“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?’ Once you start approaching your body with curiosity, rather than with fear, everything shifts.” ~ Bessel van der Kolk
A few semesters ago, one of my young college students lingered behind after our power yoga class to talk to me.
She timidly waited until all the other students had exited and approached me, hesitant and unsure. She looked pale, with dark circles under her eyes, and I had noticed during class that she kept taking child’s pose. At the beginning of the semester, I had directed students to do just that if they were feeling the need for break.
I sensed something was wrong.
I expected her to be suffering from a hangover or from an extended illness; she had been absent the previous two weeks. But what she told me made me rethink the way that I teach my university classes: she had been assaulted two weeks earlier while walking home alone from a bar late at night.
Furthermore, she confided in me that she was in recovery for bulimia and anorexia. This student was in pain, and I had not been aware. That frightened me a little.
After she left the room, I mentally revisited the class I had just taught. I racked my brain trying to remember what I said, how I had said it, what postures I had cued, and what jokes I had made. Had I used any verbiage that would trigger her to relive her experience? Had I assisted her in any way that could have been uncomfortable?
I’m a trauma-informed yoga instructor who teaches in prisons, so I’m aware of the importance of cueing and sequencing to avoid triggering a reaction in my students. So why had I not considered that some of my college students could be experiencing traumatic life events?
Before this moment, there had been a complete disconnect in my mind between the two populations I teach. I had never considered that many of my prison students were college graduates and that many of my college students were victims of past or current trauma. The truth is that we all overlap in some way and are never completely disconnected from others. The same is true about different styles of yoga.
From that point on, I committed to changing my teaching style with the underlying assumption that all of my students could be victims of complex trauma or at least have experienced some traumatic life event. While there was no way that I could do anything about the classes I had taught up to that point, I could be proactive in my future classes and teach them all from a trauma-informed foundation.
But how do we incorporate trauma-informed yoga into intensely demanding classes like power yoga or hot yoga? Trauma-informed yoga seeks to bring balance back to the victim by reintegrating the mind and the body to release the trauma, and the practice is often slower and less intense than other styles of yoga—particularly my first love, power yoga. In order to make our classes more mindful, there is a way we integrate and synthesize the different styles with trauma-informed methodology to be emotionally accessible to all.
The term that I chose to describe my classes was trauma-friendly yoga. In classes that are not primarily designed to aid victims of complex trauma, we can still make small changes to ensure our classes are more mindful and sensitive to anyone who may be suffering from trauma, without us having to know their personal history.
This way, we do not have to give up our power or hot or yin classes; we simply integrate a few key principles to become more trauma-sensitive.
Be mindful of our sequencing, and give options and choices.
Certain yoga postures, such as happy baby (Ananda Balasana) and frog (Mandukasana) may put students in compromising and vulnerable positions. Be mindful when incorporating all postures into your yoga classes, and give students other choices if they feel uncomfortable. For example, if a student avoids happy baby, wind-relieving posture (Pawanmuktasana) is a nice substitute; for frog, butterfly (Baddha Konasana) is a nice alternative. Other postures such as downward facing dog and camel can also be triggers in certain situations.
At first, choices can require extra effort and forethought to include, but over time, it becomes second nature. It is not logical, prudent, or realistic to ban certain yoga postures all the time, as others may benefit from their practice. However, the key word is choices. Always remind students that they are never expected to engage in any posture. I like to use Bryan Kest’s analogy that yoga is a buffet of sorts. When we visit a buffet, we don’t eat everything offered. We take what we like and leave what we don’t. Yoga postures can be approached in the same manner and students should be reminded before, during, and after class of the many options available.
Evaluate your playlist.
Using music in yoga class can be enjoyable and even expose students to new genres, helping them expand their musical repertoire, but some songs can be a trigger for those who have been traumatized. For example, recently, while teaching yoga to a group of at-risk teenagers, I played a rendition of the Beatles “Let It Be” by a well-known Kirtan artist. Immediately, one student sat up, appearing unsettled. After class, I asked him what had happened and he informed me that “Let It Be” had been played at his grandmother’s funeral. When he heard the song come on, he could no longer relax because of the memories and thoughts related to her.
Sometimes, the unexpected can be triggers for traumatic memories, and we can inadvertently cause a reaction. When this incident happened, I realized that I needed to avoid the use of popular music in my classes. According to Bessel van der Kolk, people who experience traumatic situations often have a hard time verbalizing the experiences related to the traumatic event. Most of the memories of the trauma are in fragmented, sensory details that they cannot coherently put together to frame the story, so there is an absence of plot. Smells, sounds, and lights are often what they do remember, so being mindful of how the senses can trigger a reaction is important.
Using unfamiliar rhythms in class may help prevent this situation from occurring. A regular rhythm is also soothing, and at the right bpm can help the yogi establish a consistent yogic breath. It is no accident that drumming circles have become effective therapeutic tools and are one of the earliest, most primitive ways to make music. Incorporating prerecorded rhythms in class is calming, soothing, and may help us get back into the present moment and in alignment with nature’s rhythm.
Avoid using commands.
One of the defining elements of complex trauma is that there is an uneven balance of power, with the victim having little to no power and the abuser having all the power. As teachers, we want to make sure that our students do not project the uneven balance of power onto us. To facilitate and build community, there must be a reciprocal and healthy relationship, or better yet, an uneven balance in the favor of the student.
When leading a class, one way to give students ownership is to avoid the use of imperative language or commands. David Emerson calls this technique interoceptive language and phrasing. According to him, verbiage such as notice, invite, consider, perhaps, and maybe are good choices when attempting to avoid commands and sounding bossy. Keep in mind, however, there are times when you may need to use verbal or visual cues to prevent a student with improper form from hurting himself.
Avoid physical assists.
If our intention is to empower the student, we must refrain from touching and physically assisting students. As a student, I enjoy physical assists from instructors, but I must be sure not to project my desires onto my own students. During a traumatic event, such as physical or sexual abuse or assault, the offender encroaches on the personal space of the victim. If someone has experienced a car accident resulting in bodily injury, her physical body has been affected by that trauma as well. Therefore, it is important that we are mindful of our students’ personal space and avoid getting too close physically.
In addition, we want our actions and our words to be congruent, so if we are using interoceptive language and phrasing, we must be sure our actions do not contradict what we say. If we are giving students options and choices to control their own bodies, but we then physically adjust their bodies to look the way we believe they should, we are sending mixed signals.
With a little practice, teachers can become conditioned to make all their classes trauma-friendly, holding a safe space for anyone regardless of their past. Whether a yoga class is intended to be trauma-informed, restorative, power, or yin, teachers can always make minor adjustments to be all-inclusive and supportive of the students we teach.
Relephant watch: 5 Mindful Things to Do Each Morning.
Author: Angela Still
Image: Geert Pieters/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina