Insight Mind Body Talk: Trauma-informed Yoga On (and Off!) the Mat with Nikki Cook

Mind Body Talk is a body-based mental health podcast. Whether you’ve tried everything to feel better and something is still missing or you’ve already discovered the wisdom of the body. This podcast will encourage and support you in healing old wounds, strengthening relationships, and developing your inner potential- all by accessing the mind body connection. 

Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.  

Today we’re talking about trauma informed yoga, aerial yoga, and how the two fit together. 

We’re speaking as white, cis-gender, non-disabled people who are afforded certain privileges. We want to recognize those privileges and continue striving to make our offerings, Insight Mind Body Talk, and our clinic, inclusive and affirming. We also want to acknowledge those who have passed down yogic wisdom through thousands of years of tradition, originating in India.  

Our guest today is Nikki Cook. Nikki is a Certified Yoga Therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She holds a master’s degree in Education Counseling and additional certifications in trauma informed yoga. Nikki believes yoga truly is a practice for every body. She specializes in yoga for eating disorders, addiction, and trauma. In Nikki’s classes, you’ll find a welcoming, supportive community. She wholeheartedly believes that yoga can be a powerful and effective component of the healing and recovery process and is committed to finding ways to make the transformational tools of yoga available to every body. Nikki also provides individual yoga therapy through Insight Counseling and Wellness in Madison, Wisconsin, and virtually all over the world.  

Nikki, would you have thought three years ago that our wonderful, trauma informed, yoga tools would translate into the virtual world?  

I don’t think so. I would’ve said you need to be in person. We talk a lot about co-regulation and typically think of that as being physically in the same space with somebody. One of the things that has come out of the pandemic, has been an effective way to work with people within the body and have co-regulation but through the virtual world.  

We’ve talked before about trauma and PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and about post-traumatic growth; how we can grow through adverse experiences. If we reframe the pandemic, we have learned that we can still connect, even through a screen.  

What does trauma informed yoga mean to you?  

Trauma informed yoga is really people informed yoga. The ways that we teach, and the environment are very important, but knowing about individuals, their experiences, and how trauma and chronic stress affects the nervous system is also hugely important.  

Relative to a non-trauma informed class, will people notice a difference with a trauma informed instructor?  

I think so. I’ve worked with people who hadn’t experienced a trauma-informed yoga class and did not have the best experiences. When they find us, they notice a huge difference.  

One thing that’s important is the environment. For a floor practice, we think about how we configure the yoga mats in the room. Is there enough space in between them? Sometimes we’ll have people in a circle so everybody can see each other. We think about lighting. We don’t want anything that’s too bright or too dim.  

We want the instructor or facilitator to try to stay in one space and not walk around. It can be very disconcerting and unnerving to have somebody walking around and feel like you need to be aware of where they are relative to your space. If they do move, they speak to it and why they’re doing it. Another thing that is very different is that we do not do any hands-on assists. We allow people to have their own internal experience without us moving into their space.  

Then there’s the way that we offer our yoga poses or shapes. It is an offering, an invitation. We give different options to empower people to explore and to make choices that feel best for them. That is something that is missing in a lot of more mainstream yoga offerings. There’s typically one way to do the pose and there aren’t any options provided. Which sometimes leaves people feeling that they’re doing it wrong which is very disempowering.  

When I first started teaching yoga, the images we saw, and still sometimes see on Instagram, were nearly impossible, pretzel like postures; people in very small bodies doing contortionist type things. If that’s what somebody wants to do and it’s all about fitness, wonderful, whatever works for you.  

In trauma informed yoga, we’re talking about trauma, which is any event that overwhelms the system. If you’ve been a listener of the Insight Mind Body Talk podcast, you know that talk therapy isn’t always the go-to when it comes to recovering from trauma. 

We talk about capital ‘T’ traumas, like surviving a car accident or a war zone. We also talk about small ‘t’ trauma, like being in an abusive relationship or chronically not being seen, heard, or held in our relationships, poverty, systemic oppression, all of these things can wire our system in a way that leaves us always seeking safety, even if we’re not conscious of it.  

Our yoga is always through the lens that people are wounded walking into class, whether or not they think they are or are aware of it. We hold that as very sacred. We’re trying to help empower people. Yoga is a union of mind and body. We want to look at the poses, the breath work, everything, through the lens of people being here to heal; looking for safety. 

Research shows that 70% of adults have experienced some sort of trauma. From that point of view, as an instructor, you know that you’re going to have people who have experienced some level of trauma. It’s good to keep that at the forefront of your mind when teaching.  

With the pandemic, we’re recognizing that we’re living through something collectively. You and I, and trauma informed yoga teachers are equipped to help people heal on their own, in their own space too, which has been a nice thing about the virtual world that we’re living through. 

For some people, doing yoga from their home adds a sense of safety and is so important. It has really helped to open the door to using the mind body connection to help regulate their nervous system. That’s another part of what you may experience in a trauma informed yoga session is knowledge of how we use particular poses and breathing techniques to help regulate our nervous system, bring a sense of ease that brings us back into our window of tolerance. 

I use a lot of the work of David Emerson who wrote a book about trauma informed yoga and has done a lot of work in the clinical setting in Massachusetts.  

The Trauma Center, Trauma Sensitive Yoga is very well known. David Emerson talks about what makes a class trauma informed? I like to think of trauma informed as very informed, we’ve done a lot of deep studies, we have a lot of experience, not just being sensitive to people. We’re really targeting our interventions, as yoga teachers, to help people heal their trauma.  

David Emerson also talks about the use of language being so important in a trauma informed class. We’re always inviting people to do things. We’re never commanding. It’s much more empowering. The person has the choice. Often, in trauma, choice is removed. 

We want to give people practice making choices that are best for them. Want to have a language of inquiry. We want people to start to see what’s happening in their bodies. We’re not telling them what they’re feeling. That may be a first.  

Often, people say to me, what am I supposed to be feeling? You tell me.  

It’s something that people aren’t used to. A lot of times we go to a yoga class and in a pose, we hear, you’ll probably feel this here, which for many people may be true, but if you’re somebody who’s not noticing it there, then again, I must be doing something wrong. 

For many of us, practicing yoga is where we have the space to ask, what am I noticing? What am I feeling? It is a way to notice and make choices about what feels good, what’s helpful.  

There’s something called interoception. It’s an awareness of what’s happening in our bodies. Often in trauma we’re disconnected, and that’s because of the way that our bodies have adapted and are wired now. We have to slowly start to reintroduce this function of being able to know what’s happening in our bodies. That’s why we often leave a lot of space and open-ended questions in trauma informed yoga. To improve the communication between mind and body, or even just start the conversation.  

Another domain of trauma informed yoga, assists. If we’re in person, we’re not laying hands on people. There may be times where comfort assists are offered, but if you’re in a trauma informed class, know that we’re not going to sneak up on you in Shavasana and rub your feet. For some people that’s their favorite part of class. To feel like that means you already were in a place where you felt safe and secure. We cannot assume that everybody feels that way. 

We don’t want to do anything that takes power away from the individual or the individuals around that person. When you touch one person in class, you’re not just affecting that person. People around you are seeing that too. We err on the side of safety. It’s a different way to empower people. 

The most important quality of a trauma informed instructor is that you are regulated. You’re open and always conveying safety. You have a soothing voice. You’re dressed appropriately. Making sure that there’s nothing that is going to trigger anybody. Presenting as your authentic self, consistent, just being there as a safe figure for people. It’s not about you. I’m not going to show you all the poses I can do. I’m going to show you what’s best for you today. Model to the most basic level.  

There’s no magic prescription for trauma healing. We want people to be in their bodies. Sometimes there’s a little discomfort. We might want to hold that for a bit, because it helps our systems learn that we can tolerate distress. Often when we’re having a traumatic response, we think it’s going to be permanent, but we can train our bodies that this will end. We learn where we drift into pain and increase that sense of awareness within our bodies so that when we register it, we take corrective action to be in a place of more comfort.  

What we do in our therapeutic yoga practice is intended to help us use those skills out in the world. Things are going to be different and that’s okay. We identify things that work some that don’t work, and that’s okay. It’s okay to leave what doesn’t work for you and keep the rest.  

What is aerial yoga? 

Aerial yoga uses an aerial silk, aerial hammock or yoga hammock, suspended from the ceiling. It’s very strong, it will hold you I promise. It is an opportunity to practice the postures we would normally practice on the floor, but in the air. We can think of the aerial hammock as a prop like the blocks, bolsters, blankets, and sandbags we use. 

Many people find it makes yoga poses more accessible because you’re not having to hold up your weight. You’re not compressing the joints as much. Generally, once people try it, they really like it. Think of aerial dancing or Cirque du Soleil. It’s very much like that, except more yoga focused. That’s the apparatus that is used.  

Aerial yoga borrows from aerial arts, however, the yoga teacher who really made it kind of mainstream is B.K.S Iygengar. He used suspension on the wall. In those practices you see supports being used for inversions and to hold the body in a way that allows us to get into a posture.  

What about trauma informed aerial?  

Somebody that teaches trauma informed aerial needs to have been trained in trauma informed, trauma sensitive yoga. The environment, the options, the offering, creating the safe container are all in the forefront of the mind when we’re talking about a trauma-informed aerial yoga practice. That is different than many of the aerial practices that are more focused on fitness. We’ll teach things in a different way than in your traditional aerial class. 

Trauma informed and therapeutic aerial yoga focuses on how we can use our practice to bring physical and emotional benefits. How can we use this to provide some relief from symptoms associated with chronic stress, trauma, feeling anxious or unregulated, not feeling safe, disassociated or low mood, low energy.  

We talk about our yoga spaces being the safe container. The great thing about aerial yoga is that you have your own little safe container within the group. It provides a little sense of my own little space, your own little cocoon. Some people find that they’re able to release anxiety they may have around what everybody else is doing or looking like. A lot of that is just automatically taken out in aerial yoga practice.  

One of the things that I took away from aerial classes is the opportunity to play and feel joy and feel like a kid. Hanging upside down in the hammock was so joyful and I didn’t have to put any pressure on my head, shoulders, or arms. It felt free and fun.  

The other thing that I really took away was the relaxation at the end. Being in the hammock is very womb-like. It’s very protected. It’s rhythmic. You can sway yourself. It’s so relaxing. 

One of the components to trauma informed yoga is creating rhythm. We’re very soothed by the beat of the heart. Sitting or lying down in the silk, with a gentle sway, is very soothing to our nervous system. 

Much like a mat yoga class, aerial yoga will start with some centering, some grounding and then start to build with movement and followed by relaxation, or Shavasana, at that end. In an aerial class, we start seated, somewhat enclosed within the silk.  

One thing that you might find a little bit different in an aerial class is the instructor may be moving around. We check in. Are you comfortable with your movement? Would you like me to slow you down a little bit?  There is control even when you feel you may not have any. If somebody doesn’t want to be completely enclosed, there are options to have your head, feet,  or hands out and still be supported within the silk. 

I think there is a fear factor. People are not used to being off the ground. We talk so much in our yoga practices about getting grounded and here, we’re taking you off the ground. Really good for distress tolerance. A trauma informed yoga teacher will have a strong understanding and awareness of what aerial does to our bodies and our nervous systems and will find ways to ease into things. Most people will start with a beginner’s and are given very specific instructions and support along the way. 

There’s always the option to take a different pose, sit something out or to take a break if it’s not working for you. Maybe you just want to swing in the silk the whole class. That’s fine. That’s the way we’ve always presented our environment at Insight. If being in this room is therapeutic for you, wonderful. If it’s not, why don’t you go hang out on the couches out in the waiting room, get yourself some water, take care of yourself. We’re very much inviting people to be in charge of their own experience.  

Insight is opening an aerial studio here on Madison’s east side, in Spring 2022. I’m excited about having in-person aerial places to practice. There’ll be a lot of orientation getting comfortable with the hammock, giving people that opportunity to try it to see if it’s something that is going to work for you. Most people find that working through the fear factor, uncertainty, or anxiety, helps them ease into their practice. Aerial yoga also really helps us develop focus and concentration because there are certain ways we do things and not a lot of opportunity for the mind to wander. 

When I took a couple of classes, I got really sore because I was working muscles that I wasn’t used to working. There’s some upper body and you have the opportunity to really deepen into some hip openers. Lots of core engagement. There are also a lot of people who experience back pain that find this to be a great practice because it allows the spine to decompress and lengthen in a gentle and supportive way. The chronic stress and tension that many of us hold, whether it’s from what we’re physically doing or our emotional internal environment, naturally starts to dissipate.  

We have a couple of therapists on staff who work with sensory processing issues. Weighted blankets, sensory swings and hammocks have been really beneficial. We often think of kiddos, folks on the spectrum, or people with sensory processing issues, but the hammock can be a really natural way for everyone to integrate the senses. It’s a different sensation on the skin. It helps with our vestibular senses, the sense of balance and also with proprioception, which is our brain knowing where our limbs are in space. 

Using hammocks can help us integrate all of our senses in a supportive and soothing environment. Our studio has nice lighting, lovely music on and builds community. Aerial is fun too. We bring in play, which is something that a lot of people miss out on. I often find people in aerial yoga classes being very kind and supportive which is a nice way to create community and support. The pandemic has been hard. I really need that connection. I really need to just be in a room full of people having fun and being held and supported. All of that happens in a trauma informed aerial class.  

I’m really happy that we’re going to be able to offer this at Insight. We’ll put some pictures up of what this looks like. We want you to feel comfortable and know you can ask us questions.  

Any final thoughts, Nikki?  

I just want to encourage people to give it a try, because I think they’re really going to like it. These will be small classes, 8-9 people, with lots of one-on-one attention. We’re going to be there and supportive. Safety is always at our forefront, your physical safety and your emotional safety as well. 

If you want to stop by and look at it, sit in it, ask questions, just let us know.  

Thanks so much, Nikki.