The safety of yoga therapy

Safety, in relation to health, is usually about physical safety: Will I get hurt doing these movements? Will this medication or supplement cause harm? The work of Drs. Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk to understand trauma response and healing has brought the concept of emotional and psychological safety to the forefront of health discussions—and not just about working with trauma. 

When the feeling of safety is missing, our bodies become defensive, activating the sympathetic nervous system responsible for fight-or-flight responses. Anxiety is an example of missing the feeling of safety. When someone lacks a sense of safety, more often than not—and this can happen for many reasons besides trauma—the person lives in a state of chronic stress and sympathetic activation. Chronic stress is one of many areas of medical research where yoga practices have been shown to be effective therapies.*

Stress and inflammation

Driven by an overactive sympathetic response, chronic stress can cause long-term inflammation, with a cascade of negative health consequences. Our systems are remarkably adaptable, so much so that we may not even notice the signs and symptoms that things are not right. Yoga therapy can teach us how to notice these signs and then take appropriate action for healing.

The power of ahimsa

The first principle of yoga, known to yogis as ahimsa, or nonviolence, encompasses kindness, compassion, gentleness, patience, and more. As a cornerstone of the experience of yoga, ahimsa prescribes ways of being, doing, and thinking. The guidance ahimsa gives is simple and clear yet requires significant skill to apply consistently. Ahimsa instructs us to shift into parasympathetic activation—our rest-and-digest responses—and to find and nurture a deep sense of safety and belonging as a foundation for our lives.

Practices to try

Psychological safety is critical to parasympathetic activation. Although cultivating an underlying feeling of security is largely internal mental work, physical practices such as moving with the breath, chanting, and long, slow exhalations can help shift the nervous system.  To explore this sense of safety, try these practices:

Finally, for brief written guidance on anchoring yourself in a feeling of being safe, these short practices from Deb Dana, LCSW, hit the mark. 

Find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist to guide you through practices like these and many others.

Ahimsa in Sanskrit.

*See, for example