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In light of the recent #MeToo, #WhyIDidn’tReport, and Kavanaugh versus Ford allegations, there is one thing that we’ve come to realize as a collective.
And it’s that a large number of men and women are carrying the unresolved trauma of abuse in their bodies.
It’s not their fault.
Part of the patriarchal problem is that even our healing modalities have tended to take a masculine approach—much of psychology and psychotherapy work focuses on the mind and ignores how the body holds trauma for a lifetime.
Yet, this means all of the emotional pain—shame, anger, grief—remains buried within and our nervous system stays stuck in a state of “freeze,” which means we struggle to feel anything, let alone feeling safe or present in our bodies.
As yogis and yoga teachers, it’s our job to help people to feel—to feel safe, to feel supported, to feel their emotions, to feel good again.
The challenge is that the there are few yoga teachers who have training in trauma and so many don’t realize the potential pitfalls of holding a class that is not trauma-informed.
In the absence of this education, here are seven ways that we can begin to make our yoga classes more trauma-informed:
1. Give students a choice. Most teachers, at the beginning of class, invite students to raise a hand to share about any current or historical physical injuries or recent surgeries.
It’s much more difficult to ask if trauma or abuse are in their history. Trauma remains unresolved in the system because there was no choice at the time of the occurrence, and without the ability to escape or fight back, the system becomes overwhelmed.
We can begin to counteract the effects of this by giving students permission to rest if needed, rather than push through. This gives them agency over their body, something that may have been stolen from them a long time ago.
It might seem counterintuitive to our idea of teaching a prescribed series of asanas, but in giving them permission to pause—to not follow what we are telling them to do with their limbs—we offer a new possibility, one that could be the most powerful and healing gift they’ll ever receive.
2. Acknowledge the silence and seek consent. Students typically won’t shout about it if they’re suffering their way through your class. Why? Because trauma, particularly when it’s been physical or sexual, often robs the victim of their voice and the ability to ask for help.
As in all areas where consent is a necessary component of a healthy exchange, it’s especially important to establish this verbally where any form of touch is involved.
Never assume that silence is a “yes.”
Consider creating a confidential comments system—digitally or on paper—and invite students to share if they ever feel unsafe or experience anything that doesn’t feel right. If you’re a studio owner, consider placing a printed copy of the Yoga Alliance Code of Ethics/Guidelines on Sexual Misconduct in a visible place.
3. Use neutral and inviting language. Commands, orders, and any language with sexual undertones, or overtones, is highly “charged” and has no place in yoga. The key is to use neutral language.
There are plenty of ways to gently invite students into poses where they have to move their pelvis, buttocks, or chest—areas that are hot spots that hold trauma memory—without using words that might easily trigger a flashback.
We can also avoid terms such as “surrender” or “give it all up” and still cue relaxation without suggesting students give away their power.
Get creative, practice with fellow teachers. Here are some examples:
>> Lift your tailbone up toward the sky
>> Step your feet to the edges of your mat
>> On the exhale, soften into the pose
>> Twist your torso to the left and lengthen through the spine
>> Press your sitting bones into the mat
>> Feel the support of the earth beneath you
>> Let gravity draw you into the mat
4. Honor the hopelessness of trauma. The signs and symptoms of unresolved trauma show up in many ways—ranging from anxiety, depression, self-sabotage, perpetual cycles of shame, blame, autoimmune, digestive conditions, and relational issues.
For those caught in these states, it may seem endless, and this fosters a sense of hopelessness. Yet, with the right help, there’s a way out.
However, it isn’t found in the spiritual ideology and affirmations often spouted by teachers during a class: “it’s all just love,” or “you’re already whole,” or inviting students to just “forgive everyone.”
This may give momentary palliative relief, but it’s far more likely to accentuate the pain, as this spiritual bypass avoids acknowledgement of the unresolved shadow, and the loop of suffering will continue.
True forgiveness, wholeness, and healthy love can only be lived, embodied, and realized once trauma has been safely released and the resulting emotions of the wounded child worked through with professional therapy.
5. Know when to say no. Our role as teacher is to protect and support the well-being of our students. But yoga teachers are not therapists. If we witness students suffering, struggling, or checking out in our class—we can guide them in the ways we know how.
We can help students understand that if they experience signs of dissociation—shortness of breath, dizziness, anxiety, heart palpitations, agitation, panic, or numbness—to slow down.
Pause. Come to sitting. Tell them to gently connect to their breath.
We can invite them to notice objects in the room, so they can come back to the present moment and regain regulation. But we can’t fix something if we don’t have the proper training for it.
6. Accept responsibility. As teachers, it’s our responsibility as the space holder for what yoga has become in the West—primarily the physical practice of asana, often held in packed classes at festivals or in heated rooms, which all increase the likelihood of re-traumatization.
Students often put themselves under a lot of pressure as they attempt to gain our approval, to try and keep up with the class, or conform to the phenomena of Instagram-induced pose perfection that’s in this era of social media.
Ideally, it’s our role to encourage everyone to stop this overthinking and instead, listen deeply.
7. Advance your skills. It seems that every month another dodgy swami or founding father of yoga is knocked off his post due to an abuse of power or sexual violence, and yet it is repackaged as some kind of Karma Yoga.
Evidently, it’s time that we, as teachers, took a long hard look at how we may have unconsciously colluded with this, and, rather than contributing, consider the many ways we can individually create a greater degree of care and consent—both in our classes and in the wider yoga community.
We can advance our professional skills, exploring the many fantastic trauma-informed or trauma sensitive yoga trainings that are emerging, to gain skills that help cultivate a safer space.
We can bring healing to the legacy of abuse that’s been perpetuated under patriarchal rule—both outside and within the yoga community.