The Pillars of Trauma-Informed Yoga

The Pillars of Trauma-Informed Yoga

How we can use this approach in yoga studios and beyond.

Guest Post by Casey Mitchell

Nearly every person in the world has experienced some kind of trauma in their life, whether they realize it or not: natural disasters, war, abuse, death, divorce, and many, many more. We bring these experiences into the world with us as we walk around daily; then onto the mat when we step into a studio or simply our living room. Practicing yoga can be a very emotional experience. As we get in touch with our bodies and begin to pay attention to our internal dialogue and experience, feelings come up. For someone who has experienced trauma, it can be difficult to hide these things. And for someone who has experienced trauma, encountering a trigger in a yoga class can make those feelings even stronger. This is where trauma informed yoga comes in.

In trauma informed yoga spaces, we cannot completely eliminate triggers – each person and their experience is too unique to know exactly every person’s needs. However, what we can do is limit the exposure of these triggers while students are in vulnerable positions, as we are in a yoga class. We can make our spaces kind, compassionate and welcoming as well as sacred and safe. And as we move our yoga spaces toward this trauma informed goal, we will also be able to take this mindset off the mat and into the world, where it is most needed.

There are many different perspectives to integrating recognition of trauma into yoga, and it comes with many different names.  Yoga Buzz uses The Missouri Model for Standards in Trauma Informed Care as a foundation for educating yoga teachers within our own community. We use the “Trauma Informed” because the definition is our goal to move toward as a whole yoga community here in St. Louis:

  • Trauma informed organizations have made trauma-responsive practices the organizational norm.
  • The trauma model has become so accepted and so thoroughly embedded that it no longer depends on a few leaders.
  • The organization works with other partners to strengthen collaboration around being trauma informed

We will begin by discussing what the pillars of this model are and provide examples for ways we can implement this into our studios, personal practices and interpersonal relationships. When we explore these pillars, we will also connect them with the five Yamas of yoga. The Yamas are known as ethical guidelines out of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

Pillars of Trauma Informed Yoga

Safety or Ahimsa. Ahimsa means to be compassionate and ‘do no harm’. As we think of safety in the studio, this feels very straight forward. Ideas like locking doors during the practice so students (and teachers) can feel safe in the space, lockers for personal belongings, well lit parking areas, etc. may all come to mind. These are all wonderful ideas to implement but safety in a studio can also be seen in the way the teacher speaks to the students. Certain choices in language and sounds can be very triggering. Phrases in cueing poses could incite a trigger in a sexual abuse survivor that could have lasting consequences. Using assists and touching without asking permission can also be incredibly triggering for someone with a background of physical or sexual abuse or violence of any kind.

Another component in cultivating safety in yoga spaces is learning to hold space for each other. If a survivor does come into a studio, know that it takes a lot of courage to step out of their comfort zone to be physically and emotionally vulnerable in a room full of people who they have never met. When we choose to hold space for another person, we are allowing them to feel their emotions and reacting to that without judgment. If we are to fully cultivate trauma informed spaces, we must master the art of holding space for others. If someone is to feel safe in such a vulnerable space, we must learn to let go of judgment and allow for love and empathy for others to overtake our discomfort.

Choice or Satya. Satya means to be truthful to ourselves and others. When we offer choice to survivors, it can be incredibly empowering. In yoga classes, it can be difficult to take modifications even if they are offered because of how many people are in the room. It can be easy to see that everyone else in the room is doing what the instructor is doing and even taking the more advanced options and feel as though you have to do that, too, even if it hurts. As we create safe spaces for our students and for survivors, that feeling of safety will in turn allow the choices to become easier to take. Teachers can offer plenty of options and modifications during the class. Even taking a modification as the teacher can allow students to feel more comfortable with taking one.

Another part of offering choice and allowing students to be true to themselves, is to speak about what may happen if a student encounters difficult emotions during a class. Offering a variety of resting poses for your students to take if they need to can help them feel more comfortable. Giving students permission to stay in the resting poses, or even allowing them to leave the class if they are struggling can help in this area.  Ultimately, encouraging students to make their own choices means then honoring whatever choice they make.

Yoga teachers – remember that the class isn’t about us.

Empowerment or Asteya. Asteya means to be generous and non-stealing; and a way we can do that is to practice active listening. To empower each other we must be aware of the fact that we may not know what is going on with someone else and to be sensitive to that. Non-violent communication is one way we can be sensitive to the people around us, whether that is a student, a teacher or our peers. As we take time to truly listen to understand, not to respond, then we allow the other person to truly say what they need to say.

Another way to practice asteya as a teacher is to remember that the class isn’t about us. If someone has to lay down or go into child’s pose during the class, it is about them and what they need that day during our practice. It is highly unlikely that it has anything to do with the teaching style and even if it is, it is still their practice. This is most definitely where active listening (and boundaries) come into play. Allowing our students or peers in a class to do what they need to do physically (as long as it isn’t physically disturbing their neighbors) and emotionally is a generous use of our time and a practice in empathy. Giving choices in a yoga class and permission to change our minds empowers students and allows them to grow comfortable in the space and in turn, their own bodies. Learning to tell the difference between what works, or doesn’t work for their body is an incredible practice in autonomy.

Trustworthiness or Bramacharya. Bramacharya means to implement boundaries. Boundaries are important to our health. It is amazing how quickly we can overload ourselves with tasks and obligations that leave us no room or time to care for ourselves. If you are new to implementing boundaries, it can be difficult to implement them. There will occasionally be someone who doesn’t understand why you did. However, it is important to preserve yourself for the times when you need to be wholly present. Check your energy and then check your calendar. It may be that you need to move more things off your plate and set aside a portion of the plate that is just for you. Trust me, you are worth it. This applies to students and to teachers.

Specifically for teachers, a good way to practice boundaries is to remember that we are only yoga teachers. We are not therapists, doctors, physical therapists, etc. Even if we are, that is a totally different job, for a different time. Referrals are your friends. It is okay to tell a student you can’t answer a question because you don’t know or because it isn’t your area of expertise. BUT, you know someone who can answer it. Try keeping their business cards or contact information on you or at your studio to give to your students.

With the feelings of safety, we obtain the power to explore and be vulnerable with ourselves, in our own bodies.

Cultural Sensitivity and Collaboration or Aparigraha. Aparigraha means to work alongside or nongreed. For cultural sensitivity, one thing to remember is to consider whether or not you are the best person for the community you are looking to serve. It may be that someone else is better suited to teach in a studio where they predominantly teach chair yoga because that is their background, but you are used to teaching vinyasa flow classes. It is aparigraha at work when you allow another person to have the job you want because they are the best fit.

In class, taking the time to address any current or previous biases you may have will ensure that you are acting in the best interest of your students. Take time to question your biases or why someone’s presence may upset you. Be curious about these things. I find that this is always a beneficial exercise, to ask myself, “Why is this bothering me?” A wise woman I know once said, “What power do I have to withhold love from someone else?” I find that to be beautiful and applicable to this particular yama. For collaboration, checking in with our students and ourselves helps to ensure that everyone’s experience is productive.

Taking the time to check on students helps forge a trustful relationship that is important in trauma informed yoga. If your student doesn’t trust you, they may not continue practicing. Checking in with yourself allows you to take the time to set aside whatever may have happened that day so you can be fully present for your time with your students. Asking students after class how they felt the class went and for any feedback may be helpful to make your space more trauma aware. It can help you as a teacher to ensure that your space is welcoming and safe for those who may struggle to step into the building at all.

The Goal

The reward of cultivating trauma informed spaces and having trauma informed yoga teachers is that through the experiences, we have increased human connection, empathy and overall kindness to self and others. The more questions we ask, the better we understand. The more we understand, the better we are to each other. Having the support of teachers and community mean a great deal to those with previous trauma/PTSD. As we form safe spaces to practice, more people will feel able to be vulnerable and open with those around them. With the feelings of safety, we obtain the power to explore and be vulnerable with ourselves, in our own bodies. Our goal is to bring this healing and restorative approach to the studios, classes and teachers of St. Louis. With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Mister Rogers in the hope that if you struggle to come to the mat or a studio for fear of breaking down or showing your struggle, that you’ll find comfort in this. You are not alone.

“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.” -Mister Rogers

Want to learn more about the impact of trauma, and how to implement the pillars into your own yoga class as a student or teacher?  Join us for Intro to Trauma for Yogis on Sunday, August 19th, 2pm.

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