“There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” ~ Lola May
Beer Yoga, Goat Yoga, Heavy Metal Yoga, and even Naked Yoga—as teachers scramble to brand new forms of yoga to attract potential students to the practice, I have spent the last four years engaged in the trauma-informed yoga movement.
While it is not a yoga branding movement per se, I have seen a rise in teachers seeking to sell their trauma-informed methods and represent themselves as “yoga therapists.” After all, we all need to survive.
In order to expand my knowledge base and skill set, I have attended some of these trainings and read literature related to teaching underserved populations and supplementing my interest in psychology with my love of yoga. I’ve taught prisoners, at-risk youth and those in the recovery community. I’ve become so entrenched in the trauma-informed community that I even created my own 501(c)3 nonprofit to help expand programs to those who could benefit from the therapeutic aspects of yoga.
In other words, I am using yoga to supplement my already established goals rather than the other way around. Recently, however, I have been looking more closely at what is occurring in the West in regards to trauma-informed yoga and yoga therapy—and I am concerned.
I have spent the last 49 years preparing as a trauma-informed yoga instructor—that is my entire existence on planet earth. After almost five decades, I realize that all my life experiences have culminated in one set goal: teaching yoga to underserved communities. It wasn’t until recently that I identified my svadharma, or life’s purpose, which I realized was the result of decades of preparation.
I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that trauma-informed yoga looked like an interesting path to take. My decision was gradual, involving personal and life experiences, and many years of educational and vocational training. Having an addictive personality, I’ve suffered from body image issues, eating disorders, and a plethora of unhealthy behaviors. I come from a family with a strong disposition for developing addictions, and every day is a challenge to stay grounded.
My life experiences led me to study rehabilitation counseling and educational psychology in graduate school, earning a master’s degree in counseling and beyond; and as an educator, I have spent the last 27 years in public school classrooms, part of those years working with at-risk youth. I have taught yoga in churches and on the college level. Although I am not a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists, I do feel qualified to teach trauma-informed yoga classes based on my experience and educational background.
However, even after decades of relevant experience, there are moments when I don’t always feel qualified to be teaching underserved communities. In fact, I recognize that I have much to learn and many improvements to make. That is why I am so concerned with the rapidity at which the trauma-informed movement is taking off and the rise of what seems to be new and inexperienced teachers delving into sometimes precarious territory, calling themselves “yoga therapists” without the proper training.
There are many reasons why this movement is of such grave concern to me, and it isn’t about my ego, although some will accuse me of being judgmental and even ageist. The truth is that the trauma-informed yoga movement can be downright dangerous for both instructors and students who are not properly trained or lack adequate life experiences to enter into this type of work.
With the explosion of yoga in the West, there seems to be a yoga teacher training on every street corner, creating an influx of yoga instructors who want to share their love of yoga with others. Although their intentions are often noble, many are beginning to engage in practices they are not prepared to venture into. The IAYT offers a yoga therapy certification; on its website, they list “8 Steps to Becoming a Certified Yoga Therapist.” The only formal training one must have to enroll in a certified yoga therapy program is a 200-hour or 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher Training program.
For those of you who are unaware, one can complete a 200-hour teacher training in three weeks—that is hardly the equivalent of a formal degree program from an accredited university. And while this leniency in requirement makes the training accessible to those who may not have a psychological background from an accredited university or college, it opens up the field to those who may be under-qualified and unprepared to take on such heavy work.
Below are a few more reasons why I’m concerned about the trauma-informed yoga movement:
Lack of Education and Training
There is a reason that counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists spend many years in graduate and/or medical school learning about the human brain and the techniques required to work with people who have had traumatic life experiences. The brain, and its workings, is a complex and delicate organ. When people are suffering from complex trauma they are vulnerable, and teachers can unintentionally trigger an adverse reaction in a student.
A teacher who is unqualified and undereducated can do more harm than good. In the state of South Carolina, for instance, licensed professional counselors must have a master’s degree in a psychology-related field from an accredited college or university, complete a 1,500-hour internship under the direction of another licensed professional counselor, and receive a passing mark on a mandated certification exam. Earning the credentials to work with others as a therapist is the result of many years of formal schooling and experience. Licensed counselors are trained in specific techniques and methods in order to help and not harm.
Think of it from this perspective: if a 200-hour RYT began to advertise herself as a physical therapist, there would be legal and professional consequences, so why is toying with someone’s mental state any different? We wouldn’t look kindly upon someone trespassing on the title of “Certified Physical Therapist,” yet we allow people to take on the title of “Yoga Therapist,” without having any formal training at all.
While I do believe that yoga instructors can benefit from the self-taught study of trauma-informed yoga and other specialized trainings to enhance their general practice, it is my belief that most of them should refrain from calling themselves yoga therapists unless they have a formal degree in a psychological field and/or many years of training from qualified teachers. Even then, the title should be approached with caution.
Little to No Regulation
There is a reason that Yoga Alliance does not allow teachers to include their 500-hour Yoga Therapy Training on their website, and that is liability. They recognize the delicate nature of the human psyche and understand that unqualified toying with the human brain can have serious ramifications.
In addition, Yoga Alliance essentially works on the honor system with any teacher or yoga school registering with them. There is currently no definitive accountability measure put in place to grade their registered schools or their teachers, and Yoga Alliance’s purpose has even come under fire by the Western yoga community as a money-making organization. Teachers self-report hours to earn E-RYT (Experienced-Registered Yoga Teacher) status, and there is no measure in place to ensure honesty in this endeavor. I know of teachers who have falsely reported hours simply to earn E-RYT status so they could lead 200-hour RYT training schools.
If we are going to be completely frank with ourselves, we understand that not all yoga schools or yoga trainers are created equally; some are better than others, and that also applies to yoga therapy training schools and their trainers. Some programs are simply out to make money with little regard for the quality of training offered. While the IAYT has worked to set standards for yoga therapy training schools, there is still no definitive regulation for calling oneself a yoga therapist.
In my conversation with IAYT, I asked about any formal accredited degree prerequisites to their yoga therapy certification, and there were none—only the desire to become one and a 200-hour RYT title. And while a college degree is not always indicative of one’s ability or innate gifts, it is a method of ensuring that there is at least some sort of accountability. My hope is that it won’t be long before the government steps up and realizes the need to regulate the field of yoga to ensure that only qualified individuals can promote themselves as yoga therapists. While I recognize that there should be a limit to government involvement in many areas, there is a reason that we set standards and create laws and regulations in many vocational fields. As the yoga community continues to grow, it’s important to reassess the need for higher expectations to protect ourselves and our students.
My journey has been one of trial and error. I’ve had success and made mistakes; I’ve monitored and adjusted my instruction based on my personal experience. I’ve suffered from eating disorders and addictions. In the throes of my functioning alcoholism, I raised three children, worked three jobs, traveled quite extensively, and started a nonprofit—all as a single mother.
While I’m not proud of my addictive behaviors, they have been a blessing in disguise, guiding me to my life’s purpose. My decision to teach trauma-informed yoga was gradual and the result of decades of life and vocational experience. While some may accuse me of being ageist, that is not my intention. I recognize there are many gifted young yoga instructors; however, as yoga instructors, we should be honest enough with ourselves to teach what we know until we have proper training and experience to go deeper into our practice and eventually share it with others.
I am currently reassessing my ability to teach yoga in prisons, having never been incarcerated myself. This self-reflection is part of the niyama of svadhyaya, or the observance of our life’s purpose. If we are not constantly seeking to modify, expand, or even critique ourselves, then we aren’t living our yoga.
As instructors, we should constantly assess our intention for teaching the populations and subjects that we teach. If we examine our intentions and discover that they are coming from a place of ego, we need to pull back and take a break. Trauma-informed yoga and yoga therapy are partly about offering yoga as a tool to help alleviate the suffering of others. In our study of yoga, if we delve into the path of Raja yoga, the key concepts influencing the practice of trauma-informed yoga are karuna, or compassion for those who are suffering, and karma, selfless service without attachment to the outcome.
Karuna is key when working with underserved populations. The intention is to not engage to “help” others but to share a technique to empower others. Recently, I have examined my own intentions for teaching prison yoga and have discovered that I have not been wholly selfless in my actions. Much of what I have done has been a result of ego, which is the reason I am stepping back and exploring different areas of teaching and even taking a break from working with inmates.
My friend and fellow teacher, Ginger Doughty, used the term “to Hollywood yoga” this week. If we have the intention of reaching some level of recognition for our efforts, then perhaps we should reexamine our reasons for engaging in the practice in the first place. It is easy to get caught up in the glamour and narcissism of social media to seek validation for our efforts. However, as teachers, perhaps it is time to step back and think about why we began teaching yoga in the first place. Likewise, if we find ourselves “experimenting” with trauma-based yoga, teaching certain populations before we are ready for them, or simply doing so to add to our resume, then we may not be serving ourselves or others the best way we can. In fact, we may be inadvertently cultivating a dangerous situation. We should be humble and honest enough to admit when we need to step out of a situation.
We are all reflections of each other, and as I examine the trauma-informed yoga therapy movement, I see myself guilty of taking on too much responsibility before I was ready. I believe that the key components to any yoga teaching practice are authenticity, intention, and preparation.
Giving ourselves time to cultivate the skill set that we need in order to serve others the best we can will ensure that we do not inflict harm when we are seeking to empower. When we begin to engage in these teaching practices or take on a specific title, such as yoga therapist, self-reflection, monitoring, adjusting, and humility are all ways to continue to ensure that we achieve our desired goals.
An Open Letter from a Trauma Therapist to Yoga Teachers: 12 Simple Ways to Make Your Classes More Trauma-Informed.
Author: Angela Still
Image: Stephen Sandian/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina