A Yoga Therapist Shares The Truth About Trauma

Yoga therapist and psychologist Gail Parker, PhD, applies restorative practices in an innovative way to help people heal from racial wounds.

Gail Parker, PhD

Yoga Journal: Can you summarize your work?

Gail Parker: I’m a psychologist, a certified yoga therapist, and a yoga therapist educator. I am a lifelong practitioner of yoga. 50 years. As a practicing psychotherapist of 40 years, I pioneered efforts to blend psychology, yoga, and meditation as effective self-care strategies that can enhance emotional balance, and contribute to overall health and well-being.

I closed my psychotherapy practice four years ago, which allowed me to focus all of my attention on the therapeutic benefits of yoga, and in particular on how Restorative Yoga and meditation can be utilized and taught as self-care practices for managing ethnic and race based stress and trauma. I also teach mind-body strategies for reducing stress and healing emotional trauma to aspiring yoga therapists in the Beaumont School of Yoga Therapy in Royal Oak Michigan, the only hospital based yoga therapy school in the nation.

Yoga therapy is a type of therapy—grounded in the ancient philosophical teachings of yoga—that utilizes yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation as self-care strategies to improve mental and physical health and well-being.

See also The Healing Power of Trauma-Informed Yoga Classes

YJ: How do you apply this work to racial trauma (and can you define that term)?

GP: Ethnic and racial stress and trauma refer to the events related to real or perceived experiences of discrimination, threats of harm and injury, and humiliating and shaming events. The terms also apply to witnessing harm to other individuals caused by real or perceived race-related events.

Stress and trauma are stored in the body. Effective interventions involve physical engagement. Restorative Yoga is a form of yoga that is not intrusive; it is receptive. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, it evokes the relaxation response. It not only lessens the inflammation of tissues, it also soothes inflamed emotions. It tones the vagus nerve, which restores homeostasis and supports resilience, aiding in recovery from stress and trauma. Ethnic- and race-informed Restorative Yoga teaches people to experience safety in their vulnerability, which is a new learning for people experiencing the ongoing, cumulative, and recurrent nature of racial stress. People who are consistently marginalized, discriminated against, and profiled already know how to stand in the fire of unbearable suffering. They need the therapeutic experience of resting in safety. They need to learn what the absence of stress feels like. Ethnic- and race-informed Restorative Yoga can offer this experience.

See also Yoga Transformed Me After Trauma and Sexual Assault

YJ: What do you want our readers to think about (as students and teachers)?

GP: Even if you have never had a direct experience of racial wounding, as aware members of the human family we know that when something affects one of us, it affects us all. Regardless of your ethnic, racial, or cultural identity, living in a racialized world has an impact—from the daily lived experiences of stress and trauma that people of color endure, to the experience of white fragility where even a minimum amount of racial stress evokes defensive responses.

The yoga community is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and the conversation within and around yoga needs to keep pace with the shifting demographics. Maintaining a culture of silence regarding ethnicity and race make that impossible. We have to engage in conversations about race and ethnicity as relevant topics of conversation. I think yoga is ideal for having these conversations because talking about race and ethnicity is really about each of us sharing our stories with each other. 

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