Excerpt: The Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids

Posted by – September 18, 2019
Categories: General Excerpt Fitness & Sports
Alignment and Sequencing Instructions

Sequencing of lessons implies that there is a goal for a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga session or series of sessions—a goal determined by the facilitator. In TCTSY, participants determine what the work is by checking in with their own bodies.

The shapes offered or practiced are irrelevant. The work is the same: to practice noticing body sensation and choice-making. If a facilitator is focused on training a group of children to develop upper-arm strength in order to prepare them for practicing a certain shape, the facilitator has a personal goal or expectation. No matter how well intentioned, the message is that there is a goal beyond connecting on an individual level with body sensation. When facilitators or caring adults approach a class with a sequence and a long-term goal, it is conveyed to participants.

Suddenly, kids become less engaged in their own experience, as they try to please the facilitator and help fulfill the facilitator’s mandate. Offering suggestions for proper alignment, or commenting on a child’s shape exploration, is another way facilitators may unintentionally take a child out of the moment. Traumatized kids may be used to sensing that they, and their bodies, are under scrutiny. They may come to class with high levels of self-consciousness or shame relating to their bodies or body functions.

For many of us learning to drop the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies so that we can enjoy the experience of having a body is a lifelong process. As soon as a facilitator corrects or comments, a child knows they are being watched. This complicates the task of learning to look inward and focus on sensation.

The shapes depicted on the cards are suggestions, not blueprints. Each mover comes to the practice with a different body shape and set of abilities. It’s not possible to recreate any shape exactly as it’s represented on a card. And it’s not important. From a trauma-sensitive perspective, the key to embodying a shape is to notice how it feels from the inside out.

Four Paths of Embodiment

Embodiment is the experience of sensing our bodies—understanding where we begin and another person ends. It is knowing that we are not just thoughts and feelings and responses. We each have a physical self that was designed to respond to the environment, to protect and nurture us. Becoming embodied is the process of coming home to our bodies and learning to find safety in them. Survivors of developmental trauma may be living inside bodies that don’t seem safe or trustworthy, and for these children, attending to visceral sensations, noticing their bodies, may provoke fear.

The Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Deck is based in a methodology that can help children with developmental trauma histories gently gain competency in four key areas: present-moment experience, creating rhythms, choice-making, and taking effective action. Engaging in any of these four areas can offer children an experience of embodiment in the present moment. Facilitators and children may gravitate toward different areas on different days. Moving through choices and shapes, focuses may shift from creating rhythms to present-moment experience and back again to choice-making. There is no hierarchy, and there is no order of operations. The invitation is for each mover to notice what they are interested in noticing, keeping in mind that we are not always able to notice. Movement can be calming and it can be agitating. Each area of focus suggests a different way to practice noticing embodiment.

Present-Moment Experience

Developmental trauma and the symptoms associated with it can make it very difficult to be present. Children who are used to chaos and neglect are focused on the environment and people in it. They are habitually scanning for signs of danger instead of focusing on their bodies and what they are feeling. When a trauma memory is triggered, a child can instantaneously feel terror. They are in the memory, body and mind, not the present moment. If a child’s sense of their body, or interoception, is dysregulated in this way, they learn that sensation is not trustworthy. The practice of gently noticing visceral sensation as it arises can help children with developmental trauma histories learn to connect body sensation with the present moment.

Each shape in the Deck is an opportunity for children and their adults to practice being where their feet are planted, by noticing what they are feeling in their bodies. The invitation is for facilitators to share their own experience of sensation as they move and choose. We may not know what is feelable in any given shape if we’re not used to tracking sensation. When a facilitator shares a sensation they notice in their own body, they are helping children hone their noticing skills. They may notice that they feel something different or something similar. The invitation is simply to notice.

Mindfulness of body sensation is the practice of coming back to our bodies when our minds wander. Right now is the only time we can feel our stomach rumbling or our head aching. The present moment is the only time we can feel our heart beating or our lungs burning. If we can sense into the stretch of a muscle as we move our arm over our heads, we are present. When our physical and neurophysiological realities are in sync, we are where our feet are planted.

Creating Rhythms

Developmental trauma can separate a child from their own internal rhythms and leave them feeling as though they are not in sync with the people or the world around them. Creating rhythms is about rediscovering interpersonal and intrapersonal rhythms. It is about relating to another human being and reconnecting with a personal sense of time. It’s also about beginnings and endings. When a child is abused or neglected by a primary caregiver, their ability to believe in or form healthy relationships is damaged. Caring adults can provide a bridge between what the child has experienced and what is possible.

By showing up consistently in a manner that is trustworthy, forthright, and transparent, a caring adult can become a model for healthy interpersonal relating. The shapes in the Deck are opportunities to practice relating through movement. A child may choose to try a movement or a shape on their own. They may choose to engage the facilitator with words, or move in tandem with them silently. The caring adult becomes a secure home base—a constant the child can return to and regroup after going out to explore on their own.

Any shape can be practiced with motion or in stillness. Participants may even choose to match their breath to their movements. Each card is an opportunity to have an embodied experience of the beginning of a shape and the end of a shape. For a child whose internal rhythms are dominated by hypervigilance, dissociation or intrusions, creating beginnings and endings can spark an experience embodied control. By taking charge of their noticing and their pacing, traumatized kids can begin to reconnect to the world around them by learning to move with others and create new rhythms with their bodies.


Trauma is an experience of profound lack of choice. In developmental trauma this lack becomes chronic. Survivors may not know how to make choices. They may not believe that they have choices. The Deck offers a universe of opportunities for survivors to practice choice-making by choosing how they would like to move. In any given shape, children are invited to choose for themselves how much or how little to attempt. Facilitators are on hand to offer choices to participants and to practice alongside them. A facilitator may select a group of shapes and then offer choices for movement within each shape. A caring adult may invite kids to choose the shapes and then facilitate for choice within each. When a child arranges cards in order or chooses the shapes from the Deck they’d like to try, the child is practicing choice-making.

When children are free to make choices about how they would like to move, some will discover choices the facilitator never considered. Some children will follow along with the facilitator. Other children will add a shape that they noticed they’d like to try in the moment. These are examples of kids exercising sovereignty over their bodies. For children with a history of developmental trauma, having choices about how to use their bodies and making those choices may seem like a trick or a test. When
facilitators refrain from correcting or judging or commenting on what participants are doing in a shape, they are demonstrating that they mean what they say. That there is no test. Facilitators are encouraged to focus on making their own choices as they move. By engaging authentically in their own practice, caring adults are modeling choice-making and empowering children to take a risk and choose, perhaps for the first time, what is right for their bodies in the moment.

Taking Effective Action

Trauma can teach our bodies to shut down to sensation. It can also hijack our nervous system, flooding us with sensation. Strengthening our interoceptive selves means becoming familiar, maybe even friendly, with sensations in our bodies. When a child chooses a shape and tries making that shape with their body, they may notice how a particular sensation begins and ends. To take effective action is to change the quality of a body sensation by noticing and then adjusting. For example, in a forward bend, a child may feel a sensation in the back of their knee. They may decide they want less of this particular sensation. They may decide to ease out of the bend until they find a place where they feel comfortable with the way their knees feel.

They have just taken effective action. Taking effective action begins with noticing. Sometimes we don’t notice sensation. No matter what we are sensing, we can decide whether we want more or less, and then take action. When we take action around sensation that we’re noticing in our bodies, we are learning to understand beginnings and endings at body level. Sensation has a start and a finish; it’s not forever. What’s more, we have gained a visceral experience of our own power to effect change. We have learned that we can change how our bodies feel.

Facilitating for Empowerment

When preparing to facilitate TCTSY, we encourage caring adults to allow the four paths to embodiment to guide them as they share the cards. A willingness to be present and flexible around whatever arises helps to create an environment that is safe for exploration. The safe relationship that facilitators create is a container of love and presence that allows kids to try out a skill that can be scary to practice: noticing their bodies.

As children explore their chosen shape, there might be wiggling and mind-changing. Moments of stillness followed by silliness. As a facilitator, you will have opportunities to practice allowing all of this. Very young children may say “Ouch!” in a forward bend because they are not used to noticing sensation. Here, facilitators could share what they sense and let the children know that sometimes we feel things in our bodies when we use our muscles. Older children may be interested in sharing what they notice in their bodies, perhaps pointing out that it’s different than what the facilitator noticed. This is an opportunity to affirm that two people might have different body experiences of the same shape.

Since the shapes and the explorations are not intended to moderate or suppress or cure behavior, there are no benchmarks to reach. There is no particular outcome to achieve. This is a chance for caring adults to release their expectations. The invitation is to practice being together with young people in the moment, and perhaps get curious about what is moving through you as you each discover your own personal versions of a shape.

About the Author

Bevin is the publicity and marketing manager at North Atlantic Books.