12 Keys to Teaching Trauma-Informed Yoga
Article At A Glance
Teaching trauma-informed yoga takes skill, heart, and patience. But approaching your teaching from this angle is one of the greatest gifts you can give your students. Why? Because everyone who shows up to the mat has experienced some level of trauma.
The Importance of Teaching Trauma-Informed Yoga
Most of the time when we think of traumatic events, life-threatening stressors like interpersonal violence, sexual assault, or natural disasters may come to mind. But trauma is much more common than this. Trauma can occur anytime someone feels they lose autonomy or control over their body or their environment.
For some, traumatic experiences are pushed away, bottled up, and forgotten by the conscious mind. And yet, even if we can’t consciously remember the sequence of events, sounds, smells, or other sensory details associated with the traumatic event can trigger strong emotions to surface.
Triggers may be deeply personal to each traumatic experience. But the common thread is that triggers are often experienced by activation of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system. In The Body Keeps the Score, the landmark book on trauma and healing, author Bessel van der Kolk describes the sympathetic activation that accompanies the resurfacing of traumatic memories as feeling “hijacked” by one’s own body. Sweating, shaking, feeling faint, experiencing GI distress, or feeling any of the many other possible physical reactions to triggers can make someone feel as though they can’t trust their bodies or their present environment.
Fundamentals of Trauma-Informed Yoga
Needless to say, it’s impossible to teach yoga in a way that is completely free from all things that could possibly trigger someone’s reliving—or more accurately, re-feeling—of traumatic memories. But we can do one very important thing as yoga teachers: we can provide students with tools to better navigate the embodiment of trauma. The principles that follow are a roadmap for the most important principles to keep in mind in teaching a trauma-informed yoga class.
1. Encourage Autonomy
The number one principle to keep in mind in teaching trauma-informed yoga is to create an environment in which students are in the driver’s seat of their own experience. At the beginning of class, one of the first things we can tell students is that everything we instruct is just an offering, and we can’t know how it feels to be in their bodies. Students should know they always have the choice to take our cues or leave them if it feels they don’t serve them in the moment.
2. Use Invitational Language
Another way of encouraging autonomy is through invitational language. Phrasing our cues as suggestions rather than commands can coax students to explore movement and sensation without feeling forced or coerced to do so.
For example, to encourage choice, “Bend your front knee to 90 degrees,” can be rephrased to “Consider deepening the bend in your front knee,” or “Notice what happens if you bend your front knee deeper.” More examples of invitational language in trauma-informed yoga can be found here.
3. Create Safety Through Familiarity
In teaching trauma-informed yoga, it’s important to make certain elements of class predictable. This doesn’t mean class has to be boring. We can include a variety of postures and practices, but we also want to balance this with ones that feel familiar because with familiarity can come safety, comfort, and ease.
Familiarity can also come from the way we set up our class. In addition to providing the ground rules at the beginning of class, it can also bring some students ease to hear a brief overview of the arc of class. For new students especially, it can also be helpful to clearly state all landmarks in the room they may need to know, including exits, restrooms, and where you’ll be teaching from. And although some styles of yoga encourage teachers to weave throughout the room during class, it can instill a sense of safety when teachers remain on their mat at the front of the room and clearly announce any movements about the room to adjust the music or lights.
4. See Students as They Are
It’s a natural human tendency to attempt to categorize others based on how they look, what they do, or what they say. But in teaching trauma-informed yoga, it’s critical to allow students space to express themselves as they truly are rather than who we assume them to be.
A skilled trauma-informed yoga teacher doesn’t try to assess students’ ability or diagnose injuries. Most yoga teachers aren’t trained to do this anyway! We can create an inclusive environment by offering modifications to the entire group rather than singling out any individual. Additionally, instead of qualifying variations of poses as being a part of a hierarchy from “basic” to “advanced,” we can frame variations as being options that hold equal value.
5. Hold Space in Trauma-Informed Yoga Classes
Time is of the essence in teaching trauma-informed yoga. Since 60-minute classes can go by so quickly, it can be tempting to try to fill each second with movement and instruction. But one of the greatest gifts we can provide our students in trauma-informed yoga is space. Since there is so much noise and stimulation from technology in our modern world, silence can be triggering to some students because it places us face-to-face with our thoughts and emotions. For this reason, beginning class with movement rather than starting with long-held meditations or postures can allow students to settle some restless energy.
In addition, when we introduce quieter practices like Relaxation Pose (Savasana), offering students the option to change positions, open their eyes, or even leave the room for air until they feel ready can be key in easing students into feeling safe with silence. For more on teaching Savasana through a trauma-informed lens, see here for teaching principles and here for variations.
6. Create a Comforting Space
“Quiet, warm, still, safe, and dark,” are the words renowned yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater has used for decades to describe the ideal restorative yoga practice. Many of the principles from teaching restorative yoga can be applied to teaching trauma-informed yoga because restorative yoga is in essence a practice to down-regulate the nervous system. In setting the space for trauma-informed classes, it can be helpful to carve out a quiet space that is dimly lit (but not pitch-black). Having plenty of blankets, bolsters, cushions, sandbags, and eye pillows available can provide warmth, softness, and support, especially as class winds down into quieter practices.
7. Consent is Key
The #MeToo movement may have permanently changed the way we offer hands-on assists—for the better, many teachers believe. Now, as yoga teachers, it should go without saying that we need to ask permission before we touch our students. But consent alone isn’t enough. Since there is an inherently imbalanced power dynamic between teachers and students, it can be challenging for students to say “no” when offered an assist. For this reason, it’s good practice to wait to offer hands-on assists until a new student becomes a regular so that we’ve spent time establishing trust.
8. Encourage Interoception
Trauma can often cause individuals to feel unsafe in their own bodies. Dissociation, or disconnecting from thoughts, memories, or physical sensation, can be common even years after the occurrence of traumatic events. Because of this, interoception, or the awareness of physical sensations within our bodies, is one of the biggest benefits of yoga stressed by van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score. As teachers, we can emphasize interoception by inviting students to “notice,” “observe,” or “explore” the way subtle shifts in postures feel in their bodies. Instead of attaching our own experience to practices or suggesting postures should feel a certain way, giving students space to observe their own experience can encourage embodied awareness.
9. Teach Tools for Grounding
Teaching interoception and teaching tools for grounding go hand-in-hand in trauma-informed yoga. Teaching grounding practices can provide students with tools to help them navigate the fight-or-flight response that can often occur when we experience trauma triggers. This may include mindfulness meditation, visualization, breath awareness, or any other practices that can be done discreetly during sympathetic arousal. By practicing these tools in an environment where we feel safe, they can be more easily accessed off the mat.
10. Ground Yourself When You Teach Trauma-Informed Yoga
Practicing what you preach is crucial in teaching trauma-informed yoga. The practices you find most helpful for grounding are often the ones that will resonate most deeply with your students, because you know the benefits from personal experience. Whichever practices these may be, it can be especially important to carve out time before teaching to engage with them so that you begin teaching from a place of grounding and centeredness. Holding space for students can be emotionally taxing, so to avoid burnout and continue teaching with an open heart, it’s crucial to take time for self-grounding.
11. Trauma-Informed Yoga in the Virtual World
While I’ve outlined most of these principles with teaching in-person in mind, we can apply many of them to teaching in the virtual world. In some ways, teaching in the virtual world is a hindrance to trauma-informed yoga, because we are unable to alter the settings and props available to participants. But in other ways, teaching virtually can facilitate trauma-informed yoga, because it provides participants with an opportunity to choose how and where they want to practice. For example, reminding students that they have the option to leave their cameras off can provide a sense of safety for some students.
One of the greatest challenges in teaching trauma-informed yoga in the virtual world is in providing students an opportunity to feel seen and heard. For this reason, it’s important to get creative in cultivating a sense of community. This may be done by leaving space at the beginning or end of class for students to check-in and engage in open dialogue. Additionally, creating group pages can connect students and allow them to make their voices heard off the mat.
12. How to Teach Trauma-Informed Yoga: A Breath Meditation
Ready to put these principles into practice? Here’s an example of a trauma-informed breath meditation:
- To begin this practice, come into Mountain Pose (Tadasana) by standing upright with your feet grounded firmly on the floor or yoga mat. If for any reason it feels uncomfortable to practice this meditation standing, you could instead practice in a chair, lying down, or in any other position that feels sustainable.
- Invite your awareness to the places of your body that are in contact with your yoga mat. Maintain a gentle awareness of this sense of grounding as you continue with this practice.
- Place your hands somewhere on your body that feels comfortable or at ease. If you can’t immediately locate any areas that feel comfortable, focus instead on an area that feels neutral. This may mean stacking your hands on your heart or your belly or allowing your hands to cup one another.
- If it feels safe to do so, begin to notice your breath. You might imagine your breath moving into the space where your hands are placed on your body. If at any point you notice your breath quickening, your heart racing, or if you begin to feel unsafe, know that you can stop this exercise by returning your attention back to the space where your hands are placed.
- As you continue to watch your breath, invite your belly to gently expand on the inhalation and soften on the exhalation. You may begin to extend each exhalation, allowing it to become just slightly longer than each inhalation. Let your breath move in a cadence that feels natural.
- If it helps your awareness of the breath, you may invite your eyes to close or your gaze to soften.
- Continue this breath awareness in Tadasana for about two minutes, or until you begin to notice a shift in your sense of present-moment awareness.
A Final Note on Teaching
Teaching trauma-informed yoga is by no means an easy undertaking. No matter how careful we try to be, it’s impossible to create an atmosphere completely free of triggers. If something didn’t sit well with a student, it’s important to be open to dialog on how we can avoid future damage. But it’s also crucial that we understand and acknowledge that trauma survivors are resilient. By approaching students with open eyes and understanding, we can co-create classes that heal rather than harm.