Trauma-informed Yoga: How is it different from my yoga practice?
If you have ever attended a yoga class, you know that participation requires strong listening skills- especially as a beginner. You need to listen very carefully to the teacher’s cues so that you can form the correct pose and seamlessly transition from one pose to the next. If you are new to yoga, you also have to look at the teacher and the people around you. Sometimes the teacher will offer modifications to a pose, but “full expression” of the pose is often encouraged.
In most yoga studios, the teacher moves around the room to demonstrate the correct postures and will often offer adjustments to help you achieve the “right” form. If you have been practicing for a long time, you don’t need to listen as carefully since you know all of the poses by heart and your body has the muscle memory to flow from one pose to the next - and if you are like me, you practice with your eyes shut so you can really feel what’s going on in your body.
I love yoga and the talented teachers I practice with. My yoga practice has helped me through some difficult times in my life. Now it is my goal to create opportunities for people who have experienced trauma and don’t have access to yoga so that they too, can experience the healing power of yoga.
How is trauma-informed yoga different?
In my quest to learn more, I soon discovered that trauma-informed yoga is very different from the yoga I have practiced for decades. In trauma-informed yoga (TIY), the teacher does not use directive language, but instead (very intentionally) uses invitational language in an attempt to make the practice more of a choice. The people that we work with have had a lot of trauma and very little choice - especially those who are incarcerated.
TIY teachers invite participants to move at their own pace and offer modifications for each pose - the “full expression” of a pose is not the goal here. Sanskrit words for the postures (such as “Savasana” for the final resting pose) are not used because that can seem like a cultural barrier and sets up a hierarchy in the class of those who know the terms and those who do not. TIY teachers never offer adjustments or touch students - it is assumed that this could be very triggering for some. The teachers never leave their mats, as a person creeping up behind a participant with trauma can be a huge trigger. Teachers practice in community with the class, doing all of the poses as their students do them.
TIY teachers focus on safety and stability in every class and provide a predictable rhythm from the opening to closing of class. The teachers start each class with a careful explanation that everyone is encouraged to take care of themselves, that every posture is just a suggestion, and that it is a completely fine option to just lie on their mats, do the poses in their heads and breathe in time with the class.
When I teach TIY classes, I let participants know that sleeping during our final resting pose is extra credit, knowing that most of the people in the class can never fully relax. Their sympathetic nervous systems are often stuck on full throttle and they are hyper vigilant as a result. Many of our students cannot shut their eyes - it feels too unsafe. When I hear a gentle snore at the end of my class, I get so excited! TIY is about trying to calm the nervous system down enough so that the students can experience interoceptive awareness and a somatic experience of breath and movement. Interoceptive awareness is the ability to feel your body from within – this awareness is often compromised when people have a history of trauma. They often have real difficulty feeling their bodies. Therefore, the directive to “feel your feet grounded on your mat,” a very common instruction used for Mountain Pose, is literally impossible for lots of the people we serve. We understand this, and so invite them to bring their attention to their feet and check in with what they may feel. I think of TIY as a slow, systematic thawing process for people who have been frozen due to trauma.
The gentle movement, and focus on the breath in a TIY class is scientifically proven to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, help to reduce the fight or flight response, and allow people to make choices based on what feels right to them. Practicing making choices based on what is best for them on their mats helps with making choices off their mats. Responding instead of reacting is the key to emotional regulation, and we know from research that yoga and meditation help people to access that pause that will allow them to respond in any given situation, instead of reacting. We offer our students tools for stress management and a way to face the challenges of life without slipping into fight or flight. At Sea Change Yoga, we go to great lengths to create a class that feels safe and inclusive for everyone. We deeply respect our students whoever and wherever they are in their journey. I love teaching and I learn so much from my students. In my classes, we often laugh. I always close class with the phrase, “It has been an honor and a pleasure to practice with you.” And I truly mean it.