Yin yoga for race based trauma

PTSD and yoga: how restorative yin yoga can help to heal race-based trauma

Posted by for Wellbeing

Yoga has so many benefits, but one we never really talk about is its potential to help people process trauma. Writer Sophia Akram explores how restorative yin can impact recovery from race-based PTSD. 

Stress is bad for our health. With pressures of work, worries about money, health concerns and the toll of the pandemic, however, it’s a feature of most people’s lives. And while it is a universal experience, the mental health of people of colour is further affected by racism in all its forms – micro, macro, intergenerational – often causing mental health impacts that go on unaddressed. 

That’s why restorative yoga teachers are advocating the practice to help alleviate race-based stress and trauma. They say that restorative yoga like yin lets people tap into renewed energy reserves to reflect on the harm caused by racism and gives them the tools to respond.

Restorative yoga is a restful and supported form of the practice. The practice places major emphasis on using props like blankets, bolsters, blocks, chairs and neck rolls to support the body in yoga poses instead of muscle strength.

Many of the poses may seem familiar to other yoga positions, but as gentler versions. They can be held longer, which allows you to work further into the tissues and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to restore homeostasis – the body’s self-regulatory system essential for survival. The rationale goes that when body, mind and emotions are in equilibrium, stress levels and tension decrease. Diaphragmatic breathing with long exhales, which reduces heart rate and lowers blood pressure, is another key principle of yin.

Racism is causing more people of colour to experience PTSD

As a soothing and healing exercise, restorative yoga has been popular among people recovering from serious illness and other forms of trauma. There is now increasing take-up of it in marginalised communities to increase resilience, which can help people overcome stressful experiences, including encounters due to their race and ethnicity.

These experiences could include microaggressions, profiling or being worried about how one might be perceived in a certain space. Data from a recent survey by CIPD suggests around a fifth of employees from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background believe that discrimination in the UK workplace is holding them back from career progression, while race-related hate crimes reached a new high last year in England and Wales.

In the US, research published by the American Psychological Association indicates certain ethnic and racial groups experience higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than white Americans. In the UK, less is known about the scale or shape of the link between mental health and racial discrimination.

As race-based stress and trauma is thought to be ongoing and cumulative, however, Black and other people of colour get used to adapting to stress rather than releasing it, says Dr Gail Parker, a US-based clinical psychotherapist and certified yoga therapist who wrote the book Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma.

Stress can feel safe; yin is about being vulnerable

Relaxing does not necessarily feel safe to people who are chronically stressed, she says. Rather, what tends to feel safe is to be on high alert, looking around for the next insult or assault to occur because it’s such a normal part of their world.

“There are lots of forms of trauma,” she tells Stylist. “Sexual abuse traumatises people. Domestic violence traumatises people. Racial injustice and discrimination and violence traumatises people, and that’s the one aspect of trauma that is typically ignored.”

Lana Homeri is a London-based restorative yoga teacher who leads sessions through the Healing Justice London network – which is part of a global movement that seeks holistic responses to and interventions on generational trauma and violence. Homeri’s sessions are accompanied by the dictum: “The survivability of marginalised groups is resistance,” acknowledging that the session’s participants likely face bias and inequity in their lives.

Introspection through relaxation

Homeri says she started restorative yoga not necessarily connecting the dots between her own race-based stress – a cumulative result of experiencing microaggressions as a child with a Kurdish background, growing up in the 1980s and 90s. 

“[I] took that experience on somatically, internalising it so I felt very unsafe, and that translates into your actual tissues. I began to feel a lack of any sense of belonging,” she explains.

She also credits restorative yoga with supporting her when she worked as an immigration lawyer, assisting refugees, including at the height of the 2015/2016 crisis.

“Restorative yoga enabled me to create spaciousness within my body and then start to downshift my nervous system so that I could start to do the kind of deep self-inquiry work and embodied awareness. What I found, personally, were patterns of holding – tightness and tension that we hold in our bodies. Sometimes, the practice illuminates things for us that we didn’t necessarily know were there,” she says.

Homeri explains that experiencing certain tropes as a child would make her feel like she was the problem but the internal sense of safety from restorative yoga has helped facilitate her being responsive rather than reactive to certain situations.

Yin and restorative yoga can be radical

Psychologists refer to it as “fight or flight” – the physiological reaction to stressful situations that determines whether we stand our ground or flee – controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.

For Homeri, tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system means feeling more equipped to use her voice rather than retreating.

People don’t necessarily come to yoga to alleviate race-based stress, however, and Homeri doesn’t ask people to focus on that in group exercises, which currently take place by Zoom.

Ayesha Butt* started practising restorative yoga to help reduce her baseline stress levels after a particularly anxious time in her life. Now she thinks there is something very radical and different about this form of yoga, which centres on self-care and relaxation.

“When you contrast it with fitness yoga, which is inflected with fatphobia, wellbeing propaganda, consumerism (status products like Lululemon), and orientalism through its domination by white women, the difference is so stark that I wouldn’t even recognise them to be the ‘same’,” says Butt.

How to alleviate race-based stress and trauma through yoga

To alleviate race-based stress and trauma, it’s also not necessary to bring that intention to restorative yoga practice. However, self-study, a tenet of yoga more generally, could help unfold and unpack some of these experiences.

“We each have to know our own relationship to our own race and ethnicity first and make peace with it and be clear about it,” says Dr Parker.

That introspection can also apply to white members of the yoga community wanting to be better allies or anyone wishing to reflect on how they have unknowingly inflicted harm on others through a racial lens.

“When we can tap into that part of us that operates from a place of peace and calm instead of from anxiety and defensiveness, I wonder how that changes the world?” reflects Dr Parker.

Challenging racism through self-care

Homeri suggests reading texts to understand the impact of race-based stress, citing Dr Parker’s book as one possible source. She also says it is important to find an environment you feel safe in and choosing an instructor well-versed on issues experienced by marginalised groups, noting that yoga teachers themselves could be triggering.

While restorative yoga is beneficial for everyone in different aspects of their lives, not just race-based stress and trauma, Dr Parker notes she felt the need to give voice to the issue as it was not being discussed. Although, now, the conversation is being increasingly had, particularly since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by former police officer Derek Chauvin. The death of the 46-year-old in Minneapolis not only opened people’s eyes up to police brutality in America but it illuminated the impact of systemic racism across the world.

“Beyond conversation, I don’t know what will really change,” reconciles Dr Parker, “which is why I say as individuals, let’s each do our own work and find groups of people with whom we can do the work and feel safe.”

3 restorative yoga moves to try

1. Child’s pose

  1. To come into child’s pose, start on hands and knees
  2. Push your hips toward your heels with knees slightly wider than hip-width apart. 
  3. With each exhale, rest your torso between your thighs and forehead onto the mat.

Lana Homeri: “This is a great pose for any grief and trauma, sadness and sorrow because there is a kind of visceral feeling of just releasing to the earth because you’re right on the ground there”.

2. Legs up the wall/waterfall

  1. Lie on your back
  2. Swing your legs up against a wall
  3. Your hips can stay slightly next to the wall or slightly away with your arms in any comfortable position.

Ayesha Butt: “[It] feels very simple but it’s energising.”

3. Supported savasana

Savasana is the pose of lying flat on your back, which you can support by placing a rolled blanket or bolster under the knees and/or a soft pillow or rolled up blanket under the cervical spine.

  1. Lie on your mat
  2. Grab a rolled blanket, cushions or bolster and place under the knee caps or lower back
  3. Cover your body with a blanket or two

Dr Parker: “If that’s all you did, you would be doing a lot. If you use the supports… and paid attention to your breathing for 20 minutes, you would be doing yourself the greatest favour of all.”

For more fitness deep-dives, first-person stories and workout tips, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: Getty

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