some friends have asked me, "what exactly is trauma-informed yoga?" this conversation is so important, so i thought i would write about it here.
the answer is complex. so complex that i had to edit down this post because the original was a mile long and i still hadn't begun to capture the breadth and depth of the topic. i whittled it down to a few fundamentals that are critical when offering trauma-informed yoga.
trauma occurs when our ability to cope is overwhelmed. trauma exists across a spectrum and is defined by how events are experienced and internalized, rather than by the event itself. this means that anything could be experienced as a trauma. when something overwhelms our ability to cope, our nervous system provides the cues to the physical body to mount a response to the danger--fight, flight, or freeze. when our system restores to a sense of safety (regulation) after the threat has ended, trauma can be experienced without long-term or debilitating effects. it is when our nervous system does not return to a sense of safety and we are unable to return to a place of healthy regulation that we remain stuck in survival response even though the actual threat no longer exists.
the practice of yoga is uniquely suited to people who have experienced trauma, allowing them to experience safety and learn and practice very effective self-regulation techniques. yoga brings our awareness to what is happening in the body (over and over again), this act of focusing on sensation grounds our experience in the here and now, rather than the past. when we practice regulating the body in this present state using sensation, grounding, orientation, breath and other resources, the door is opened for our brains to step out of the stuckness and construct more hopeful possibilities in the face of perceived threat. this is the process of cultivating resilience.
ahimsa, the first yama in the yogi's ethical code, means non-violence or do no harm. first and foremost, we have the obligation to ensure that we are not causing harm, triggering, or in any way re-traumatizing yoga students (to the best of our ability). with trauma, this can be tricky. we start by not taking this responsibility lightly.
some things to consider about offering trauma-informed yoga:
- understanding the complexity of trauma is key. i wholeheartedly support that each and every yoga teacher know the basics of trauma and the many ways it can show up in a class. however, i worry about oversimplification and that the concept is becoming a bit of a flavor-of-the-month in the yoga world. we must ensure our behavior remains true to its original intention to be of service.
- there is a difference between a yoga teacher being informed about trauma and taking measures to promote emotional safety in a general studio class and a yoga class or program that is held specifically for a known traumatized or marginalized population. a good rule is that the teacher's experience with and knowledge of trauma is congruent with the known level of trauma in the room.
- when working with trauma, a high level of self-awareness is critical. we have to know our own privilege, tendencies, blindspots and triggers. a behavior, personality trait, words or teaching approach we have and use could unintentionally cause harm to someone with trauma. unfortunately, so many people are operating from a place of unconsciousness and have no idea how they harm or trigger. yes, even yogis.
- we must know and manage our own trauma histories. there are not that many humans in the world (if any) who are have not experienced trauma to one degree or another. if you are operating from a place of unaddressed trauma, you are unlikely to adequately gauge when you are doing harm.
- when a student has experienced trauma, they are also not likely to adequately gauge when harm is being done to them or when things are dangerous. this is one of the explanations for re-victimization. this makes the ethical obligation of the trauma-informed yoga teacher even more imperative.
- consider your preparation to be trauma-informed. there is an abundance of fantastic information about trauma-informed yoga. self-study and online courses with reliable professionals are appropriate for trauma-informed teachers of general studio classes, however, due to its complexity, trauma isn't really a topic you can unpack and understand in a few sessions.
- there are more in-depth, lengthy and in-person programs for those who teach classes and programs intentionally designed for students with trauma. other professional experience working with trauma (i.e. as a therapist, social worker, first responder, etc.) is sensible here too.
- we must check our motivation to teach trauma-informed yoga. we are motivated to be of service, to create and maintain emotional safety for others, to offer effective tools for self-regulation and embodiment. we don't teach trauma-informed yoga to be heroes or because it feels important or we're working out our own shit or because all the popular yoga teachers are doing it.
teaching trauma-informed yoga or being a part of a class or program intended to teach yoga as a resource for cultivating resilience is a tremendous gift and a huge responsibility. it is not for everyone. each of us has our own unique gifts and areas where we can best be of service.
trauma-informed yoga is a never-ending journey of study, reflection, self-awareness, empathy, presence and selflessness. it feels so big to me and i worry when i see or hear about others treating it so casually. titration is intentionally used in the practice of trauma-informed yoga and the same cautious, deliberate and gradual exploration approach should be mirrored in the preparation to teach it.
follow along as i continue to grow soul studio in an intentional, meaningful way. we will be providing trauma-informed yoga and trauma-informed expressive arts and writing programs soon.