How to Make Your Yoga Class Trauma-Informed
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
For many of us the idea of a yoga class being "violent" and "triggering" can be a foreign concept. Yoga is perceived as something relaxing and therapeutic-- but for many, a typical 'studio yoga' class can often be re-traumatizing, especially if the instructor does not hold space in a way that feels open, inviting and safe.
In order to take a trauma-informed approach in your yoga classes, it's important to first understand the physical and emotional manifestations of trauma so that you can become aware of how your words and actions in your yoga teaching could potentially cause more harm than good.
Individuals with unresolved trauma often suffer from a mind-body disconnect, where they find it difficult to feel safe in their bodies and connect to their physical selves in a healthy way. Bessel A van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, explains: "Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves."
Yoga then, can be a transformational modality of healing for individuals who are living with the aftermath of unresolved trauma. The practice of yoga and mindfulness teaches us how to observe and notice the sensations in our bodies and mind with compassion and non-judgment. Through these practices, we are able to restore a sense of visceral safety within our very own beings, and re-cultivate a loving relationship with ourselves. This is no easy task -- the act of simply showing up for who you are and what you feel in the moment requires tremendous vulnerability and courage, especially if that self is still working with a high level of trauma. If we as yoga teachers are asking of this vulnerability from our students, we have the responsibility to create a safe, brave, and restorative space for our students who trust us with their practice.
As a teen yoga teacher who works with under-estimated (due to their race, class, and access to resources) teens, I design and structure all my classes with a trauma-sensitive approach. Here are some basic ways you can make your yoga classes more trauma-informed and safe for all your students, including those working with trauma, anxiety, and depression.
Ask before you touch
I cannot even count the times a yoga teacher has touched me without my consent -- and this is a hugely problematic trend I see in typical 'studio yoga' classes. Physical touch is powerful. It can also triggering, especially for those who have a history of being abused or assaulted. While some may love physical adjustments (like myself), this is not the case for all of your students. In fact, for some students, uninvited physical adjustment from a yoga teacher can feel like an invasion of their space and assault on their sense of physical safety. As a yoga teacher, you simply never know what personal history and background your students are bringing onto their mat - never assume anything. Always ask for permission if you are offering physical touch.
How to ask for permission: There are several ways to do this - and each teacher will have their own way of making this work. I like to ask at the beginning of the class: to protect students' privacy, I usually set students in a pose where they can't see each other (ex: child's pose or savasana) and ask, "If you prefer not to receive physical adjustments, please give me a peace sign with your right hand." I also remind my students that if they change their minds in the middle of class, they can throw me this peace sign as a gentle "No Thank You" whenever I approach them to make an adjustment. I've also seen some other teachers and studios provide two-sided yogaflipchips to their students, one side is for "YES - I am ok with adjustments" and the other side is "NO - I prefer not to be adjusted." Students can simply place this chip right next to their mat, with their preferred side facing up so their teacher knows their preference. This is a more subtle way to let your students indicate what they are comfortable with. You can also make your own chips at home, if you want to organize a craft night with your fellow yoga teachers :)
*For teen yoga classes, classes in a correctional facility, or classes with survivors of domestic violence / rape /assault, it is recommended that you AVOID making any physical adjustments. Stick to using your words if you need to make any adjustments for safety.
2. Invite, don't command
In my 200HR yoga teacher training I was taught to have a "commanding presence and language" in the room so that everyone in the room would follow my exact directions. I personally find this to be quite ego driven and insensitive to your students' unique needs and backgrounds. If you were taught this way in your yoga teacher training -- it's time to unlearn that. Everything in your class is an invitation, and you want to use languaging that makes it clear that your students are ALWAYS in full control of their practice. Don't be offended or get hurt if students don't do as you say -- it's not about you -- it's about what feels right in their bodies and in their minds. Here are some words to use when you are teaching:
"I invite/encourage you to..."
"When you are ready/ when it feels right to you..."
"When you find the right breath..."
Another option is to simply remind your students at the beginning of each class that everything you teach is an invitation, not a necessity. Set the tone and and let your students know that their physical autonomy and choice is number one priority as you practice together.
3. Give Options
I don't care what Bikram says -- ALL asanas have many, many variations and modifications that can fit people's individual needs. If you are encouraging your students to honor their needs and be present with themselves, it is your job to share constructive ways in which your students can listen to and respond to what their bodies are saying to them. If you are not sure about modifications, look them up online, or work with your student one-on-one (during or after class) and try different variations of the pose until you find something that works for them. It's important that you work WITH your students on this. By that I mean you are checking in with them and getting feedback from them on the suggestions you've made for modifications. You don't truly know what it's like to be in their bodies, so the information they give you is so so valuable in figuring out a practice that truly serves them (remember this is not about you being the "all-knowing" yoga teacher, it's about being open to new ways to fully support your students.)
This also goes for closing the eyes. I've been to yoga classes where the teacher says "let's all close our eyes." For some students, especially if they've experienced a traumatic episode in the dark, the act of closing their eyes can make them feel unsafe. I recommend saying something more along the lines of:
"If it feels safe and comfortable for you, I invite you to close your eyes. If closing your eyes does not resonate with you today, you can try softening your gaze, closing your eyes half way, or looking down at the floor."
4. Teach from the mat
This one depends on the specific population you are working with. If you are working in juvenile detention center, prison, or domestic violence center, your students are likely going to be hypersensitive to your movements and physical presence. If you are sharing yoga in this type of environment, refrain from walking around the space. It can make your students feel on-edge and uneasy if you are constantly moving around the space, because they're not sure what to expect from you. Consistency and predictability is KEY to teaching a trauma-informed yoga class. Stay on your mat and teach from there, so that your students know where you are at all times. If you are teaching in a studio space, it will probably be ok for you to move around, but maybe inform your students that you will be moving throughout class.
5. Create predictable, stable environment
Individuals who come from a traumatic background have often been robbed of a sense of consistency and stability. To best support their healing journey, try to create a sense of predictability through these simple methods:
If possible, teach in a circle. This is the easiest way to remove the potential discomfort and uneasiness of having someone behind you while you practice. As a student, when you practice in a circle you are also able to see everything that is happening within your surrounding, which helps to give a sense of increased control and safety.
Follow a consistent pattern in your class -- it's recommended that you maintain a predictable structure in your classes. For example, maybe you always start class with the ringing of a singing bowl, or an opening quote, breathing exercise etc. If you are planning to suddenly change the structure of your class, make sure you inform your students of this change so that they are prepared for a shift that day.
Warn your students whenever you are changing something in the environment. If you want to turn the lights off for savasana, make sure you tell your students that you are about to turn the lights off.
These are some of the basic things you can do to make your classes trauma-informed. As you continue your yoga teaching journey, remember that the most important things is to stay open to the unique experiences of each and every one of your students. Thank you for your service in this world -- may we continue to practice with compassion, humility and a courageously open and adaptive heart.