By Jaci Gandenberger for Yoga Medicine®.
As a social worker and yoga teacher who has supported many other teachers in offering classes to vulnerable populations, I’m often asked about “trauma informed yoga.” In many cases, teachers want to know a formula or list of rules that can be used to create a trauma-free space.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. Trauma is deeply personal and triggers – things that remind someone of a past traumatic experience – can be unpredicatble due to the unique nature of a traumatic experience. Moving your body into a certain position, hearing a particular melody, or catching a whiff of a scent can all bring past experiences crashing back, and sometimes even the person experiencing this has not foreseen their own triggers.
A given pose – child’s pose, for example – might feel grounding and soothing for one person but feel vulnerable and unsafe to another. Similarly, breathing practices, room configurations, music playlists, and more can all carry the potential of triggering someone. I know of one yoga teacher who worked to create a “trauma informed” playlist that only had traditional Indian music. It had been well received, until one day she had a student from India who broke down sobbing during one song. He later explained that that song had been played at his father’s funeral.
While it can be scary to have no guarantees and no perfectly safe approach, here are some general tips that I use to mindfully plan safe classes for vulnerable students.
1. Ask your students what they want.
Would they prefer the lights bright or dimmed? The door open or closed? What kinds of music do they enjoy? In addition to setting yourself up for success, you’re also conveying that you’re someone who cares about your students’ preferences and needs. That alone can create a greater sense of safety.
Important note: Do NOT ask your students about their trauma histories or triggers! At most, you might ask in a general sense what makes them feel safe and if there’s anything they want you to know makes them unsafe. However, as their yoga teacher it is inappropriate for you to dig any deeper than that.
2. Do not give physical assists.
Many forms of trauma are related to people’s bodily autonomy being taken from them. Depending on your students’ experiences, they may not feel comfortable setting boundaries with you, so you can support them by refraining from touching their bodies at all. If you do want to give physical assists (only after developing significant rapport with your students), use an opt-in rather than opt-out approach and describe exactly what assist you are offering. Yes, this means getting permission for each assist – this gives students the opportunity to change their minds, and it recognizes that people have different boundaries around different ways of being touched. For example, I might be fine with someone pulling my heels down while I’m in down dog, but that doesn’t mean I’d be comfortable with them lifting my hips in the same shape.
3. Stay on your mat.
In my teacher training, I was urged to spend as little time on my yoga mat as possible. There are a lot of good reasons for that, but if you’re teaching a population with high levels of trauma, it’s better to stay in place. Many students feel vulnerable if someone is walking around the room while they’re practicing, particularly if they can’t see where that person is. In addition, if you’re not giving physical assists your visual cuing becomes more important. By staying at your mat and demonstrating the poses as you describe them, you’ll be be giving them a different, and typically safer, form of assisting.
4. Encourage body awareness and choice.
One of the most empowering things you can offer your students is a sense of bodily autonomy and the freedom to make their own choices. Rather than direct instructional language, use invitational language to encourage them to explore what would feel most helpful in their bodies.
For example, if we’re releasing the neck I might say: “If you’d like, begin rolling your neck slowly from side to side. As you do so, notice if there are any areas that feel a little tighter, or where there’s a feeling of tugging or resistance. As you notice those areas, you might choose one to linger with. You can send your breath into that spot, or maybe even give it a little massage to help it release. When you’ve spent enough time in that spot, you can roll your neck a little more until you feel the next place you’d like to linger.”
5. Give your students tools to ground themselves.
If students start to feel triggered or disassociated, an effective ways to recenter them is to encourage them to focus on what they’re experiencing with their five senses. This returns their attention to the present moment. One simple way to do this is to ask students to notice 5 things they see, 4 things they feel, 3 things they hear, 2 things they smell, and 1 thing they taste. You can offer this as a practice towards the beginning or end of class, or any time students seem to be becoming disconnected.
6. Don’t try to be their therapist.
You can offer a powerful, healing practice as a yoga teacher so focus on what you’re trained to provide and are there to offer. If you have a student who seems to be in crisis, or one who comes to you before or after class seeking a level of support that you aren’t equipped to provide, the best thing you can do is to refer them to other support systems. One valuable resource is Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” tool, which allows you to search for therapists in your area by categories including specialty, language(s) spoken, and types of insurance accepted.
7. Give yourself grace.
Because there is no fool-proof formula, know that you aren’t a failure if a student is triggered in one of your classes. You’re being present with the reality of being human. Make sure that your student has the support they need, which will likely include connecting them with an outside resource. Then learn from it, grow from it, and release it.