How to Guide a Trauma-Informed Yoga Class
With my hands planted and legs contorted in a way that felt absolutely unnatural, I knew I needed to move, to explore, to find something that felt right for me in this moment.
"Hold for one.." the teacher said.
My insides swarmed, my hips were screaming, ‘this doesn’t feel good. This hurts me.’
She continued, "Hold for two.. don't move your hands."
My body felt frozen. ‘I am stuck. I feel out of control.’
Still she went on, "hold for three.. breathe through the discomfort."
My breath short and faint, ‘I have no choice.’
On her last call, "hold for five.."
My body collapsed on the floor, struggling to find ground and my own breath. This commanding, rigid language continued throughout class without any invitation to go where I need too personally. I left the class small, depressed, and anything but empowered. Bodily, I was triggered back to similar sensations of a sexual assault experience I had over 7 years ago.
This recent yoga class reminded me why teachers should have a knowledge of how to guide a trauma-informed yoga class. Why? Yoga is a practice of embodiment. Through breath and movement, students are connecting with their body in a holistic way: mind, body, and spirit. For trauma survivors, this process of connecting to one’s body can feel foreign and often triggering if there is not trauma-sensitive language or a safe space for student’s to explore their own process.
The example above is unfortunately a common teaching style in many yoga classes, and is only a fraction of experience. So, why was this language style harmful instead of helpful? For trauma survivors that have operated out of a fight, flight, or freeze response, there is a need for choice, empowerment, and sense of safety. The instruction in this class was largely a paint by number in the strictest form. I felt like I was led into postures that hurt me and I didn’t have permission to escape. Thus, the freeze response, I felt stuck, trapped, and ashamed at not being able to quiet my discomfort and stick it out.
So, how do we as teachers, guide a class that is sensitive to survivors of trauma?
First, create a space that feels safe and contained. You want the room to feel soft and open, so there is no sense of confinement. This can be done easily by making sure there is plenty of space between each person, softer music so that it can aid in calming the nervous system and breath, also, make sure the room is dimly lit (natural light is the best) so that there is no harsh light from up above.
Second, note your language so that it is not rigid, but empowering and full of choice. Let your words shift from demands to invitations. If you haven’t tried a Strala Yoga class, check it out. The whole message behind Strala is to make your own rules and follow how you feel. I begin teaching Strala Yoga after experiencing the power of listening to my own body and guiding other’s to do the same. With language that’s less formulated and prescriptive, this invitational yoga class can feel unique to each person. This can be very healing for survivors attuning to one’s own body and breath, trusting their own individual process.
Third, be mindful of physical assists. There are a few ways to do this. You can ask the class in child’s pose or with eyes closed if anyone would like to not be touched in class to raise their hand- that way they have their choice heard in a way that’s anonymous and respected. If you do offer assists in a class without permission, be mindful of body position and also the resting posture of each person. Generally, you can tell whether the body is in a state that is receptive: the breath is deep and long, the body is not fidgeting, and melting in a deep state of relaxation.
This trauma-informed approach will begin to translate across our lives, past the yoga studio, into our homes, friendships, and even our own self-care. By living out a language that is invitational and holding space for healing in the everyday, we will be a conduit for trauma recovery in relationship with ourself and for those around us.
As Haruki Murakami writes, “What happens when people open their hearts?” ‘They get better.’”