What is Trauma Sensitive Yoga? An Interview with Esther van der Sande
by Sophia Hengelbrok
Esther van der Sande is the director of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Nederland, somatic psychotherapist, EMDR clinician and a qualified yoga (500+ hrs), mindfulness teacher and practitioner. She guides her clients through their challenges, enabling them to emerge from the other side feeling renewed, strong, and ready to face the world on their own terms once again. In other words, she helps people help themselves.
I was able to speak to Esther via Zoom, where we discussed Trauma-Sensitive yoga and her views on why this practice is so powerful - and so necessary. Her goal is to make people, organizations, the Netherlands and beyond Trauma-Informed. In Esther’s view, this is enormously important and needed in the world today.
My first question was whether you could give a short introduction to yourself and to trauma-sensitive yoga. Could you tell us about your background and how you came to find this practice?
My first meeting with trauma-sensitive yoga was actually with Bessel van der Kolk in Australia. He had written a book at the time, The Body Keeps the Score, and I went to one of his presentations and I just fell in love straight away with the idea: "Wow, can yoga really make a difference for people who are experiencing complex trauma?"And so I went to the United States and did my training there with David Emerson. At that time, I was already a somatic psychotherapist. When you work with people only with their mind, we can see change. But I needed the body to make the difference.
My passion is working with people with complex trauma, developmental trauma, meaning that the traumatic experience has already happened in life. When people go through a challenging childhood, where for example one of the parents is an alcoholic or depressed, for a young child to grow up in a situation like that, it can be challenging and overwhelming. The aftermath of those overwhelming experiences as adults is where my love is – you need your body for that.
Beautiful. I was hoping you could explain how trauma-sensitive yoga helps people work through the trauma they've experienced.
Such a beautiful question. When people experience a traumatic event, something happens in their body. Our nervous system responds to those chaotic experiences, if this happens when you are an adult and you have gone through all your developmental stages well enough, and you have a good support system, et cetera, you create a so-called secure attachment. As you go through the events, you can talk about it, you grieve about it, you get angry about perhaps, all the emotions are there, and then you might move on with life. You move your body. But when you are young and you don't have all those tools and there is no one to go to, e.g. no social support system, then that trauma can go inside your body. To survive that experience, many individuals detach from their own body. Please let me emphasize here that this is a voluntary process from the body.
When and if this happens over a long period of time, something changes on all levels of our being, not only in our brain but also in the body. When people go through life, sometimes they do well, and sometimes you see that people struggle. What we do in trauma-sensitive yoga is building all those agencies, as we call them, autonomy. We start to rebuild those agencies by doing yoga and by creating a safe place, a container where people can meet their body in the moment. We do that through movement, by offering choice-making and invitational language, and by being consistent. And so with trauma-sensitive yoga, we rebuild agencies, so that people can feel safe in their bodies and can find a relationship with themselves and with others. You give people their lives back. When you feel, you start to explore new choices. Thinking is done by your brain and feeling is the language of your body.
That connection is so important. I was wondering if you could describe what types of trauma this practice helps. You describe that it's complex and developmental, but if someone, for instance, might ask, “Do I have the type of trauma to be eligible for this practice?” How would you advise them?
The research is on Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) developmental trauma and complex trauma or complex PTSD. Though over the years, I have seen that so many people benefit from trauma center trauma-sensitive yoga (TCTSY). People who have anxiety or feel depressed or find it difficult to regulate themselves, you know, all those people have benefited from the yoga. I think for people who feel that they're disconnected from their body, it could be valuable.
My next question was why you separate the classes by gender, and building on that, how can women specifically benefit from trauma-sensitive yoga?
This is such a sensitive question. It's not so much that we want to separate gender because there's a lot to do about gender at the moment. We don't want to be gender-specific in that way. What we notice is that women who have experienced sexual intimidation found it safer to practice with female-identified people. TSY is a practice of meeting your body in the moment and we need a safe place for that. And for men that could be the same. They may find it difficult to have a yoga teacher who is female. So it is more from that perspective, creating a safe place where the yoga facilitator builds the space of safety where participants can explore and meet their body. My first philosophy is that TSY needs to be available for all gender identities and accessible and inclusive for all survivors of complex and developmental trauma. This is something we learn about and we are open to listening to all individuals.
Yes, it’s a simple question for a complex issue, but I think it might be interesting for people to hear.
Absolutely. In the foundational training we talk about intersectionality and about gender, it is a very sensitive topic and there’s a lot to learn and to listen for. Another important topic about this practice is that we discover and talk about power dynamics and we try to be mindful of them.
Well, my final question is: for people thinking about taking your foundational training or your courses, what would be important for them to know?
For people who would like to do the lessons as a participant, I think it’s important to know that there is no hands-on assisting, people don't need a yoga practice, and that you can come as you are. We use invitational language and invite you to learn to make choices with your body. So this is the yoga practice of meeting your body in the moment.
And for the people who want to do the foundational training, I think this training is needed for everyone, for every professional. And if you use it for yourself as a personal development training, it is an eye-opening training. It's life-changing, I think it really is. If I listen to the feedback of the people that have been in the online training last year, it has opened their minds, their hearts, and has shaken them up. It has triggered intense and life-changing experiences because you're going to look very differently at relationships and your practice.
Esther van der Sande will be leading an online Trauma Sensitive Yoga: Foundational Training with Delight Yoga, a 3-day Foundational Training for Yoga Teachers, Mental Health Professionals & Educators, starting April 17th, 2021.
“We're fascinated by the words--but where we meet is in the silence behind them.” - Ram Dass Born in Switzerland to a German mother and an American father, Sophia's childhood was spent in constant motion.