Holding Space for the Survivor: Trauma-Informed Yoga

Holding Space for the Survivor: Trauma-Informed Yoga

by Jim Catapano

Bringing Trauma-Informed Yoga to Harlem and beyond

Tara Tonini, a survivor of intimate abuse, now dedicates her time to helping others find their way back from PTSD. She holds space for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse and harassment at a special class at Harlem Yoga Studio, every Sunday.

“From my understanding it’s the only weekly Trauma-Informed class that’s open to the public,” says Tara. “I also teach once a week through a private rental space, but those students go through a vetting process where they are working with a therapist or a clinician of some sort.” Harlem Yoga Studio, Tara says, is very community action-oriented, and their intention was to create an accessible practice for people of all backgrounds and experiences.

The class at first glance appears to be a standard slow flow, but the full experience of it reveals a space where students can be themselves and are always reminded that they have a choice. Students are “invited” to do each pose, and Tara eschews the authority of the teacher in favor of the autonomy of the student.

“There are so many elements that go into being trauma-informed,” she says. “Everyone has a different idea of safety, based on their cultural backgrounds and the things they’ve experienced in their lives. We do our best to create a container where people might be able to experience a sense of safety, but we never tell our students that ‘you’re safe here,’ because we don’t know, we can’t promise that.”

Tara suggests that the experience is more about the student finding the strength within themselves. “I admire trauma therapist Lisa Danylchuk deeply because she works with nourishing the resiliency. As a trauma survivor myself, it was great to use the language, and identify with it, but there came a time when I was relying too much on being a trauma survivor for my identity. So I do my best to incorporate the resiliency aspect too, so people have the opportunity to realize that life does have the possibility to be different, and to honor their courage in taking their first steps, whether it be their first yoga class, or seeking any kind of help and support, whether it be physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually.”

Tara Tonini leads Trauma-Informed Yoga classes every week in Harlem. | Image via taratonini.com
Tara Tonini leads Trauma-Informed Yoga classes every week in Harlem. | Image via taratonini.com

In addition to her weekly class at Harlem Yoga, Tara is Program Director at Exhale to Inhale, which provides Trauma-Informed Yoga to domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers. She also facilitates four- to six-week workshops through her own organization, Bloom Healing Yoga.

“We specialize in self-identified females who have experienced domestic violence and/or sexual assault. It’s a small, closed group, we take no more than eight students at a time. We really try and cultivate community.”

Tara explains that this goes a long way towards establishing that sense of safety.

“We start to build healthy boundaries and bonds; most who have gone through the Bloom program have shared with me that they hadn’t had community before, and how nourishing it is to be in a room with someone who understood. Or even if they didn’t fully understand, they were actively listening, holding space for all the waves of experience. The good, the bad, and everything in between. It’s all valid to feel.”

No one is required to tell their story; rather it’s about breathing, accessible yoga, shared experience, and living in the present.

“What we’re doing is not only contributing to a healthy relationship with the mind/body integration, but also an emotional intelligence, which trauma often takes away from us. We can identify the thoughts, feelings and sensations in a way that we feel empowered to articulate.

We explore the yoga practice in terms of how it can be an embodiment, and when it is, how it can then become a resource for those challenging times. I invite people to do different breath techniques, and mindfulness techniques, so they have those tools in their kit when things come up in everyday life. When someone’s triggered on the train, or maybe home alone at night and don’t necessarily have the ability to pick up the phone and call someone. It’s really about self-regulation.”

In one of Tara’s YouTube talks, she discusses the depression and anxiety that comes with trauma. She urges those who experience it to never say, “I have depression,” but to instead assert, “I have been visited by depression.”

“A teacher said that to me and it was profound,” she says, noting that our words shape us. “I think that it allowed me and my ego to not be labeled by it, not be defeated by it.That grittiness and all the challenging times do lend themselves to the resiliency that then becomes the post-traumatic growth. And how beautiful is that.”

Tara realizes that beginning a yoga practice can be challenging, particularly for someone in recovery from PTSD.

“When it comes to starting yoga, I’d say keep trying, because there are so many styles and so many types of people. Often we need different things in different situations. When I was in a really challenging time and dealing with PTSD, I needed the vinyasa practice, because I needed to burn the energy. And there was a distinct time when that wasn’t useful to me, and that’s when I moved into different styles, different modalities.”

In all her classes, Tara starts by putting her students at ease, again maintaining that sense of personal choice and control.

“We talk a lot about what the class is like before we even start moving,” she says. ““I think that choice-making is so important in this type of yoga. I try to remind students that they have a choice. So if it’s a person who’s not sure they want to stay, they can perhaps set up by the door. In the yoga world, and particularly at Harlem Yoga, we do our best to communicate with our students, and give them the support they may be in need of or are asking for.”

New students can even get in touch before making the decision to sign up. “If folks are interested in this kind of practice, they’re always welcome to email. I often jump on calls with therapists or their clients who get referred to the class, because I think that it is useful to understand what is going to go on in class, what it will look like. And move us out of the imagination, the fear and wondering.”

In other words, living in the moment. “My mind gets the best of me, too! I love to live in the future. What’s after the commercial?” she laughs.

And that’s where Asana can work wonders.

“I think that yoga is about the practice. The yoga practice is the exploration of the mind and body, and when it’s possible we try to do it without blame, shame or guilt. It’s not always possible but that’s definitely the intention. And through that exploration of the mind, the body, the emotions, we can start to make really informed decisions based on what we’re experiencing in the moment.”

And that exploration of the practice might turn into a dedication, as well as healing and recovery.

Trauma-Informed Yoga is Sundays from 4:30-5:30pm at Harlem Yoga Studio. The Winter 4-week series at Bloom Healing Yoga is on Mondays at 7:30pm and begins on January 15.


Jim Catapano has written over 300 articles about all things yoga, and hopes his love for the practice and community shows through all of them. He is also an actor, drummer with the Opposition band, creator of “The Dave Dimension” online comic,and professional social media snarker (for balance!). 

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