What Is Trauma?
Trauma can be described as anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond. This can leave us feeling helpless, hopeless and out of control. An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and about 13 million people have PTSD at any given time. The current stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and global racial tensions are adding to those numbers. These situations are creating a collective wave of trauma related symptoms with more and more of our population reporting feelings of fear, anxiety, and isolation every day. These days, the chances of having at least one trauma experienced person in your yoga class is high.
How does this relate to yoga?
With more research and information becoming available about the benefits of yoga for PTSD and other trauma related symptoms, you may want to consider incorporating some trauma informed principles into your class and operations.
Read on to learn a few helpful tips to ensure you are creating a safe, loving and empowering experience for those students affected by trauma.
- Friendly Greeters – Our bodies are constantly scanning our environment for threats and dangers, sending signals to our brain to activate the nervous system response accordingly. A person who has experienced trauma is more likely wired to focus on potential threats and can often misinterpret social interactions. If a student is greeted with a warm smile and friendly interaction, this can activate the social engagement area of the nervous system instead of the fight, flight or freeze mode. This is especially helpful for someone who may be new to your studio.
- Loud Music– A vigorous yoga class that plays loud, upbeat music can be a really fun and motivating experience! To someone with PTSD though, this could be extremely anxiety inducing and triggering. Do your best to make sure the nature of the class is always advertised and clearly stated at the beginning of class to avoid any surprises.
- Strong Scents – Many yoga studios often run an essential oil diffuser or burn incense which is certainly a pleasing sensory experience for many people. For some, however, certain scents could be associated with a traumatic event. You may choose to have some classes on your schedule “scent-free” or avoid ambient scents all together to ensure a safe environment for all.
- Clear Exit – In very popular yoga classes it’s tempting to pack the room mat to mat to ensure everyone who came to class gets to practice. This may present a problem to someone who starts experiencing flashbacks or hypervigilance in the middle of class and can’t get out of the room easily. They may feel trapped or embarrassed to disrupt the class if they attempt to leave, causing feelings of fear and anxiety. Do your best to make sure exits are marked clearly and there is always an unobstructed and manageable path to the door.
- Invitational Language- A variety of yoga teacher trainings use a command based approach as an effective tool to instruct our students to get into an asana. There is nothing wrong with this method (it can be very effective in many types of yoga classes), but for many survivors of physical and sexual abuse this type of instruction can be highly triggering. In some cases, they may have endured years of being told what to do with their bodies by a perpetrator, taking away any sense of agency and control. Consider using more invitational language as a way to remind and empower students that they are in control and always get to decide what happens with their bodies. You can use phrases and words like “when you’re ready”, “perhaps”, “maybe”, and “you might choose to” as prompts.
- Choice-Making – This is another wonderful empowerment tool for your students to explore what it feels like to safely make decisions about how to move their own bodies. A good practice is to offer several options and versions of a pose to help students make mindful choices for themselves. An example might be “ You might like to start today’s class in child’s pose, or in a comfortable seated position or even laying down on your back.” Another best practice is to not refer to alternative versions of a pose as “modifications” or “fullest expression of the pose.” This can imply that anything other than the traditional version of the pose is wrong, triggering feelings of unworthiness or not being good enough.
- Hands On Assists – It is best practice to not offer assists of any kind in trauma-informed classes. This is based on the fact that we really don’t know what people have been through and touch can be highly triggering. In many classes, the choice to receive assists is offered, but some people still may have problems saying no for fear of displeasing the teacher, not being accepted or fitting in, or not having the full yoga experience.
- How A Pose “Should” Feel – There are many asanas in yoga that are inherently meant to make you feel a certain way (relaxing, energizing, focused) or target a certain area of the body. Consider dropping explanations about where in the body one might feel a pose or how it should feel. Many people who have experienced trauma or have PTSD symptoms can experience disassociation or severed sensory connections with their body. They may not be able to feel physical or emotional sensations and therefore could feel like they are doing something wrong.
- Know Your Limits – Many of us who become yoga teachers do so because we are empaths, feel called to help others and want to give love to our community through service. It can be in our nature to want to help someone in distress or “fix” a situation. Trauma healing and recovery is a complex process and while we can offer our services as yoga teachers, we are not doctors or therapists. If someone is in severe distress or asking you for medical advice always suggest they seek professional assistance.
By incorporating some of these suggestions on how to make your studio and class more trauma-informed, you can do your part in creating a safe and loving experience not just for those affected by trauma, but for all your students. Making small adjustments to our physical spaces, practices and mindset can have a profound impact on the path to mind body and spirit healing from trauma.