Trauma Informed Care for Yoga

Trauma is a seventh century Greek word literally meaning ‘wound’. It can also refer to a wound which is often invisible, which we can’t see. There can be physical, psychological and spiritual causes of trauma. Trauma can also affect the body in multiple ways, and there any be many varied responses to the same event. Trauma can potentially build up in the body over time. You can see it as a ‘historical body’, which refers to the many different levels and layers of trauma which one’s body has stored over one’s life. One can experience one of the many layers of trauma. Obvious examples are rape, injury, giving birth or a near death experiences. Yet trauma could also arise from traumatic effects such as witnessing domestic violence, or an accident. However, the lasting effects of trauma are still being researched. PTSD indicates that there can potentially be long lasting effects of trauma that can affect the nervous system. When we engage with a breath orientated practice we are essentially working with the nervous system and have the ability to release or potentially trigger trauma.

Trauma Informed Care needs to be mandatory for yoga teachers because every body has trauma. Just like we need to have first aid training and anatomy training even though we are not physicians, when we work with the body we are working with a whole invisible history of trauma. I know that this can seem overwhelming, but I feel it is really important to speak to and realise that there are easy steps which we can take to increase our sensitivity and support for the invisible wounds of trauma. 74% of yoga practitioners have been practicing for five years or less and 25% of yoga teachers teaching for less than two years. I would assume from my own experience of practicing and teaching, that time reveals the depth of what the body can hold and how movement can either release it or even potentially reinforce trauma. I feel it important that those of us teaching really commit to a solid self practice and inner exploration of the wisdom of the body, whilst working to implement a very safe environment for our students to do the same.

A yoga teacher who is sensitive to teaching yoga to a woman and is prepared to look beyond the typical patriarchal mandate for what it is to ‘teach yoga’ has, in my opinion, a head start in how to work with trauma. This is not because a woman has necessarily experienced more trauma than a man (although research suggests that this is the case), but as we have seen throughout this exploration of women within yoga, there has been a tendency to force another’s ideas on top of our own experience. On the most basic level this pertains to certain alignment cues, which can often demand uniformity and with it, aggressive adjustments. A practitioner who has experienced trauma may well be triggered by receiving a physical or even verbal or visual adjustment. Being singled out could be confronting for some, and for many the tendency to revert to fawn or freeze could camouflage the stress response of the body.

The patriarchal shadow of Modern Postural Yoga[1]:

  • Guru- iṣya relationship is usually based on a power hierarchy where the Guru is assumed to be at a higher state of consciousness or at least knowledge. This often disempowers the student to question the guru. A great deal of responsibility is at the hands of the guru to not take advantage of this balance of power.
  • Demand for uniformity does not honour the individual’s needs. On the level of physical trauma, a practitioner may not be able to take on the assumed shape of a posture, or a modification may prove more therapeutic. On a psychological level, a practitioner ‘unable’ to copy the form demanded by the teacher could reinforce attitudes of unworthiness.
  • Loud music, a teacher that shouts, aggressive adjustments and an erratic sequence can all trigger stress responses in the body and detract from the potential scope of the practice. It could be that practitioners are actually in acute stress mode during a class, and the ‘natural high’ is in fact an adrenal high.

Options which respect the history of everybody in a general yoga class:

  • A breath led movement class can be a wonderful way to focus the mind on the present and gently release excess tension from the body.
  • Explore the power of yoga nidra, restorative yoga and sound healing. Remember that less is more, and what most people need is not a work out, but a chance to deeply unwind.
  • Consent cards if you wish to receive an adjustment
  • Ways to cue that empower and educate the practitioner to make their own informed choices
  • Options and variations, for example taking savasana with eyes open, laying on one’s side, or front. Another option for cat/cow such as sitting and moving spine.
  • Respecting a practitioner’s need to opt out of parts of the class or even the whole class.
  • Have a network of resources ready to offer a practitioner who may be in need support.
  • Respect a practitioner’s space. This doesn’t only refer to giving adjustments, but also the use of oils or stepping over or onto someone’s mat. Sensitivity is key.
  • If a practitioner is nervous then ask them what will make them more comfortable. Would it help to move their position in the room? What do they need to feel safe?

What is your pedagogical approach?

  • Leadership verses hierarchy? E.g question why are you saying what you are saying, why certain alignment principles maybe important for you, and does it really matter if everyone is not doing what you say! Perhaps it is empowering for an individual to opt out, or to listen to their body. Watch for the tendency of the teacher to want to try and control everyone: To drop into the illusion of being in a position of  have power.
  • Do you tell people how to feel, or give them space to feel?
  • What kind of learning environment do you wish to foster?
  • How do you speak to the practitioners in your class? Is it in an authoritarian manner? Does it allow for agency? Does it look for collaboration rather than for control?

Trauma Informed Care for Yoga can be a wonderful revelation in rewiring what it is to actually teach people rather than just poses. I feel that modern yoga has evolved to such a point that we must all be ready to open up our classes as an empowering exploration of collaboration. It is time to move away from the colonial and Victorian aspects of Modern Postural Yoga and towards a style of teaching which holds the space for deep healing and recovery from trauma on an individual and collective level.

 

Additional Trauma Resources

Ardea, N.,  2016. The Art of Healing from Sexual Trauma: Tending Body and Soul Through Creativity, Nature and Intuition.

Bennet, B., 2003.  Emotional Yoga.

Emerson, D and Hooper, E., 2011.  Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga.

Levine, P., 1997.  Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma – The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences.

Miller, R., 2015. The iRest Program for PTSD

Thompson, B., 2014. Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma.

Thompson, B., 2017. Teaching with Tenderness: Toward and Embodied Practice

Van der Kolk, B., 2015. The Body Keeps the Score.

[1] The category ‘Modern Postural Yoga’ was coined by Elizabeth de Michelis.