Using Trauma-Informed Yoga to Help Kids Find Calmness and Balance

Trauma-informed yoga has been helping kids at our Webster Groves campus cope with stress. Now it’s expanding to campuses across the state!

Yoga calms the mind, helps center a person’s thoughts, and provides relaxing exercise. That’s why it’s a valuable part of our trauma-informed care toolbox at Great Circle. And now we’re expanding our yoga program for the children we serve statewide!

For more than a year, a volunteer instructor has been leading a yoga class once a week at Webster Grove’s Great Circle Academy, the campus’ K-12 school. But with the recent training of 14 staff members, we now are delivering trauma-informed yoga sessions regularly to the students and clients we work with on our campuses across the state,” says Matt McGaughey. He oversees Great Circle’s expressive arts program, which includes many types of visual, musical and physical activities, as well as yoga. The staff who’ve been trained include Great Circle teachers, therapists and those working in the campus’ residential cottages. That means yoga sessions can be taught separately and integrated into physical education classes, art therapy, classroom breaks, and other programs.

Yoga has the potential to help survivors of trauma feel safe and trust in their bodies. Dr. Stacey Pierce-Talsma, yoga teacher and associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in Vallejo, California, explains  the science behind this: “It (yoga) gets you out of your amygdala, the part of the brain where a lot of your fear response is located. Instead, you’re focusing on the here and now and using your pre-frontal cortex, so it’s like you’re moving away from the fear while being mindful.”

Understanding how the brain works is a key element of Great Circle’s approach to trauma-informed care. Staff receive special training to identify how trauma affects a child’s behavior and ability to learn, think and process information. Staff then uses multiple techniques and approaches, including yoga, to help the child develop coping skills to better manage their fears, anxieties and emotions. 

McGaughey says the yoga sessions help give kids a structure and stability that differs from the unpredictability many have experienced away from school. He says “students know they can come and do yoga every week in a peaceful environment.” It’s is a failure-free activity that allows the kids to create a foundation for good self-esteem.

For some students, paying attention throughout a yoga class, or even completing the full session, can be a challenge. But with encouragement, they are finding success. And that translates into other areas. “Once students see they can be successful in yoga class, they often can then transfer that newfound balance and confidence into other areas in their lives,” says McGaughey.

At Great Circle, it’s about encouraging that “transfer” of understanding to help define each person’s individual journey toward strong mental health. While traditional talk therapy may work for some, others can better express their feelings through nontraditional outlets, such as yoga.