As a trauma therapist and certified yoga instructor, I am often reminded of the benefits of yoga, especially for those healing from trauma. As a practitioner, I immediately feel my nervous system shifting. I feel calmer, clearer, and stronger. I was reminded the other day, however, of the importance of yoga teachers being aware of how they invite their students to practice. I attended a new yoga class wherein the teacher did not ask about adjustments and touch, sending my trauma radar into alarm mode.
To my beautiful yoga teacher community, I appreciate you so much. We all benefit when our classes are more accessible. Here are three ideas about how to make your classes more inclusive and trauma-informed:
1. Be Mindful of Touch
Many people who have experienced trauma, especially sexual trauma, need to have personal space honored. Never assume anyone is okay with hugs, adjustments, or even a handshake. If you are a teacher and you like to do adjustments, find a way to ask permission that doesn’t compel people to out themselves in front of everyone. One idea is to have everyone lie in chavassana at the beginning of class. You can ask, “For those who are okay with adjustments, keep your palms up; for those who prefer a touch-free class, flip your palms down.” Take note of the folks who prefer no touch and honor that. This also lets everyone know you are mindful of the importance of touch and will create a culture of mindfulness within your classes. If you like to have people greet each other, encourage them to also be mindful of handshakes or hugs or give them a touch-free option, such as an air high-five.
2. Give People an Opt-Out (of Anything)
Giving your class a protocol for opting out is not only inclusive and honoring, it is also trauma informed. Consider, for example, how closing eyes might be triggering for someone who has sexual abuse in their past.
Common among trauma survivors, especially those who experienced sexual abuse, is the belief one cannot say no. Whether it be with adjustments, essential oils or creams, poses, or closing their eyes, people may not feel comfortable telling the teacher that they do not want such things. Giving your class a protocol for opting out is not only inclusive and honoring, it is also trauma-informed. Consider, for example, how closing eyes might be triggering for someone who has sexual abuse in their past; it might make them feel vulnerable or unsafe. You can offer a soft gaze or a point of focus. You can also do a similar silent cue as suggested above. Invite students to go into child’s pose and raise a hand to opt out if you are going to be offering a scented spray or essential oil. You can also let people know that opting out of anything is always an option; say something like, “This is your practice and we want to honor whatever you need today.” You can also encourage people to talk to you after class if they know they need extra support.
3. Avoid “Shoulds,” Comparisons, and Competitions
We are all susceptible to comparing ourselves to others. For people with a trauma-organized nervous system, this may be even more intense. Often, part of having a traumatic background is the belief there is something inherently wrong with you. If a yoga teacher suggests “this pose should feel this way,” or “look at Genie, she’s really good at this pose,” or even “this is a safe space,” this can exacerbate comparisons and negative belief systems. Many people are abused while being told they are safe, so their internal world does not match what someone in authority is telling them. Leaving poses, feelings, and experience open for interpretation and encouraging self-compassion creates a more inclusive environment. Here are some examples of trauma-informed and nonviolent language:
- “This pose may release some emotions in the hips, but be curious with whatever your experience is.”
- “Don’t worry if you cannot touch your toes in this pose, because it can take time and practice.”
- “We will not judge you if you can or cannot do this pose.”
- “I want to encourage you to practice radical acceptance of wherever you are at in this moment.”
- “My goal is to create an inclusive and calm environment.”
If even one person in your class is impacted by your inclusivity, it is worth it. You are also helping to create a world where we are more mindful of one another. I am deeply grateful to all the yoga teachers out there. There may be nothing more powerful than being seen. As you work to create more trauma-informed yoga environments, you are honoring the light, love, and journey of our fellow humans.
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