens in an attempt to help them modify the painful thoughts and emotions that result from the abuse. But while abuse hurts the mind and the heart, it usually involves the body as well. Therapists are aware of the mind-body impact of abuse, but not always sure of how to address the physiological effects of trauma.

Integrating trauma-sensitive yoga with other forms of therapeutic intervention may offer a promising approach to holistic recovery. An innovative program in Portland, OR called Healing Childhood Abuse with Yoga is described in an article by that name. The authors, Mark Lilly and Jaime Hedlund, identify the rationale and best practices for using integrative and therapeutic yoga practices. The 8-week course includes the topics of safety, boundaries, strength, assertiveness, power, intuition, trust, and community. Each topic is addressed with yoga as well as other activities such as art projects and guided meditation. One interesting aspect of the model is a teen leadership component, in which teens who have undergone the program assist with younger children in a subsequent course, thus reinforcing their own healing and serving as models to the younger students. A collateral four-week series for nonoffending parents is also included in the model.

Nationally, yoga is being used with young people in residential treatment centers and outpatient settings such as The Trauma Centerin Massachusetts. Because of the potential of any body work to trigger traumatic memories, it is crucial that survivors have trauma-informed instructors who focus on maintaining safety and being crystal clear about boundaries. According to Lilly and Hedlund, "Yoga and related mindfulness practices can help restore sexual abuse victims to wholeness and a life of greater joy."


References and Resources

Reviewed: November 13th, 2014