Bend, Don’t Break
When trauma shattered their lives, they turned to a different kind of yoga to help heal both body and mind
This doesn’t feel like a yoga studio. There are no mirrors, no suburbanites in hundred-dollar leggings. There’s no incense or flute music. No one says namaste. The class is taking place in a former Veterans of Foreign Wars Post building next to an Asian market on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Bonanza Road. Outside, a homeless man holds a sign that reads “Jesus is an asshole.” Cabs pass by, carrying tourists to the parts of Las Vegas that sparkle. Sometimes the city calls this area the Cultural Corridor, other times the Corridor of Hope.
Inside the building, now known as the 705 Arts Incubator, the air is soft and warm. The only light comes from a few fluorescent bulbs above an empty stage. Yoga mats are spread out in the audience area. The instructor speaks softly, guiding the five students through a series of standing and seated poses, sprinkling in mantras and affirmations. She doesn’t correct anyone’s form. On the one occasion when she leaves the front of the room, she makes sure everyone knows where she is.
“I am bold,” the instructor says. “I am creative, I am vulnerable.”
There is also surprising irreverence.
“F-ck fear,” she tells the room at one point, instructing the class to breathe out negative energy. “Let that shit go.”
After class, two men have an intense talk about the Las Vegas shooting. People hug. Conversations get heavy. This is Trauma Recovery Yoga — often referred to as T.R.Y. — and everyone is here for a reason.
“In 2015 at the end of August, I asked my husband for a divorce,” says Alison Chambers, a regular attendee. (She also owns the 705 Arts Incubator space and allows classes to be held there.) “I had a meeting with him, and we were supposed to talk about the details. And that’s when he shot himself.”
The moment of sudden, shocking violence caused a ripple effect in Chambers’ body. For the first few years after the event, she had trouble getting out of bed. She was plagued with headaches. Worse still was the strange feeling in her legs that reminded her of the seated position she’d been in when her husband had pulled the trigger. Doctors prescribed her medication for the headaches, but they didn’t know what to do about her legs.
“It wasn’t really pain,” Chambers says. “It was just a sensation, but it was always with me. That summer I saw a Facebook event for Trauma Recovery Yoga. I had never wanted to do yoga, but I had to go to that. I didn’t know why. I went, and that hour was everything.”
Also in the class is Max Carter, who sought out Trauma Recovery Yoga following the sudden death of his wife in 2017.
“I’m a 54-year-old guy that had never done yoga before in my life,” Carter says. “In 2017, my wife took a fall from her horse and didn’t survive. It left me a mess. All of our plans and dreams and hopes were gone in the blink of an eye. And then on one of those dark nights that were starting to come all too often, I was flipping through Facebook and saw a thing for Trauma Recovery Yoga. … So I got a yoga mat, went, fell over a lot, sweated a lot, and then they went into savasana (corpse pose), and I was like, oh wow, there is a way to stop the hamster from running around.”
A few months later, Carter found himself in traffic. A driver cut him off, and instead of shouting and cursing as he normally would, he gripped the wheel, centered himself, and breathed.
“That self-regulation sequence of grounding, centering, and breathing was something that I found myself doing unconsciously,” Carter says. “I thought, oh wow, that’s how I control those panic attacks, by slipping into that sequence that we start each Trauma Recovery Yoga practice with.”
‘It Was Way Bigger Than Me’
All yoga is good yoga, but not all yoga is good for trauma. We’re not going to ask anyone to put their foot behind their ear or stand on their head. — Joyce Bosen, founder of trauma recovery yoga
Photo by Christopher Smith
Trauma Recovery Yoga itself was born out of tragedy. Following the 2008 recession, founder Joyce Bosen lost her construction business. In 2012, her marriage ended. That same year, her son was run over by a train on his 22nd birthday. He lost his legs, and then nine days later, his life. Bosen found herself isolated in her house, taking Xanax and fixating on death. A longtime yoga practitioner, she tried to attend classes to help with her PTSD diagnosis, but felt they did more harm than good.
“All yoga is good yoga, but not all yoga is good for trauma,” Bosen says. “They heat up the room, there’s music playing. Music is high risk for trigger because there are so many memories held in sound.”
Seeking an antidote to the yoga classes that pushed her when she was in search of healing, Bosen developed Trauma Recovery Yoga for herself.
“I went back to see my counselor and she was like, ‘Wow, you look a lot better. What are you doing?’” Bosen says. “And I said, ‘I’m just doing this yoga thing.’”
Bosen teaches a chair yoga class. Photo by Christopher Smith
The counselor asked if she might consider sharing her method with veterans in an outpatient mental health space, and soon enough she was teaching yoga to at-risk youth, individuals with brain injuries, and other populations with trauma.
“There became so many people that I realized it was way bigger than me,” Bosen says. “My (future) husband who I was dating at the time said, ‘You’ve got to train people to know what you know, that’s the only way.’”
She officially developed Trauma Recovery Yoga, forming a nonprofit and creating a 20-hour training program. During this time she fine-tuned the method, carefully considering which poses would work best.
“We’re not going to ask anyone to put their foot behind their ear or stand on their head,” Bosen says. “Anything that will pull you out of the moving meditation would be counter to what we’re trying to create for someone who maybe, like myself, sometimes wakes up with the words ‘I want to die’ in their head without permission. I wanted to give people a break from that noise, and that doesn’t come when you’re pushing them to get on their head or kick up into a handstand. We are constantly judging how much of our own trauma was our own fault.”
This is why there are no mirrors, no adjustments, and no music. The somatic-based method, which emphasizes a mind-body approach to treating trauma, relies on a constant stream of instructions — or micro-cues — to keep the students’ minds focused on the poses and prevent them from returning to their pain. Postures are specifically chosen to regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response, and which is often trapped in a state of heightened arousal following trauma. Each class begins with the instructor explaining what participants can expect, which is helpful to individuals who may experience anxiety when caught off guard. There is a constant focus on breath, visual cues, and reminders that every movement is optional, and that simply being present is enough. Attendees include combat veterans, sexual assault victims, mothers who have lost children, individuals struggling with drug addiction, and, in recent years, survivors of the October 1 shooting.
“After 1 October happened, we had a couple hundred yoga teachers in Vegas that wanted to help,” Bosen says. “We reached out to different spaces and asked if we could offer free classes. About 6,000 people ended up coming through those classes, and some of them were city officials and those who were on the scene. We had classes in the coroner’s office, the 911 call center, some of Metro and some fire departments.”
That year, Trauma Recovery Yoga won a Compassionate City Award. Bosen continues to support those affected by the Las Vegas shooting by offering services to the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center. She has taught Trauma Recovery Yoga in juvenile detention centers, addiction recovery spaces, at schools, and at the VA. More than 400 people in Las Vegas and beyond have been trained in the Trauma Recovery Yoga method. Bosen estimates that about a quarter of these trained instructors across the country and globe stay engaged with teaching the Trauma Recovery Yoga method, while many others may integrate some of the method into other types of yoga. While there is a cost to participate in workshops that certify instructors in Trauma Recovery Yoga, Bosen does not profit off of studios that teach the method in the way franchises such as Bikram yoga do.
“We’ve been to Chicago, South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Iowa, Tennessee, Louisiana,” Bosen says. “We have people coming from Canada, Puerto Rico, other countries. We want to globalize it. For the people that can’t make it to the training, they’ll have a manual and they may be able to integrate at least some of the tools. We want to manualize it for the VA so that they have it in every space. We want to continue to go global, maybe at some point build a train-the-trainer program.”
‘The Body Remembers Everything’
Bosen mainly operates out of a space within the Driven NeuroRecovery Center in Downtown Las Vegas. It is here that she teaches a weekly class to individuals in wheelchairs, using what she calls “see it or be it” cues that rely heavily on visualizations.
“Some are quadriplegic and have zero mobility,” she says. “It’s fantastic to see what mirror neurons really will do and how much your body believes what your mind is telling it. They’re breaking a sweat, and they’re not moving.”
I always tell them, if you need to cuss, go for it. I’m an ex-rollerderby girl, so I might be okay if you need to smack me. — Denise Stanga, massage therapist. Photo by Christopher Smith
Also located at the Driven NeuroRecovery Center is Denise Stanga, a licensed massage therapist who specializes in dealing with trauma. In a sense, her practice is the yin to Bosen’s yang. While both women help individuals who have experienced violence, fear, violation, and death, Bosen’s approach is quite literally hands-off while Stanga’s relies on touch.
“Touch is sensitive,” Stanga says. “I developed the technique of working with sexual assault survivors with a friend who was molested by her stepfather. She came to me and said, ‘I really want a massage and I hear you’re really good, but I’m terrified.’”
Before moving to Las Vegas, Stanga specialized in oncology massage at a hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona, mainly caring for women with breast cancer.
“What I saw was these women come in who were so angry at their bodies and so disconnected,” Stanga says. “After a few sessions, things would change.”
Inspired by that tangible shift, Stanga began to work all over the hospital, giving massages to women having babies, survivors of car accidents, people recovering from invasive surgeries.
For oncology patients, massage therapy can help with depression, ease nausea associated with chemotherapy, or simply offer a break from being prodded with needles.
“They can do whatever they need to do,” Stanga says. “I always tell them, if you need to cuss, go for it. I’m an ex-roller-derby girl, so I might be okay if you need to smack me. I let them do their own thing in that space.”
Eventually, Stanga transitioned into end-of-life massage.
“I’ve been there when literally two hours later the patient passes,” Stanga says. “It’s not even really a massage. It’s more like comfort massage. It’s holding, it’s touching. Sometimes their skin is so dry, so I might just put a little oil or lotion on it. We always honor people being born, and it’s an honor to be there to say goodbye to someone and to say, it’s okay, you can go now.”
Since relocating to Las Vegas, much of Stanga’s work has been focused on survivors of the 2017 shooting.
“I had one person who tripped and fell and was hurt while running through the crowd,” Stanga says. “They’ve healed from the injury, but because of the way they remember running to save their life and falling, there is still tension in the body.”
This phantom pain experienced by mass shooting survivors, sexual assault victims, war veterans, and others comes up again and again in both trauma massage and yoga. The pain certainly isn’t “phantom” to those experiencing it — and the phenomenon is a central concern of newer therapies that embrace the mind-body connection. Peter A. Levine, the clinical psychologist who developed Somatic Experiencing therapy, attributes them to a flaw within our autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and respiration. Levine spent years studying fight-or-flight response in animals. He noticed that because of their perpetual exposure to trauma (e.g., a deer constantly chased by coyotes), animals are good at regulating their autonomic nervous systems and returning to a comfortable state after trauma. The human autonomic nervous system, on the other hand, can get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. This is why combat veterans sometimes feel like they’re still at war, why sexual assault victims feel like they’re still being violated, and why someone like Alison Chambers couldn’t shake the eerie sensation in her legs after her husband shot himself.
“The body remembers everything,” Stanga says. “People will have tension in the upper back, indigestion, headaches. Once they start working through that, they tell me they can sleep better, they can eat without getting stomachaches, they can breathe.”
In Stanga’s practice, touch is something that some clients fear and others crave. In Flagstaff, when she was doing end-of-life massage, a dying patient told her that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been touched. At a brothel in Nevada, a woman whose hands she massaged told her that it was the first time someone had ever touched her without expecting something in return.
Stanga has taken the 20-hour Trauma Recovery Yoga training, and Bosen often suggests massage therapy to trauma survivors who might benefit from touch. Both see their work as complementary. Both deal with individuals who were in the crowd below Mandalay Bay, who are startled by fast movements and unexpected sounds, afraid of what’s behind them, afraid of being naked, afraid to love and be loved. Some of them heal through yoga poses called heart openers that do just that; others heal by being reminded that touch can be comforting, safe, and human.
At the conclusion of a Trauma Recovery Yoga class, the instructor will offer essential oils administered to the shoulders. It’s the only part of the experience where physical contact is an option, and for a moment Stanga’s touch-based method and Bosen’s hands-off approach are connected.
“You will always know where I am,” the yoga instructor says, making her way through the room as everyone lies on their backs in silence. She says that if anyone doesn’t want to be touched, they can simply place their hands on their chest and she’ll pass by. Some may not be ready; others may yearn for it. But for those who have had brutal decisions made for them, and unexpected, life-altering things done to them, the choice is what matters.
“We all have trauma,” Stanga says. “Some of us just don’t call it that. I’ve had people on the table say, ‘Gosh, you know, you went over my leg right there, and it reminded me of when I was seven and fell out of a tree and broke my leg.’ And so, maybe for that split second that person remembered the trauma. But they were able to work through it, and let it go.”