Breathe, Relax, Accept Your Past: A Yoga Approach To Trauma

Dec 14, 2018

A half-dozen yoga students were kneeling on their mats, breathing in, breathing out, in an historic, high-ceilinged second floor studio in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Their teacher, Cate Wolff, was guiding them through gentle postures, and encouraging as much self-acceptance as they could muster.

“So just allow yourself to feel sensation of Mother Earth,” she said slowly and softly. “There's nothing we're going to do right now except try to fully inhabit our body.”

I learned about this class, sponsored by the Western Mass. Recovery Learning Community, from a flyer at a mental health clinic.

"Trauma lives in body memory," the flyer said, "and yoga offers a nurturing and compassionate approach to healing."

Wolff, who’s also a therapist, designed this class for survivors of trauma — and she includes herself in that description.

A few years ago, she moved from the North Shore of Massachusetts to the Berkshires after a painful divorce.

“I had what might be classified as a nervous breakdown. I would like to call it a nervous breakthrough, an unraveling,” Wolff said. “It wasn't the first time I had had an experience like that but it was the first time that all my traumatic childhood experiences really came back in a very full and difficult way.”

A flyer for a trauma-sensitive yoga class.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Wolff's parents had lost a child before she was born. As Wolff was growing up, she said, her grief-stricken mother drank heavily and mostly neglected her, while a relative physically and sexually tormented her.

“And so that set the stage for me just being a traumatized teenager,” she said. “I was promiscuous. I was using drugs and alcohol. I just really had very very low self-esteem and a lot of a lot of hatred towards myself.”

Wolff endured years of depression and anxiety — and a few suicidal relapses — before she ended up at the front of this light-filled room, leading postures. Although most yoga is meditative, this class has a special focus on people, like her, who might need extra emotional support — though not necessarily pity.

“Just because you have trauma doesn't mean that you need to sit in a chair with a drool cup,” she said.

"Every day I practice nurturing the parts of me that feel afraid, that think something's wrong, and fear that I'm going to lose my mind, and be shut away in a hospital."
Cate Wolff

A couple years ago, Wolff learned about "Trauma-Informed Berkshires" — a campaign launched by state and nonprofit leaders to infuse an understanding of trauma across the county. As a therapist, she'd volunteered with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, and she felt her approach to yoga fit the campaign perfectly.

“I've made it trauma-sensitive in that I always am asking people to check in with themselves,” she said. “Where are you right now? Invite your edge, but don't push yourself beyond what your body is capable of, and if something is not feeling right, take some time.”

Wolff tends to encourage some relaxation homework, too — to be alert after class for stressful experiences, to lie down and take five or ten minutes “to engage the relaxation response,” and to wait for the fight-or-flight response — so common to trauma survivors — to run its course.

“Each breath offers you an opportunity to let go,” she said softly to her class.

And when she gets home, Wolff tries to follow her own teachings.

“Every day I practice nurturing the parts of me that feel afraid, that think something's wrong, and fear that I'm going to lose my mind, and be shut away in a hospital,” she said.

Corey Martin, who’s 26, had been coming to yoga for about a month.

“I am currently in a sober home, and I noticed on the board that Cate offers a free yoga class,” he said.

Martin said he valued the trauma-sensitive approach.

“I’ve experienced childhood trauma and stuff like that, but I feel like the biggest trauma I’ve experienced is what I’ve put myself through, through substance abuse,” he said. “So I look forward to this every week. It's been helping me build my spiritual side, and I think that’s really important for me and my recovery.”

Wolff said she wishes she had something like this class — and the trauma-informed campaign — when she was growing up.

“I never had a person step into my house and say, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe what you've been through, this is so awful and hard, and I'm going to be here to help you,’” she said, before bidding farewell to each of her yoga students by name. “And that's what I do for other people.”

This story is part of a reporting series on how one community is addressing trauma. Find all the stories here.