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Trauma-Informed Yoga 'Guides Patients Back From Violent Experiences'

September 26, 2022

Long after experiencing sexual assault, domestic violence or other trauma, people can feel jittery and out of control, but trauma-informed yoga can help restore focus and emotional strength. With that healing in mind, Hartford HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Network began offering trauma-informed yoga to guide patients back from violent experiences, said Jessica Collins, director of behavioral health in central Connecticut. “We know it doesn’t have to be medication or talk therapy to help heal body and mind,” Collins said. In 2021, the system brought in Heather Labbe to run yoga outpatient sessions, adding classes on inpatient units at The Hospital of Central Connecticut and MidState Medical Center in April 2022. > Connect with the Behavioral Health Network

Mindful self-compassion

Labbe’s work with trauma-informed yoga began at the New Britain YWCA where sessions are part of the organization’s sexual assault services. She adapted popular methods to what she called “intuitive yoga” more focused on “mindful self-compassion.” “Everything about trauma-informed yoga is intentional – how the room is set up, what music is playing, how the instructor speaks to the class and interacts with the class,” she said. “You try not to trigger anyone. For example, you never touch anyone. This is their time and they can join if they want or just watch.” Seated in chairs, the group is led in 40 minutes of stretches and movement by Labbe, who helps them connect with their internal body messaging, called interoception. “That’s where the body gets its healing powers,” Labbe explained, adding the example of “hangry.” If you can identify what that feels like, you can address it so it is not an issue. I gently guide folks to feel interoceptive experiences – to notice the sensation and whether it’s mild or intense. It can be really empowering for people.” > Want more health news? Text StartHere to 85209 to sign up for text alerts

Making yoga accessible

Kim Hughey, Hartford HealthCare’s clinical manager of outpatient psychiatric services in New Britain, said she’s watched patients transform after a just few sessions of trauma-informed yoga. “Our intensive outpatient clients, who are acutely ill and recently left the hospital, come here for more support and coping skills. They love this,” Hughey said, noting that yoga is not typically accessible for many due to cost and transportation. “I don’t believe a lot of patients would try it independently, but Heather makes it so comfortable for them.” Patients learn to use the breathing skills Labbe teaches to cope when they’re struggling, added Jen Schmitt, a social worker on the psychiatric unit at The Hospital of Central Connecticut. “Trauma sits in the body. Yoga helps them get in touch with their feelings without having to talk about them,” Schmitt said. “This works with any type of trauma that manifests in the body.”

Take a deep breath

The breathwork itself, Labbe explained, helps participants “dismantle any barriers” in their body. “It’s based on how the nervous system connects to the act of breathing in and breathing out,” she said. “I suggest they notice their physical experience before breathing in six or seven times. After, I tell them to check in with themselves and notice how they are present and safe in their bodies. Yoga moves also help release stress, she said. “When we get triggered by stress, the system activates the fight or flight mechanism, and tension tightens us up,” Labbe said. “That’s why movement is so refreshing.”