Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Transforms Lives: An Interview With Hala Khouri
Hala Khouri explains how combining yoga’s ancient wisdom with a modern psychobiological understanding of trauma can help people heal.
Omega: How do you define trauma
Hala: Trauma is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond, and leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and out of control. Trauma is a continuum, and this general definition includes what we call “big T” traumas and “little t” traumas.
Big T traumas are the things we typically think are traumatic, like abuse, violence, a car accident, natural disasters, war, or witnessing violence. Trauma may also be divorce, immigration, and even other overwhelming things we don’t typically think about. A bit of t event might not seem traumatic from the surface but can overwhelm someone, especially a toddler.
I often joke that I’ve hair trauma because I grew up with really curly, frizzy hair in Miami, Florida. When you are 13, a bad hair day is overwhelming because for adolescents, social acceptance is an important a part of that developmental stage. Although I’d never compare that to someone who was abused, it’s an experience that shaped my identity and, at the time, was intolerable–it made me feel isolated and depressed. To an adult, a foul hair day may not be an enormous deal, but for an adolescent on the lookout for acceptance from her peers, it’s so much.
Omega: What makes yoga such a strong practice for working with trauma
Hala: The yogic practice of finding presence with our sensations is the key to learning to self-regulate, which is the goal of dealing with trauma. We define self-regulation as with the ability to be grounded, centered, and in present time. Our body is our GPS system, and with a view to let it guide us in the correct way, we need to be willing to feel it and not just attempt to manage it. We now have to have the ability to tolerate uncomfortable sensations and know that we can move through them.
Omega: How did you start working with trauma, and the way has it changed your teaching
Hala: I had been teaching yoga for a long time once i got a master’s short hair purple degree in counseling psychology. Right out of graduate school I did a training in a method called Somatic Experiencing®, which is a body-based therapy that addresses how trauma lives in the body, and it changed everything for me. The trauma framework gave me a language for why the yoga works. Before that I knew yoga worked, but I couldn’t explain why, aside from in esoteric terms.
Once i realized most of us have some type of trauma or stress, I wanted to verify I used to be teaching in a trauma-informed way. So whether I am working with somebody with PTSD, or somebody with regular anxiety, the language of connecting to sensation in a compassionate and safe way is important with a purpose to self-regulate. All my yoga became trauma-informed after training in Somatic Experiencing.
Omega: Are different trauma-informed approaches needed for various traumas, ages, or genders, or are there principles that may be applied across trauma-affected populations
Hala: I often say that what’s medicine to one person might be poison to a different. There shouldn’t be one strategy to deal with trauma symptoms. One person might become anxious and hypervigilant. That person is able to fight and can get stuck on “on.” After which there are individuals who get stuck on “off.” They tend to get depressed, dissociated, tired, or act spacey.
These two physiologies look really different–one one who has so much energy of their body they can not manage it, and one who’s not in their body, and is off floating on cloud nine. But beneath both of those physiologies is a nervous system that can’t handle all of the energy it has to manage. Some people look like they’re stuffed with energy, and a few people disassociate.
I liken it to electric wires in a building–if there’s a surge, either there’s a giant explosion or the surge protectors shut everything off. A trauma-informed approach does its best to incorporate these two very alternative ways people relate to their traumas.
Omega: Are you able to share a story that particularly moved you where you saw trauma-informed yoga change someone’s life
Hala: I gave a short talk once as a part of a prison program, and a year later I got a letter from someone who had been at that talk. He was a Vietnam vet who had been incarcerated for a few years and felt quite a lot of shame that his body trembled and he would rage and feel out of control. He had supposedly been in trauma therapy and was heavily medicated.
He told me that he never realized or understood that what he had was trauma. He connected his behavior to his childhood experience of his father taking him out in the woods where he would beat him if he didn’t kill animals. He started meditating and doing mindfulness practice after my talk, and a year later was off his meds. It is not like my session healed him, but it gave him a framework and opened him up to what he needed to do to heal.
There can be a story from when I used to be doing this work with a gaggle of gang interventionists. This was a bunch of former gang members who worked in their community, within the places of their original traumas. One man had been shot on a selected street corner, and whenever he would near that corner he would start to tremble and he couldn’t breathe. When i explained to him what was happening, he was so relieved. He said, “Oh my God, Hala, I assumed I was crazy.”
He wasn’t crazy. Trauma symptoms are an attempt of the body to self-regulate unsuccessfully. I might try to self-regulate by doing drugs or overeating because I’m afraid of the sensations. Or my body might attempt to self-regulate by shaking uncontrollably. Yoga can assist us be within the body with whatever is occurring so we can eventually move beyond it and never have to run away anymore.
Explore more in the category of Body, Mind & Spirit.
© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Inc. All rights reserved.
short hair purple