Laura Shaw, a 200-hour certified yoga instructor and trauma informed children’s yoga teacher and Mandy Noa, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and School Social worker along with a certified children’s yoga teacher and play therapist in-training share about trauma and the concept embodied hope to help build resilience in youth. Both Laura and Mandy represent Paint Love, an nonprofit organization that provides extraordinary arts programming to youth facing poverty and trauma.
“Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food… falling in love, or having the last word – all the things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities – it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true… Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.” – Bessel Van der Kolk– Bessel Van der Kolk
Imagination, creativity, and hope are powerful tools. All reliant upon each other, this trifecta of brain power is what allows the human mind to dream up something different, figure out how to bring it into reality, and hold an optimistic trust that something can be better. The ability to engage your brain in these functions to picture yourself in different possible circumstances in the future, is essential for hope.
We are witnessing a severe mental health epidemic among young people, through the duration and wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and everything that came along with it. Insecurity and fear defined an entire year. Unfortunately, trauma, an experience that extends beyond one’s coping mechanisms, and prolonged stress can severely impact the capacity for sight beyond survival. “Future thinking, or ‘the imagination and belief that something better is coming,’ is crucial to getting through hard times.” writes Tariro Mzezewa.2
We believe movement is key.
Embodied hope is what we’re naming the capacity to use your brain and body as a mechanism for imagination and creativity. Movement, like yoga, is a particularly empowering way to help youth learn or regain the capacity to embody hope because it encompasses different aspects of healing necessary for feeling safe and strong enough in their bodies.
The body plays an important role in the brain’s ability to hope. For children that have experienced or live with trauma, their developing brain can get stuck in the reality of the trauma. Instead of acknowledging the danger has passed, or the risk remains safely in the past, the brain can signal to the body to keep producing fear hormones and the body remains in an extended state of fear or stress response- fight, flight, or freeze. Their brain and body struggle to regain a balanced sense of appropriate response to surroundings, like the PTSD response of jumping around fireworks even after a soldier is safely home from the battlefield where explosions would indicate true danger. They can tell themself to “calm down” or intellectually understand their response is unwarranted, but the brain is focused on safety.
Bessel Van der Kolk is one of the foremost scholars on trauma response. In his research and book, The Body Keeps the Score, he explains how important and entwined hope and imagination are:
Van der Kolk pioneered a new way of thinking about treating survivors of trauma – by helping their bodies relearn autonomy as a necessary precursor to healing the mind. “The single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies,” Van der Kolk says.3 In many cases, he argues, people who had experienced various traumas saw their bodies as something that had “failed them” by not responding in a way that defrayed or escaped the traumatic event. “How could their minds possibly be healed if they found the bodies that encased those minds so intolerable?” Van der Kolk asks.4
Physical autonomy, the ability to feel a sense of control over your body and your actions and how you respond to the world, is tied up in human agency. Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the foremost scholars of positive psychology, argues, “Human agency [is] predicated on efficacy, optimism and imagination. “Imagining the future — we call this skill prospection — and prospection is subserved by a set of brain circuits that juxtapose time and space and get you imagining things well and beyond the here and now,” Dr. Seligman said. “The essence of resilience about the future is: How good a prospector are you?”5
Prospection can be particularly challenging during hard times. Not just fantasizing about a beach vacation or daydreaming about who they’ll ask to prom and how magical it will be, but the ability to think about and plan simple tasks, like what they’re going to wear tomorrow, or the route they’ll take to get to school are also tied up in this capacity. Simple tasks that require the brain to formulate future-oriented thoughts can be overwhelming and feel monumental. Many people experienced this during the pandemic, when even mundane tasks felt impossible, and reports of incredibly low productivity and impaired executive functions like memory and multi-tasking were being reported frequently. A brain impacted by trauma is often caught up in the past and unable to build connections in the present and future, Van der Kolk likens it to being stuck “playing an old reel” of the traumatic event or negative outcome.6
The Case for Movement
According to Van der Kolk’s methodology, movement, like yoga, is a powerful way to regain bodily autonomy and train the mind to accept the body as a safe place after trauma. Many people who have experienced trauma struggle to listen to their body’s needs, because their survival has either necessitated turning off or ignoring those warning signs, or those warning signs are so ingrained in their body’s response to everyday life that they are debilitating (hyper-arousal).
Yoga, even in its simplest forms, helps people tune into their bodies, learn self-regulation techniques, and practice autonomy over their physical self.
Tuning into the body can be taught by simply learning awareness of the breath and listening to the body’s response to poses and movements. These are considered “bottom-up” techniques which calm the nervous system and build immunity.7 Breathing or moving through mild discomfort or anxiety lets the body learn that sensations come and go and learning to differentiate and respond accordingly between discomfort (like a new pose that feels awkward in your body) and pain (like stretching or extending too far in a pose) helps teach body awareness that is essential to regulate and engage the brain in more abstract thinking. Yoga also carries a “top-down” approach, through focus and intention-setting, which regulates other systems of the body.8
Even the actual shape our body is holding, the pose or posture, trains us to view a different reality. Imagine the emotions that poses activate–some feel strong, some heavy, and some light. Or the multisensory experience of the rhythm of transitioning from one to another. Poses or postures remind us to take up space, to be something new, and to play. “For those who have experienced chaotic or traumatic childhoods, whose happiness was subject to the moods and whims of those around them – Play becomes the work of adulthood. Answering the question, ‘What is fun to me?’ becomes a serious lifelong quest,” states poet and author, Sasha Martin. Play strips the pressure off exploring alternative options. When we play, we transform our bodies. Different shapes challenge perceptions and build resilience.
The interconnectedness of our body systems, with our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, is undeniable. Movement of our physical bodies activates the movements of this complex system. Hope is a thing we shoulder and carry, balance and stretch. It is something we reach for and embody.
Teaching Tips + Resources
Catch the replay of our FB LIVE Q&A with Mandy Noa from Paint Love. Watch now to hear more from Mandy on best practices for trauma informed teaching. Plus, Mandy shares some of her favorite creative activities to include in yoga classes covering age appropriate activities from early childhood to teens.
Yoga, movement, and creative expression can be powerful tools for youth to change narratives and see past adversity. Learn how to use a trauma-informed art model which incorporates mindfulness and yoga to teach self-regulation to your students in a classroom or private setting. Facilitators: Mandy Noa and Laura Shaw with Paint Love
When? Saturday, August 7 from 1:00 – 2:30 pm EDT
About the Authors
Laura Shaw is the Executive Director of Paint Love. Growing up as a ballet dancer, and later teaching dance in inner-city schools, Laura fell in love with the transformative power of art and movement and sought to find innovative ways to incorporate imaginative and creative opportunities into the lives of young people.
Laura earned her master’s degree at Boston University, and after working in a variety of nonprofits, she joined the Paint Love team in 2016 and became Executive Director in 2019. She is a 200-hour certified yoga instructor and also trained in trauma informed and children’s yoga.
Mandy Noa is the Program Director of Paint Love. Full Time, Mandy is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and School Social Worker for Cobb County Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Mandy is a Certified Children’s Yoga Teacher and Play Therapist in-training. She is passionate about the intersection of the arts and social work–especially through play and movement–and has spoken on the topic both nationally and globally.
About Paint Love
Paint Love brings extraordinary arts programming to youth facing poverty and trauma. We envision a world where all young people have access to creative experiences that empower them to imagine a future not limited by adverse experience. Learn more at www.gopaintlove.org
1Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin Random House, 2014) 17.
2 Tariro Mzezewa, “Go Ahead. Fantasize”(New York Times) January 16, 2021.
3 Van der Kolk, 21
4 Van der Kolk, 21
5 Seligman as quoted by Mzezewa for the New York Times
6 Van der Kolk, 17
7 Malchiodi, 67
8 Malchiodi, 76
Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin Random House, 2014).
Cathy A. Malchiodi, Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy (The Guilford Press, 2020)
Tariro Mzezewa, “Go Ahead. Fantasize”(New York Times) January 16, 2021.