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When Touch is a Trigger: Hands-On Adjustments in Trauma-Sensitive Yoga
Touch can be relational, connecting, healing, and necessary for wellbeing. But Yoga Outreach (YO) classes are touch-free zones for several important reasons.
No-Touch Zones Feel Safer
Not all of Yoga Outreach’s students are trauma survivors. But a high proportion of people in prisons, addiction recovery centers, and domestic violence transition houses, where Yoga Outreach offers programs do come from abusive backgrounds. Common adjustments such as guiding hips backward in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), or turning shoulders to face forward in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) can trigger frightening memories.
“Having someone in a position of power administer touch while the student is in a practice that makes them feel quite vulnerable can be a real violation,” explains Nicole Marcia, Director of Teacher Training and Mentorship for Yoga Outreach. Outside of training teachers, Marcia is also a certified yoga therapist, specializing in helping trauma survivors heal through embodiment practices.
Even though a teacher intends to support healing, she explains, a simple touch can trigger a memory of harm. Suddenly the student is dysregulated, and yoga becomes a scary activity—definitely not the impact the teacher was hoping to have.
Asking for consent is not enough to mitigate harm, says Marcia. “Some Yoga Outreach students have grown up in situations where it would have been unsafe to say no to touch, so they’ll say yes even when it’s not okay.”
In the context of social service facilities, teachers need to know that their history impedes students’ ability to give informed, enthusiastic consent. Thus, Marcia advises Yoga Outreach teachers not to offer hands-on assists at all, so there is no reason to ask for consent.
Alignment vs. Sensation
Second, hands-on assists emphasize alignment over sensation. In social-service settings, the goal of the class is not mastering asana, but “learning to use one’s body as a resource for self-regulation,” explains Marcia. In other contexts, such as studios or community centers, she believes teachers should be clear with students and themselves about objectives.
“Is the focus of the practice alignment and getting deeper into poses with the assistance of the teacher?” says Marcia. “Or is the focus on having an experience of feeling safe in your body, of understanding that one has choice and agency in having an embodied experience?”
When the focus is on noticing sensation, becoming comfortable in one’s body, and growing confidence in making decisions, it doesn’t make sense to spend time correcting positions.
Adjustments only distract the student from noticing their own comfort or discomfort in a particular shape.
“It depends what kind of space you want to hold as a teacher,” says Marcia. “At Yoga Outreach, we’re really clear about what space our teachers hold.”
Adjustments Reinforce Power Dynamics
A lot of overcoming trauma is reclaiming power—over one’s body and over one’s life. It’s the reason trauma-informed teachers use invitational language instead of being more direct in their instructions. Students should always feel like participating (or not) is their choice.
If a teacher invites students to stretch their arms out to the sides but then dashes over to lower a student’s shoulders, they are sending mixed messages. If you choose to add arms, you need to do it in a specific way—my way.
Marcia says, “We send the message that we’re in a position of power, and we know better than the student how their body should look in this shape.”
Some students will react by complying outwardly, but internally feel resentful or defensive. Other students will feel self-conscious about their physical abilities. When a teacher fusses with their posture, it may confirm fears about not doing it “right.” Neither of these reactions is ideal for a class supporting survivors of trauma.
Offering a Safe Space
There’s no doubt that therapeutic touch can be incredibly beneficial in certain situations. Some yoga practitioners even choose classes based on the teacher’s skill at delivering hands-on assists. But adjustments don’t make sense in the context of a weekly volunteer-run class in a social service setting.
“One of the ways that we express caring for people is through touch. There’s really nothing wrong with it,” says Marcia. “It’s an important part of our health and wellbeing, and it’s also a very important part of healing from a traumatic experience. But we also need places where we can go and explore embodiment and know that we don’t have to contend with touch.”
Reprinted with permission of Yoga Outreach.com
Wendy Goldsmith is the marketing and communications director for Yoga Outreach.
During office hours, she’s a passionate writer and communication strategist. Away from the desk, it’s her pleasure to spend time helping newcomers navigate Canadian culture, teaching yoga for mental health at a Neighbourhood House and at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation, and joining climate-centered political movements. She’s delighted to bring her passion for truth-telling to a non-profit that believes in the empowering magic of language.
Yoga Outreach delivers over 1000 yoga classes each year in prisons, addiction recovery centers, mental health facilities, in transition homes for women fleeing violence, as well as other community settings. An incredible team of qualified volunteer yoga teachers, trained by Yoga Outreach in trauma-informed yoga principles, lead these classes. Trauma-informed yoga is unique in that it provides participants with choice, tools for self- regulation, and opportunities to rebuild connection.