Contra-Dharma: Understanding Trauma as Spiritual Crisis ~ Nityda Bhakti

 In Trauma-Informed Yoga, Yoga Service, Yoga Therapy

Trauma as Spiritual Crisis

NitydaWhen we talk about purpose in yoga, we use the word dharma. Dharma, a Sanskrit word denoting one’s “ethical duty,” serves as our guiding principle for living. A need and desire for dharma is innate, yet changes over the course of our lives. If we were to intermix Western psychology and Eastern medicine, we could look at the work of Erik Erikson, a pioneer in developmental psychology in the West. According to Erikson, the dharma of an infant would be to successfully negotiate the dichotomy of trust vs. mistrust, Their developmental “duty” is to learn to differentiate those who are safe, and beneficial for survival, from those who are unsafe, and to be avoided. Growing older, it is our svadharma – that is, what we personally believe to be our individual dharma — that influences the activities we choose, career we select, relationships we develop, and our day-to-day actions.

But what happens when you survive the unspeakable? Trauma obstructs the dharmic path

When our body was kidnapped, when the attacker hijacked control over what was most preciously our own, when we lost control over our bodies against our own will, our dharma, too, was assaulted.

The loss of control over the body is reflected in the psyche. Intrusive thoughts and re-experiencing, avoidance and dissociation, hyperarousal and hypervigilance, and a constant state of dis-ease are normal reactions to an abnormal experience. For many, the mind is either too avoidant or too distracted to be bothered with dharma following traumatic crimes.

nitydatherapySome survivors, as well as those close to them, question universal existence as a whole in the aftermath of trauma. How could something so horrible happen to someone so innocent? Other times, survivors form a new sense of self. Tragically, this is commonly built upon feelings of guilt, self-blame, self-hatred, and other false thoughts that lead them away from their dharma.

Within my yoga therapy practice, I’ve reframed dharma as a protective factor that fosters resilience and trust in ourselves, others, and the world as a whole. Looking at trauma from a yoga therapy vantage, trauma creates what I’ve coined a dharmic-crisis: that is, a spiritual catastrophe that distances us from our truth.

The traumatized person is disembodied, disenfranchised and estranged from her dharmic path.

How yoga therapy can empower healing and dharmic reconnection

 First and foremost, a therapeutic yoga session should provide the trauma survivor with a consistently safe and available space in which she can establish a trusting relationship with another – the yoga therapist. At the initial stages especially, it is of paramount importance that the yoga therapist empower the client by providing a space and interaction style that is predictable, and reliably safe and supportive.

The second mandate of a therapeutic yoga session is education. An effective yoga therapist must have the ability to be an empowering teacher. The trauma survivor will be confused by the distressing events that occurred, not only because they may have caused dissociation and emotional distancing, but also because of the struggle to comprehend how someone could do something so morally unfathomable to another living, breathing human being. By providing education about trauma, its prevalence, common responses in survivors, the brain-body connection and trauma’s relationship with dharma, the yoga therapist is aligning the survivor with a powerful tool for healing.


Thirdly, after establishing the therapeutic environment and helping agent as reliable and safe, the trauma survivor has the opportunity to quiet her mind and go inward. Yoga is ultimately a practice in self-inquiry. This is not to say that this task is simple and easy. When a survivor comes in experiencing flashbacks and intrusive thoughts during a session, it is unlikely that she will want to close her eyes and meditate. And, it would be unadvisable. By establishing a trusting relationship with the yoga therapist who meets the client in that moment each and every time without fail, however, grounding and relaxation exercises eventually become possible. In time — whether weeks or months later – the closing of the eyes and observing of the sensations in the body seem not so unreasonable.

It is the job of the yoga therapist to model a sense of patience towards the client’s process. This work of respectful patience supports her in cultivating it for herself. Gradually, she learns to become her own guide in the process of healing.

Nityda-Bhakti-180x235Author Bio: Nityda Bhakti, LMSW, E-RYT 500, TIYT, given two Sanskrit names at birth, is a lifelong yogini, a licensed psychotherapist, and vinyasa yoga teacher of 10 years. Nityda received her E-RYT 500 in Shiva Rea’s Prana Flow vinyasa and her master’s degree in Clinical Social Work from Fordham University. Nityda leads continuing education trainings for both yoga and mental health professionals around ways to empower trauma survivors and those suffering from anxiety disorders, eating disorders, addictions and depression in various yoga and mental health settings. Visit her at  or

Nityda Bhakti will be presenting “Using Mindfulness to Guide One-on-One Yoga Therapy Session With Trauma Survivors” at the 5th annual Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute, May 13-15th, 2016.

Please Note: The views expressed in YSC blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the YSC, its directors, officers, or members.

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