“The need to address trauma is everywhere,” says Andrea Tramper, LMSW, specialized therapist in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “While it is in our bodies and brains, it is invisible to most of the world. Unless you know the symptoms to be looking for, it’s not something you can see like a cut or bone fracture. Trauma is incredibly isolating.”
According to the National Trauma Institute, trauma is the leading cause of death for ages one to 46. “Anyone who has lived through a traumatic experience has lived through something that they didn't choose, that they didn't want, and that they now have to overcome,” says Amber Kilpatrick, founder of Mindful Vinyasa School of Yoga.
Yet, like many mental health conditions, it often remains difficult for people to talk about it. “People don’t always feel safe seeking treatment because they feel that they’re going to be stigmatized,” says Jessica Gladden, LMSW, Ph.D. “There is a lot of guilt within trauma-surviving communities that they should have done something differently or had done something wrong.”
Jessica Gladden does trauma therapy specific yoga classes.
One holistic approach that several West Michigan organizations now offer is trauma-sensitive yoga classes and one-on-one sessions. Since trauma can store itself through physical symptoms, incorporating holistic therapies into a psychotherapy treatment can aid in the body’s recovery. “While there is no ‘right way’ to address trauma, yoga, mindfulness, craniosacral therapy and many other holistic therapies can all be incredibly effective in not only treating trauma, but also other psychological and physiological ailments,” says Tramper.
Raechel Morrow works individually with people using yoga therapeutically.
Guided through an individualized practice, trauma-sensitive yoga aims to bring awareness to the present moment, creating a sense of safety in the body and reclaiming the connection between the mind and body.
“The hope is that the individual will be able to notice what’s happening in their bodies more often off the mat,” says Raechel Morrow, founder of Grand Rapids Healing Yoga and executive director of The Body Mind Being Project. “When that happens, they’re able to then take action and soothe those trauma symptoms.”
Before even knowing that trauma-sensitive yoga existed, trauma survivors Amy and Jennifer, whose real names were kept confidential, felt disconnected from their bodies for years. “I had such tremendous shame about my body and who I was. It was almost traumatizing to be touched in any way,” says Amy.
After working with a trauma-informed yoga therapist, though, Amy noticed a greater sense of trust and awareness in her body. “For the first time, I felt so safe and present in my body. That had never happened to me before,” Amy said. “I have a whole new appreciation for the body, how it works, and the healing power of touch.”
While trauma-sensitive yoga can benefit trauma survivors, diversity and inclusion still remains a prevalent issue in West Michigan. According to The Atlantic, about one in every 15 Americans practices yoga, but more than four-fifths of them are white.
“When I was in yoga classes, I didn’t have other people around me that were people of color and I never had a yoga instructor of color,” says Kayla Morgan, owner of Resilient Roots Yoga. “Yoga, in general, seems to be targeted to just middle class white women, and I’d like to change that. I saw a need for more people of color to be involved in yoga, and I wanted to make a safe space for people of color to try something new that isn’t really marketed to them.”
Leading a yoga class at the City Flats Ballroom, Embody GR hosts free community yoga, as do a number of other community organizations.
The lack of representation and historical racism surrounding mental health impacts one’s likelihood to seek treatment, according to Morgan. “There is a stigma in the black community around mental health. Until recently, most therapists were not people of color. It’s not really beneficial for a person of color to go talk to somebody that doesn’t represent their population and doesn’t have similar lived experiences,” says Morgan.
While training trauma-informed yoga instructors in the area, Morrow also saw a need in the Hispanic community. “Right now, in Grand Rapids, we don’t have any Hispanic Spanish-speaking teachers. There definitely are barriers here in West Michigan.”
Challenges also exist within genders. Based on a 2016 Yoga in America study, 72 percent of yoga practitioners are women, while only 28 percent are men. “We almost expect women to have some layer of trauma. For men, it can be a lot harder to admit that they have been through trauma. Sexual trauma is especially difficult for men to admit,” says Gladden.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about six out of 10 men and five out of 10 women experience at least one traumatic event in their life, and women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men.
Because it creates a greater sense of safety for students, most classes in the community are gender-specific. But there is a need for male teachers. “If we’re reclaiming bodies, it would be appropriate for a man to teach a men’s group and a woman to teach a women’s group,” says Morrow.
The division of wealth affects access to treatment as well. “There’s so many resources, courses, and classes, but they’re quite expensive and not accessible for everybody,” says Morrow. To fill these gaps in West Michigan, community partnerships with organizations such as Grand Rapids Healing Yoga, The Body Mind Being Project, Mindful Vinyasa School of Yoga, Resilient Roots Yoga, and Fountain Hill Center are in high demand.
“There are more people out there suffering than we think of it,” says Jennifer. “But the more we can get the word out that there are places in West Michigan that can help people move forward, the more people will have the courage to talk about what they’re dealing with.”
For those seeking treatment, organizations such as these offer community outreach programs in juvenile detention centers, schools, organizations, counseling offices, community classes, and private one-on-one sessions.
As trauma-sensitive yoga grows throughout West Michigan, treatment accessibility and mental health awareness can offer opportunities for all to heal. For Amy and Jennifer, it provided them with a feeling they never felt before — a feeling of empowerment. “We, as a society, tend to say that if you deal with trauma, you’re weak in some way. But that’s not the truth,” says Amy. “The truth is it takes tremendous courage to journey through that and let it deepen who you are as a person.”
Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio and courtesy Raechel Morrow.