How Trauma-Informed Yoga is Healing a Generation
September 2022

By Small World Yoga (Nashville, Tennessee location)

Miguel, age 10, rolls up his yoga mat after a 40-minute session of gentle yoga and meditation with his classmates after school. He recognizes that he feels calmer and less anxious about his performance on a math quiz he took earlier that day. “I can breathe easier,” he writes on a short survey he’s asked to complete before leaving. Miguel might not realize it, but he just participated in a specially designed trauma-informed yoga session, which helps children just like him deal with the everyday stressors of life. And the survey he just handed in was created to track his experience over time and assess the efficacy of yoga classes like the one at his school.

Miguel is just one of the roughly 86,000 children who attend Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. Youth in underserved segments of this community are afflicted by trauma linked to their exposure to abuse or neglect, domestic violence, community violence, racism, homelessness, poverty, and more issues, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic. These issues have an effect on student attendance, behavior, and academic performance, making it more difficult for them to achieve success. To help students cope with this systemic stress and trauma, Small World Yoga, a nonprofit organization in Nashville, offers trauma-informed yoga at no cost to schools and youth centers across the city. Our services provide a healthy outlet for learning coping mechanisms, tools, and skills that can be used on and off the yoga mat. As reported in a recent study, “It has been demonstrated that TIY (trauma-informed yoga) can improve sleep, increase concentration, decrease negative thinking, and regulate emotional arousal. Populations that might benefit from TIY include individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as veterans, sexual assault survivors, inmates, and youth, and individuals with depression, anxiety, and addictions and substance use disorders.”

In these trauma-informed yoga classes, Miguel and students like him learn how to slow down their breathing, become attuned to and identify their emotions, move their physical bodies in a safe space, and ultimately shift from a state of “high alert” to a state of groundedness, calm, and ease.

As part of our participation in the Replication Project by the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP), Small World Yoga began to formalize how we teach this trauma-informed yoga and how we assess its effectiveness over time. We conducted a pilot program of impact surveys at one of our youth-oriented outreach locations to assess mental and physical changes in students over several months. Specifically, we analyzed students’ abilities to make healthy lifestyle choices, reduce stress, and increase coping skills and mind-body awareness. These impact surveys were modeled after those conducted at Urban Lotus Project, our Replication Project partner and a nonprofit organization in Reno, Nevada, which provides free trauma-informed yoga to children, teens, and young adults.

The impact surveys ask students to self-report their experience of yoga and their mental, emotional, and physical states before and after class. The surveys are tailored to accommodate different age groups and their respective reading competencies. These survey responses are then measured against a rubric and quantified into numerical data to be tracked and compared over time. Urban Lotus Project, after studying their impact surveys over the course of several months, observed that their students increased healthy lifestyle choices, a reduction in stress, improved coping abilities, and more robust mind-body awareness. These positive changes were in part a result of these students’ regular participation in trauma-informed yoga. Small World Yoga hopes to observe a similar positive trend in students living in Nashville.

Moving forward, Small World Yoga will focus on standardizing how we deliver trauma-informed yoga to youth and how we track its long-term success. We will increase our impact survey pilot program to all youth-oriented outreach locations. Standardizing this process is critical in order to have clean data to compare over time. Training and funding are also necessary so that researchers can distribute the surveys, collect the data, and study the findings as systematically as possible. Impact surveys not only help provide a higher quality service to Nashville’s youth, but they also provide Small World Yoga with critical quantitative data to use when writing grant applications and talking with donors. These two revenue sources are vital to the success of our organization.

Ultimately, Small World Yoga is grateful for the wisdom and sisterhood gained from our work with Urban Lotus Project. Participating in this Replication Project has given us more formal processes and strategic business practices, allowing us to make data-driven decisions. We have also created a lasting relationship with an organization across the country that we might never have learned about had it not been for AMCHP and the Replication Project. And best of all, students like Miguel are learning how to lead a more mindful existence, growing up into what is hopefully a more empowered, confident, and compassionate generation of Americans.