I’m teaching a yoga class for survivors of domestic and sexual violence at a local women’s shelter. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more about what differentiates a trauma-sensitive yoga class from a regular one. What’s particularly interesting to me about this is that I’ve been teaching (somewhat unknowingly) from a trauma-sensitive perspective since I received my RYT in 2010.
David Emerson, who wrote, Overcoming Yoga Through Trauma, states:
In the most extreme cases of this guru legacy, yoga practitioners are commanded to subjugate their will to that of the guru and to deny their own subjective experience, trusting totally in the mandates and proclivities of the teacher. For those of us interested in trauma-sensitive yoga, this is the exact opposite of what we hope for from yoga, and in fact it seems closer to a definition of trauma than a liberating practice based on self-discovery and self-care. Therefore, we reject the guru culture that can be found in yoga’s past and present in favor of a model where the yoga teacher, while creating some structure and safety, invites students to listen first and foremost to their own bodies and to be guided by their own experience in the moment. There is no need for a guru or for dogma in order for the practice to be safe, effective, and even spiritually nourishing for trauma survivors.
Through all of my yoga teaching, I have been committed to leading students deeper into their bodies, their sensations, their life. I have never been a “pusher”–I don’t use commanding language like, “Go deeper here”, rather, I ask my students to “notice”, “feel”, “be.” I think this is important when teaching, especially if teaching to those who have been affected by trauma. Survivors have been pushed around enough in life, which is why I make sure to give my students choices and options. I never want anyone to feel like they have to do a certain posture, or feel a certain way. Emerson states, “Trauma is an experience of having no choice.” Pushing these individuals to feel something or do something is adding to their traumatic history.
According to Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, there are “5 Domains of a Yoga Class” for it be trauma-sensitive. These are: language, assists, teacher qualities, environment, and exercises. I’ll explain these 5 domains briefly below.
-Not asking survivors to imagine any out-of-body experiences, but instead to visualize what is happening in the body currently; using metaphors sparingly.
-Saying things like, “notice”, “be curious”, approach with interest”, “allow”, “feel”, “experiment.”
-Not commanding, leading towards invitation (i.e. “When you feel ready…”).
2. Assists (visual, verbal, & physical)
-Model lower intensity postures, so the experience can be more accessible to students.
-Suggest the use of props.
-If giving a physical assist, make sure to ask first and then tell the student what you are going to do, so there are no surprises. Letting the student know they can always say NO. Approach the student from the front, make eye contact.
-”Anything that takes away from the student’s empowerment within the class is at best unhelpful, and at worst destructive.” -David Emerson
3. Teaching Qualities
-Make sure you are in a stable and calm state when teaching.
-Do not move around a lot–let the students know where you are physically in the room. If you do need to move around, let the class/student know why.
-Don’t call students out by name–even if it is to praise them, as this might feel “shaming” to survivors. Emerson states, “We encourage you to think carefully about why you have the urge to praise someone and to deeply consider whether or not your words will be helpful.”
-Don’t create “artificial challenges”–”many of our students have already challenged themselves more than we may ever know just by showing up” to class.
-Dark or dim rooms can be more triggering to survivors.
-Don’t change lighting throughout class–don’t turn lights off.
-Minimize external noise.
-Have a DV/SV advocate in the room (let the students know who this person is) in case any student is triggered and needs to talk with someone outside of the space.
-Teach postures that can help the survivor reclaim their bodies
-Don’t introduce hip openers right away–these postures can pose a lot of emotional and psychological challenges to someone who have been affected by trauma. Personally, I have cried several times in half pigeon, because it brought up having been raped. I love half pigeon now, and crying or releasing any type of emotion is excellent, but for someone just starting out, this posture is not something to throw oneself into.
-Accessibility: all of your students will be able to do these postures eventually, so don’t teach postures that only Yoga Journal cover models can do.
-Keep the pace slow.
For me, the biggest thing about teaching specifically to survivors of trauma is acknowledging the strength they/we already have. Being a positive, safe, empowering support system is the least of what we as teachers can do for our students.