When I arrived back home after my first yoga teacher training in Goa, I offered free private lessons to my friends in exchange for feedback. I thought it would be a great way to find my voice, figure out some cueing, test out asana variations and proper usage of props, and rack up experience quickly. A few friends took me up on the offer; even more said yes but then got cold feet the night before. All in all, I probably gained ten to twelve hours of experience teaching yoga and yoga nidra in these free sessions. Some of the best feedback I received was from friends who were also yoga teachers. One of my teacher friends in particular offered the following advice: be more assertive. “People want to be told what to do,” she said. I thought about my twelve year plus practice here in the city; what I most enjoyed about yoga was the way the entire practice felt like an invitation. Breathe…notice the breath. How does that feel? Where do you feel it? What does it mean to move in this way, or in that way? However, I also thought about all the yoga classes where I tried a pose or an advanced variation I probably wouldn’t have tried in my home practice, (hello, bakasana?) all because a teacher cued me into it. So I set out to be more assertive.
A few months into teaching I took an amazing online training on Mettaversity with David Emerson, Healing Trauma through Yoga. It was the first of many trauma-sensitive trainings that I would take, and I recognized something familiar in Emerson’s teaching style; so much invitation. Try this, then this can become that. Perhaps we… and then maybe we…
Of course, my very invitational style of teaching when I was fresh out of YTT was mostly due to my lack of experience and therefore lack of confidence. But in some way, it had felt right, even as my yoga teacher friend's advice to assert myself more had also felt right. Possibly some blend of assertiveness and invitation would pay off for me if I could just delve a bit more into trauma-informed yoga and develop an approach that would work in a variety of settings and circumstances.
An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Trauma disconnects us from our bodies. Early trauma, especially, teaches us to mistrust people and institutions set up to care for and protect us, and this mistrust bleeds into our relationship with our bodies. This disconnect can be small or large, and not always in relation to the trauma experienced. While some traumatized individuals may literally not be able to feel parts of their body, others simply receive mixed or false messages from some of their body parts some of the time, causing them to self-harm, overeat, overtrain themselves into injury, or develop dysfunctional relationships with addictive substances and behaviors.
Trauma-informed or Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) helps bridge the divide between traumatized body and traumatized brain by decreasing symptoms of PTSD, increasing heart rate variability, and calming the fight-or-flight response in which many survivors of trauma spend much of their lives. Yoga presented in an invitational, hands-off style can help heal. Survivors of trauma also benefit from yoga because of the resilience it can teach us all; each pose eventually comes to an end, all sensations are temporary, relieved by the next breath, the next small movement. (You can read more about how TSY actually works here.)
So then....what part of the trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga process is useful in the studio setting? Can any of it work there?
Trauma-informed yoga is about invitation. As trauma-informed teachers, we don’t tell our students what to do and we don’t tell them what they are feeling. No other movement practice lends itself more to this invitational style, so it is easy enough to bring this aspect of TSY into the studio. Some trauma-informed yoga is more invitational than others. Anneke Lucas recently published an amazing piece about how she has completely ceased using commands in all of the teaching she does in prisons.
Thinking about going this far on the spectrum in the studio, however, calls to mind the advice my yoga teacher friend gave me about being more assertive. In my experience teaching in studios, students do want to be told what to do; they pay between $10 and $30 an hour for the privilege of this experience. So, I plan my classes well and I try to cue them even better. But I leave a little room for improvisation and experimentation. For example, I might lead the class through Surya Namaskar A, but then pausing in uttanasana, I will probably say something like “Maybe you nod your head and shake it no. Or perhaps you start to shift your weight from the balls of the feet to the heels and back, noticing what happens to the shape in your body when you do this.” When cueing more advanced poses like utkata konasana, my cues become gardens of "maybe"s and "possibly"s, suggesting variations to try such as swaying from side to side by deepening the bend in one knee and then the other or lifting one heel and then the other. Honestly, goddess pose is tough, and invariably in a room full of students, I am bound to have one that doesn't even feel up to trying it. I'd rather give that one student permission to honor their body than to demand that everyone find the exact same expression of the pose just because I said so.
Preference for music during practice is about as personal as it gets. Teachers make bold choices for the soundscape of their classes, and although many teachers opt out of playing music altogether, this, too, is a choice. Allowing students to focus on the sound of their breath and the breathing taking place in them room around them, on the teacher’s voice, or silence can provide a powerful yoga experience.
Generally when teaching yoga to traumatized populations, we utilize silence. Music can contain a myriad of triggers, from lyrics to haunting notes and associations we couldn’t even dream of. Even if we choose a selection that seems completely positive or innocuous to us, we can’t know that we aren’t playing a song with special meaning to our students. One morning during my 500 hour training I walked in to the practice space to hear not one but two songs that reminded me of my sister Debbie’s death. First I heard Silver Lining by First Aid Kit, which Debbie had heard on the radio sometime after her diagnosis of glioblastoma stage 4, and said “if you replace hotel with hospital, this is my life.” Not soon after, Mad World by Tears for Fears came on; and I recalled with great sadness dancing and crying to that song at a club soon after her death.
Touch is pretty universally considered a “do not do” in trauma-informed yoga, and here is where we may have one of the largest mismatches with studio yoga classes.
If my time practicing here in NYC has taught me anything, it is that you would be hard pressed to find a studio in the city that doesn’t offer hands-on adjustments or physical assists as part of the full, polished package. One of the most profound and efficient ways to help our students really find the asana in their bodies can be through touch. A skilled teacher with a good “hands-on” can read a student’s energy, approach them safely, and help them find better alignment or more ease in the pose. This same skilled teacher can say so much with touch; he or she can bestow anatomical knowledge and proper alignment while letting a student know they are welcome in the class, valued as a part of the group, and worthy of inclusion. That’s a lot to say with words, and there isn’t the time or the place in a studio class.
But some skilled teachers just aren’t skilled in hands-on and may feel pressured to offer touch assists even when they’re not sure of their skill. More importantly, touch is a trigger; we as teachers don’t know the stories of the students who drop-in to our classes. Asking for and receiving consent is a fairly new concept in yogaland, but it is imperative that we, as responsible teachers and community members break the cycle of uninvited touch. The simple act of asking for consent empowers us all; by asking we give our students the power to choose, and we give ourselves the power of offering touch that does not continue a cycle of violence.
You got your TSY in my studio….
Ultimately I keep all of my studio yoga out of my trauma informed yoga, but I do try to bring a bit of my trauma informed yoga into the studio. Anyone of my students in the studio could be a part of that staggering 70% of the US population living with trauma. Maybe they are part of the 20% living with diagnosed PTSD. Or maybe they haven’t yet sought help and live with undiagnosed or complex trauma. At any time, a cue or a touch from me, or a lyric from a song I carelessly included on my playlist could do actual harm, and I prefer my yoga to be body positive and always beneficial, or at least neutral, never harmful.
This doesn’t mean that I am perfect. I slip up from time to time. But I do my best. I cue (or command) but I also invite. I make music choices that are authentic to me, some with lyrics and some without, always making sure that I could explain any song choice I made, even if the explanation that week was “I loved this Chromatics song in that episode of Twin Peaks last night; I felt inspired and full of creative energy after I saw that scene of them playing live in the Bang Bang Bar.” And I always ask consent to touch.
Things to think about…..for teachers
Make space for exploration. Don’t tell students how they are feeling or what they are feeling or where they should ought to feel it. Don’t use the word "should." If you really must speak to specific sensations, tell them what they might feel and where, or better yet, tell them what the pose makes you feel and where. Then ask that they make a similar inquiry to find out what they feel and where they feel it.
If you play music, choose tracks that are authentic for you and do not contain racist, sexist, or cruel lyrics. Use care when selecting music. You can’t possibly know everyone’s triggers but you can make a choice to engage the possibility of triggering someone with music or not. Even lyricless music can trigger. Silence is also a choice.
Ask for consent. Just do it. If you have a big group, put students in child’s pose or anahastasana and ask them to show their preference with a flip of the palm or with a flip chip. There will always be one or two students who roll their eyes at you or look around the room to see how folks are answering; you can’t control that.
If you ask for consent from a large group that you don’t know well, consider asking again when you approach the student’s mat for the first time. My teacher Dianne asks “may I enter your space?” I usually say “do you mind?” or “would you like a hands-on?”
Things to think about…for students
If your teacher plays music that triggers you, consider mentioning this to them. Depending on the trigger, they may choose to change the type of music they play in their classes.
If your teacher touches you without consent, you have a right to be upset. Consider letting the studio owner know what happened. If the studio owner does not take action, consider going to a different studio to take yoga.
If your teacher asks the class as a whole about consent while you are in child’s pose or some other pose where you can’t see what your fellow students are doing, continue to keep your eyes to yourself while you and your fellow students answer the question.
If you give consent to be touched during the beginning of class via a flip chip or verbally, you can withdraw consent at any time. You may have liked an adjustment during the flow portion of class but want to be left alone during savasana. Or perhaps you were okay with receiving a physical assist but your teacher had cold hands! You have a right to change your mind.
To find out more…
To find out more about trauma-informed yoga, visit The Yoga Service Council. Other amazing individuals and organizations exist, and these are just a few that I have had interaction with:
Carol Horton, PhD
Three and a Half Acres Yoga
Exhale to Inhale
Liberation Prison Yoga