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Photo courtesy of Laura Khoudari, Design by Wenzdai J. Figueroa

It seems like there’s rarely been a time where so many people need to talk about trauma, or learn how to feel safe in their bodies. From racial injustice protests to COVID-19 to police brutality, many Americans are living with trauma or experiencing it anew. Even the social media scroll through upsetting images, videos, and events 24/7 takes an emotional toll.

You may notice your body has been extra tense lately. Or maybe you’re jumpy if a dog barks when you’re walking around the block. Those are a few examples of how our body’s nervous system is connected to thoughts, fear, or trauma.

Laura Khoudari is a trauma-informed strength trainer that works with folks living with trauma. While she loved strength training before she developed PTSD from an acute trauma, Khoudari was not a certified strength trainer at first. “I actually started this work because I wanted to do trauma work. I was not a trainer before I decided to do the trauma work,” Khoudari tells Greatist.

Fitness is often thought of as big boxing gyms and studios, but fitness can also be used to help heal the body by taking a mindful, compassionate approach. “In regards to conventional fitness, culturally, we don’t look deeper when we’re so busy celebrating this ability to override,” Khoudari points out.

“I did not love my body until I started training compassionately — no matter what it looked like and how it performed. It wasn’t until I realized my body is not a machine that I really began to appreciate all it does for me. With a compassionate approach, I feel safer. I can tolerate the bad feelings because I can have compassion for myself for having bad feelings. I can be with myself more, which allows for a greater sense of safety.”

What is trauma-informed personal training?

I help set conditions to heal from emotional trauma through the process of strength training.

My knowledge of the physiology of trauma and how it impacts the nervous system is always at the forefront of how I implement a program. Ultimately, I’m looking to help my clients have a greater sense of agency; to help them connect to their bodies as a source of information, like the sense of knowing your gut feeling. I also help people increase the sense of safety in their bodies while they’re moving around the world.

What does a sense of safety in one’s body look like?

A lot of what I do involves building the capacity to stay in one’s body. With trauma, or a lot of stress, or even culturally, we tend to be in our head a lot.

You lose touch with all sorts of important information centered in your body that tells you how to take care of yourself. If you don’t have access to all that information, you’re less likely to feel secure in making choices in life.

The first part [of regaining a sense of safety] is really taking time in the gym, with intention, and practicing being in your body. It’s learning that while not being in your body was a coping strategy, returning to it now is actually going to serve you.

The difference is being able to tolerate the associations that come up in the body because they’re not always comfortable.

Can you talk about the range of clients you work with in terms of emotional and physical trauma?

Let’s say you fall and break your ankle, but will be fine with treatment. But maybe you fell and the response afterwards was really unsupportive or it was a really scary fall. You went to the emergency room and you didn’t get treated and you saw some really terrible things. That’s going to bring up the emotional component. Or you had to have a surgery, which brings all sorts of other things to medical trauma.

But here’s the thing that’s interesting about trauma: The story of what caused the trauma is not important. You don’t always need to share your story to get help and to ask for help.

The trauma part is a disorganized, nervous system response. That’s what I’m working with. That’s the healing work I’m doing.

I think you need to do some top-down talking with somebody (like a therapist) and some bottom-up body processing to heal.

So if you have a story, if you’ve made some meaning around it or your nervous system made some meaning around it, then you would be a client that might benefit from this work.

How does trauma present itself in the body?

Chronic pain is a big one that people minimize. It comes from this constant bracing against threat. A lot of pain can come from constantly walking around squeezing your muscles as hard as possible.

I think people don’t really realize that there are certain syndromes and conditions that are generally considered to be the somatization of trauma. The big three are chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia.

What are common misconceptions around trauma-based fitness?

One of the misconceptions is that we’re doing therapy. We aren’t.

It’s a much more supportive role of helping bring the body back in line. We can hold space for things to come up, which they often do. Being able to feel your feelings is really helpful. You can bring that into your therapist’s office as you’re talking about things.

Also, the pathologizing “I’m fixing others approach” is not trauma-based fitness. We’re not fixing. We’re not doing unto our clients. We are giving them tools to be able to heal themselves.

Is there an aspect of sensitivity or trying to avoid triggering a client in trauma-based fitness?

Instead of focusing on not triggering my clients, my focus is on meeting my clients’ nervous systems where they are at any given point in time, while keeping in mind the goals that they have. It’s usually a combination of some sort of more emotional healing goal along with, usually, a physical goal, generally to get stronger.

What would a visit with you look like?

I’m particular about the facility. I like to have it be accessible, like a gender neutral facilities option, for example.

First, I orient them to the workout by sharing the workout plan with them. Then I ask “Is this okay? How does this sound to you?” It’s always a conversation [and I have to be] prepared to change the workout on the fly if they aren’t feeling a certain exercise.

We usually start with a grounding sensory activity. Then we’ll do a partner warmup together to have that social connection. It gets me connected to where they are and what I should be looking out for that day. And you’re playing — that’s fun!

Then we get into the strength training portion. If a client needs help recovering between sets, I might use some self-regulation techniques.

Then at the end, I have a toolbox of things to help make sure the client leaves in a good place — that they feel energized but not hyper, relaxed but not collapsed. The technique varies, but it’s usually some sort of yoga, meditation, writing practice, or reiki.

Do you think exercise needs to be trauma-informed?

I don’t think it needs to be trauma-informed per se. But I think the majority of fitness professionals need to be aware of how the nervous system is a big part of the work — whatever your client’s physical goals.

Trauma really impacts the nervous system. So to be a really great fitness professional, having some knowledge of the impact of trauma on the nervous system will really benefit your clients because most people go through things in their life — divorce, breakups, getting fired from a job, moving — that dysregulate the nervous system.

You need to exercise in a way that the stress isn’t overwhelming you, that you can recover from the stress of the workout.

Unlike some bootcamp environments, you need to be allowed to stop. You also have to feel good and safe in that environment. You need to feel like it’s okay to stop. You need to feel like you can just be you, and to feel safe in the space, whatever that means for you.

How do you sense where someone’s nervous system is that day?

The first thing we can do is look at our client’s breathing. As professionals, we certainly are used to paying attention to breath. Is it rapid and short? Can they breathe through their nose?

You can also use your own nervous system, but it takes practice and doing your own, embodied body work. By paying attention to how you feel and your body, you can actually use it as a barometer. It’s not always accurate, but we tend to mirror each other’s nervous systems.

Is there a wrong way for someone with trauma to approach fitness?

There are some big things that I see that I don’t think help and in fact, can aggravate the symptomatology.

The first thing that always comes to mind is people who are looking for a catharsis. There’s a time and a place for a catharsis. I am not saying that we shouldn’t do it. But a catharsis isn’t a long-term, sustainable healing program.

Let’s say you’re really angry — that’s a big one — people want to work out their anger. But in the act of so aggressively going after anger to get it out, you overwhelm your system.

What sorts of fitness programs should someone looking for healing consider?

You need to pick something you really enjoy and that you can do in an embodied way. You need to pick a facility that you feel good in. The movement itself needs to feel safe.

You cannot heal until you feel safe. That’s it.

You need to feel free to say, “okay, I’ve had enough,” and knowing that’s going to be respected. I think it’s really about allowing a person to feel a sense of agency in their workout. That’s where the healing can happen.

Can you talk a bit about #MeToo in the fitness industry?

The issues presented in #MeToo — ignoring boundaries and exploitative behavior — is everywhere and I think it’s particularly rampant in general fitness. So many fitness classes encourage override of your body’s signals — of what’s okay and not okay. That makes it easier to cross boundaries.

There’s increasing conversation about consent and touch especially in the yoga community. Culturally, consent isn’t common practice in general fitness big box gyms.

The reason we’re still having these conversations is that people aren’t doing it. They’re not asking if it’s okay to put their hands on their shoulders then if they say yes, paying attention to if their shoulders tense up. Clients might say yes, but their body says no.

The industry as a whole makes its money by objectifying bodies. Culturally, making it okay to objectify bodies sets you up for all sorts of factors that lead to sexual and physical violence and harassment.

People are talking about it, and that awareness is the first step to changing it. But we have a long way to go in fitness and part of that is based on how [fitness] is sold.

How do you see your work, or other work in this space, influencing the fitness industry in the next 10 years?

I am so excited for the day that I’m irrelevant and when someone who trains with this approach isn’t as difficult to find. [Over the past few years] people in the fitness industry have started talking about [this trauma-based approach].

The whole reason I decided to refocus my practice on continuing education is that I can do more good by educating trainers — many of whom have much more experience training than I do, and have various specialties. [Spreading this knowledge] is the best way to create access.

Learn more about trauma-informed fitness

Visit Laura Khoudari’s website, Instagram, and Facebook for resources, tools, and updates.

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Whitney Akers is a writer and traveler who always overpacks all the wrong things. She helps health professionals connect with the people who need them most at Whitney Akers.