THE BLOG

Part III: Trauma Training Should Be Mandatory for Yoga Teachers

06/17/2013 03:03 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013
  • Margaret Howard Trauma therapist in private practice, and advocate against trafficking in persons.

Thank you all for the great response to Part I and Part II of my series, "Trauma Training Should Be Mandatory for Yoga Teachers." Here is Part III, as promised, covering Steps 4-6: Language of Choice, Language of Fear, and Careful With That Agni Sara!

4. Language of choice: Please always use language of choice when giving directions to students. Phrases like "If you chose..." or "If it feels right to you..." should precede instructions -- and you should mean it! Please remember that a hallmark of traumatic experience is the removal of a person's choice to escape an attack, accident or natural disaster and then move into safety was thwarted. Therefore, to avoid triggering or harming your students it is vital that they be reminded frequently that what they do with their bodies in poses is completely up to them. Current practices around this are intertwined with five below, since yoga teachers are sometimes of the mind that getting students into poses that students are afraid of or resisting is good for the student. Not for students with traumatic psychological injuries! So say it out loud. "If it feels right to you..."

There's some irony here, since many teachers begin a practice by telling students how okay it is to modify poses, but then don't put that into practice by respecting students' modifications.

Here's an example that will blow your mind. The other day I was in a class comprised entirely of survivors of violent crime and sexually-violent crime. The teacher knew that going in. I'd been assured the teacher had experience working with victims of sexual assault -- so good, but also that she had not had trauma-sensitive yoga training. She did indeed start with the "It's okay to modify" and "honor your body" talk. Then, during a pose in which we were all flat on our backs with our knees in the air and feet on the ground (aka, the missionary position) I looked up to see her standing over me. She paused a second then said, "Can you move your legs father apart?"

I just nodded my head, but didn't move my legs father apart. I've done a lot of body work, had yoga teacher training myself, and I knew I was being safe with my body on the physical level. I also knew that I would not be at all comfortable moving my legs farther apart, given my history, on an emotional/physical level. So I just kind of smiled and let her walk away. But get this: A few minutes later there she is again, hovering over me, saying it again: "No, really. I would be a lot better of you'd move your legs farther apart." Really? You know you're teaching a class of survivors of violent and crime and sexual crime, and you think it's okay to ask me twice to open my legs wider while I'm lying on my back here and you're standing over me, teacher? I didn't say that, though. It was very embarrassing. I pulled up my bravest self and whispered, "That would trigger sexual trauma." Pause. Then: "Well, it would be better for your feet." And then she walked away.

Wow.

Here's the thing: A lot of trauma survivors would have frozen up at that point, or become compliant and broken down later, or got up and left and perhaps been dangerous driving because of the trauma reaction going on. I don't think it takes a highly trained genius to see why this whole scenario was ridiculously insensitive and misguided, and how this teacher would benefit from trauma training.

5. Language of fear: In Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper describe the experience of a student who hears the yoga teacher say aloud to class, "Maybe we should do what we dread" (38). Now, I understand where that is coming from. I'm all about light and shadow, Yin and Yang, balance. However, for this student, who had been through something quite dreadful, for whom "dread" contained monsters that had hurt her for real the teacher's lighthearted delivery of this question triggered darkness, horror, and flight. For someone who has been lucky enough in life that they've reached a point where looking for a fear feels like privilege and growth, it may be hard to understand why, for a person who has a deep traumatic injury, the yoga studio may very well not be the place to confront that deepest fear (unless perhaps it is a truly therapeutic yoga class, with a highly trained mental health professional available on site). For that student, the deepest fear may not be of truly following his bliss, or speaking the truth at a work meeting, or seeing himself as a fully sexual being (for example), it may in fact be the sort of fearsome, dreadful thing most people only see in movies -- often movies they can't watch because they're too upsetting!

Just keep in mind that for some percentage of even your most "ordinary" class confronting deepest fears is something that really does need to be done in a very protected environment, with trauma expertise present. In truth, I think this fear confronting is an advanced practice, and perhaps should not be approached in the typical yoga class. This question strikes me as analogous to situations where someone with economic privilege suggests that buying this or that thing or going to this or that retreat is a good idea, without awareness that there may be people present who cannot afford such solutions. In many ways, a person with a traumatic injury may not be able to afford to consider their fears in the yoga studio.

And here's one more thing about fear: Yes, there are some fears that need to be confronted. And there are some fears that need to be left alone. It is not the yoga teacher's job to decide which is which, and s/he should never presume to suggest.

6. Do NOT universally assign agni sara (or any practice, for that matter). Here's the problem: A lot of people, especially those who've been raped or sexually abused, hold their trauma in their lower and mid chakras/pelvic area tissues. Additionally, and extremely importantly, the organs around the first three chakras, especially the liver, are in direct line of receipt of activation from the vagal system. The vagus nerve bundle is so centrally critical to trauma activation states and "normal" functioning that it really can't be over-emphasized how there are times when the worst thing you can suggest a person do is heat these areas of the system. While it's perfectly understandable that a teacher would look at a person who is depressed, or seems to be caught in a cycle of (let's say as an example) leaving and then going back to an abusive (emotionally of physically) partner, and conclude that the person needs more fire and that more fire would bring that person strength, the real story is that if those behavioral symptoms are coming from a trauma activation state then the student's nervous and energy systems may already way over-stimulated, over-heated, and over-activated. Paralysis and active shut-down, as well as dissociation, can look like meekness or low self-esteem or lack or fire to the untrained eye. In those situations you do not want to activate that student more! The result could be disastrous: disconnection from cognitive processes that lead to car wrecks when leaving the studio, for instance. Or even suicide. The activated person needs, perhaps, a Yin practice. Or perhaps (again, impossible to give a universal) to practice the Tibetan mantra syllable "Voo," to cool and regulate their over-activated system.

Here's something you might not have thought about: Sometimes this trauma has a "physical" origin. Once, a yoga teacher insisted that I put my foot on my ankle in Vriksasana, tree pose. I didn't know why at that moment, but I really, really didn't want to. I could see the back of her shoulders tense up and hear her voice tighten as she continued to "suggest" I just "try it her way." But I was very happy and comfortable with my foot on my thigh, and very uncomfortable involving my ankle. A couple of years went by, them bam! the other day I made the connection, in a session with my own trauma therapist. That ankle is the one I broke when I was 11 years old. There is trauma held there. No wonder I didn't want to do that, the therapist said. Touching an area that holds trauma can, again, activate that trauma. This is a good revelation because now I'll be working on releasing that now with her, the trauma psychotherapist. But during that yoga class I could not have explained why I didn't want to put my foot on my ankle. All I knew was it felt very icky for someone to be insisting I do something with my body that I did not want to do. And that, my friends, is the crux of it.

Point is: Don't insist a student take a pose s/he doesn't want to do. Don't ask twice. Respect your students' body wisdom. Become unattached to that teacher/student hierarchy. Teach your students to trust themselves. That's how they'll make friends with their bodies. That's how they'll heal.

Have you ever experienced a trauma activation, or even weird feeling or discomfort you didn't understand, in a yoga class? Have you ever found yourself dashing out of a class for some unknown reason? Or feeling upset afterward, but you didn't know why? If you're a teacher, have you seen people behave in ways you didn't understand while in class? Or leave suddenly? Let's talk about it.

If you're a yoga teacher looking to get trained in trauma-sensitive yoga, check out David Emerson's course at Kripalu, Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: A Workshop for Yoga Teachers.

Be sure to explore Part I and Part II is you haven't already. And let me know what you think!

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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