The benefits of yoga practice in helping people affected by trauma can be tremendous, and they are becoming better researched and documented.
With so much press on the issue, many survivors of trauma check out yoga classes on their own, unaware that so much variety exists in styles of yoga and teachers.
As a mental health/addiction counselor specializing in trauma, I often suggest yoga for my clients. Since I have an active yoga practice and teach trauma-informed yoga/dance, I am generally able to steer people towards the right fit of style, studio or teacher. Yet many of my well-intentioned colleagues who lack yoga knowledge often tell clients just “go to yoga.”
With the wrong fit, clients may become retraumatized or further alienated from body-based practices.
Addressing my colleagues on guiding folks to the right class is a separate subject. Here, I strive to address yoga teachers in all styles. Traumatized, vulnerable, or otherwise emotionally injured people will come to your classes.
You may believe people will decide whether or not your class is a good fit for them and will naturally check out if your class is too much. Some of you may believe that “yoga is yoga” and the people ought to be informed about what they are getting into.
I believe that such attitudes are not compassionate and may even cause harm, especially if your intention in teaching yoga is to play a part in healing the world. What I offer you here are some simple suggestions—from a trauma therapist who loves yoga—that teachers in all styles can take into account to make your classes safer for a general public:
1. Being trauma-informed is a best practice for everyone working with the public, not just “mental health” or “recovery yoga” teachers.
A yoga teacher once challenged me for being too worried about the “trauma issue,” too sensitive to matters of trauma because of my perspective as a counselor. She offered, “Not everyone has been traumatized.” Point taken. Not everyone has HIV or blood-borne illness either, yet in healthcare settings we take universal precautions to prevent transmission because there is enough of a risk.
The same reasoning applies here—trauma is enough of an issue in the general population and simple precautions can be taken to assure optimal safety for most.
2. If even one new person comes to the class, review protocol for a safe practice.
Topics to cover include not pushing oneself past a physical edge—exploring the difference between the slow burn of a stretch and overt pain. Also review protocol for needing to step out of a class if required, especially for water. If you teach in a style that discourages leaving or locks people in, I ask you to consider what kind of message this might send to people who are not familiar with your practice. Ask yourself if the orientation you give them prior to closing them in is sufficient.
3. Avoid making hands-on adjustments without asking permission, or review a protocol for declining.
Touching people without their permission is the greatest potential trigger for people in yoga classes. This one always seems like such common sense to me, yet time and time again I see teachers touching people for the sake of “alignment” or “deep relaxation,” oblivious to how badly they might be freaking someone out. I’ve heard just about every defense too: “We want correct alignment because students might hurt themselves,” or “We want people to receive healing touch.”
Don’t assume—give people a chance to decline whether you have some sort of system (e.g., cards near the front of the mat, asking quietly or making eye contact when you approach). Avoid approaches from behind.
I recently attended a new wave vinyasa class known for physical adjustments. Although I am generally okay with being adjusted, the teacher, who didn’t know me and didn’t review a protocol for declining, came up from behind to adjust me in Warrior I. Her hand meandered uncomfortably south of my waistline into the (forgive the crudeness) “ass crack.” Even though I am a body conscious, touch-friendly person who has done a lot of her own trauma work, I still freaked out and froze. The location of her hand, the from-behind approach, and not feeling I could say no all contributed to my discomfort.
4. Consider that some people believe that they can’t say no, especially with adjustments.
Many emotionally vulnerable folks believe that they have to say “yes” to you in order for you to like them. Thus, people may say it’s okay for you to touch them, yet if the body language suggests they are uncomfortable, remember that the body doesn’t lie.
If you can, approach students after class to verify their feelings about adjustments if you are unsure. Another safeguard, modeled beautifully by one of my collaborators, Many Hinkle, RYT-200, is to assure people that you will respect their right to say no (see next item).
5. Offer a protocol for opting out of uses of essential oils or creams.
As Mandy says during the opening sequence of her classes (usually while students are in a centering meditation): “At times during the class I go around and spray a mixture of essential oils and Witch Hazel. If you prefer not to be sprayed please raise your hand now and of course I will respect your right to decline.”
This statement is both respectful and validating.
During the class where I was snuck up from behind, the teacher went around with a strong lotion without once telling people that they could opt out—what if someone was allergic? I found it amusing that she talked so long at the beginning of the class about the importance of a vegan diet to honor “all living beings,” yet she didn’t practice the respect of asking people if they even wanted products applied.
6. Make yourself available after class.
It is not lost on me that studio schedules can be tight. Yet I’ve found that students knowing you are open to questions, comments or concerns after the class, even if they do not take advantage of your offer, puts them at ease. If you practice in a large class studio and fear getting bombarded, ask if some of your regular students might be willing to assist you after a class.
When I teach conscious dance, I announce that I do not want anyone leaving our space feeling overtly unsafe or threatened in any way and to please see me if they are. While this may feel a little unnecessary to you or out of your comfort zone to address, please consider the power in that intention. In reflecting on your classes, is it a possibility that students are feeling unsafe or threatened when they leave? If so, what is it about my class/teaching style that could potentially trigger this feeling state?
7. Closing the eyes is not always optimal.
As a young therapist, I made the mistake of asking a client to close her eyes while we went through a breath work exercise. Afterwards she said, “I didn’t like that—I felt too claustrophobic being in the dark. I was abused in the dark and told to relax.” The lesson she taught me was one of the most valuable of my career.
To this day, when I do breath work or other relaxation exercises with clients I give them the option of the eyes being closed or remaining open. Safety is imperative. I find that exercises can work well either way as long as the person is safe, even if the eyes are open. Consider offering the alternative of a fixed gaze spot (dristi) to closing the eyes. Just hearing that they have a choice about the eyes, instead of feeling commanded to close the eyes, generally makes people more comfortable about giving closed eyes a try.
8. Be mindful of the guided imagery that you may use.
Yoga teachers and therapists alike may rely on some variation of the “calm place” or “happy place” exercise during sivasana. These guided meditations may seem harmless, especially if you let the person choose the place for himself. Yet, be aware that places may come with an emotional charge, especially if there are people involved.
In therapy sessions I’ve witnessed people have full-on meltdowns during such imageries. As a safeguard, give the option for opting out, or consider finding an alternative guided meditation like Light Stream Meditation that promotes more of a here-and-now focus. Of course if you know your group and their practices well, doing calm place/safe place may be welcome.
9. Just because a pose makes you feel a certain way, don’t assume it’s that way for others.
As a larger yogini, I am especially conscious of this issue. I’ve attended many a class where rail thin or ultra fit teachers seem oblivious to the art of modifications. If you truly believe that yoga is a practice for every body, be prepared to suggest modifications, especially if a student’s body language suggests they’re struggling. More on this in the next item.
10. Avoid telling the class how a pose “should” feel.
We’ve all been guilty of making these statements: “This pose alleviates depression,” “Notice how delicious this pose makes your spine feel,” or “This breath is very balancing.” Okay, these things may happen, but what if they don’t? A student may feel defective or flawed hearing such a statement if their experience is different. This one is an easy fix if you’re willing to make a few adjustments to your language. Here are some examples of language variations on the statement made above:
>>> This pose may alleviate depression.
>>> This pose has been known to alleviate depression.
>>> Many people say this pose creates great space in the spine.
>>> This pose is known to create great space in the spine.
>>> This breath can be very balancing.
>>> This breath may take some practice for you to experience its intended balancing effect.
11. Make a few statements about non-competitiveness during the class.
I have several yoga teacher friends and colleagues who do a wonderful job of teaching that yoga is not a competition. My first yoga teacher, Maureen Lauer-Gatta, E-RYT-500 often says, “If you can touch your foot in this pose, it doesn’t make you a better person.”
Author Darren Littlejohn, RYT says, “It’s about the pose, but it’s not about the pose.” Although Darren’s classes are generally demanding in a physical sense, use of this statement speaks volumes to those who may be struggling. Mandy Hinkle and other teachers I’ve taken from teach that how you treat yourself on the mat is how you treat yourself in life. I recently began taking classes in aerial yoga, an experience that triggers some of my “last kid picked in gym class” issues.
My teacher Jennifer Neal’s assurance at the beginning of the class that the practice is not a competition helps me feel safe to give this way-out-of-my-comfort zone practice an honest effort. Jennifer reiterates that the
practice is neither a competition with others in the room, nor with yourself.
12. Avoid public or overt praise of your “favorite” or “best” students—consider the message it might send to others.
Part of creating a non-competitive environment is assuring that students don’t feel that “the prize” for improvement is your public, gushing adulation. We are teachers—it’s only human to want to bestow praise on the students who seem to be getting it.
It’s important to check ourselves on what kind of message this might be sending to students who never get praised publicly. I’m not saying do away with public praise altogether, but as an example, consider also giving equally enthusiastic shout-outs to improvements, good efforts and deep breaths.
One time I was in a class with master teacher, Beth Piper, RYT-200 and a group of yogis way more advanced than I in terms of acrobatic asanas. As she moved by me, she looked me in the eye and said, “Good, strong ujjayi breath—very nice.” Beth’s comment imprinted as one of the greatest moments in my yogic journey, and I strive to emulate that encouragement when I teach.