Trauma-informed yoga isn’t what you think

I don’t like to talk about “issues of the day” on my little space on the internet.  I write about me, because once I start writing about “you” or “them” I travel back to self-righteous indignation town.  I used to be the mayor of that place, and it wasn’t pretty.   This will be one of my rare attempts to educate the masses, and hopefully we’ll end up on the other side with our soap boxes remaining tucked away.

I’ve come across several articles, podcasts, and interviews on the blooming popularity of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga trainings.  Possibly because it’s a prominent topic in news media right now, trauma-sensitivity in yoga has become muddied with the safe intellectual spaces in academic settings  discussion.  Since I am a yoga teacher, I am going to stick to just talking about yoga, and some of the fundamental misunderstandings about what a trauma-informed approach is.

Misconception #1:  A trauma-informed approach to a yoga class is adapting instruction for a small percentage of people.  When we think of trauma we usually think of war or maybe violent sexual assault of a child.  The truth is, trauma is an actual normal part of life because trauma is a disturbing or distressing experience in which we perceive our life being threatened.  Car accidents, natural disasters, physical injury, witnessing and receiving domestic abuse, death of a parent, neglect, emotional and verbal abuse by a parental figure, addiction or mental illness of a caregiver, and even some medical procedures are all traumatic events.  It’s likely if you are teaching a class of ten people that a good number of them have been through one of these events.  To say you have experienced trauma is not the same as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Misconception #2:  I haven’t been through THAT much, and I feel like calling my experience “trauma” is an insult to the real trauma survivors.  AKA:  I/They didn’t have it so bad.  This is an intellectualization that sometimes we use to not feel pain.  We want to negate our own experience because it’s easier to convince ourselves that we are just flawed or broken rather than actually feeling our own suffering.  Sometimes, we don’t want to admit the suffering of others as our own protection.  As a yoga teacher, it feels scary to think that you might have been injuring your students, so you just decide that you didn’t so you don’t have to feel that fear.  Sometimes, we refuse to acknowledge the trauma of others because that means we would have to acknowledge our own.  Being a trauma-informed yoga teacher simply means acknowledging that all pain is real.  If suffering or pain is showing up for a person, it’s because of an actual physiological response in the body or the brain.  It doesn’t matter what the original trauma event was.  If you feel it, it’s real.

Misconception #3:  Being trauma-informed is reinforcing a “victim mentality” by treating students differently than you normally would because of their history.  First of all, as yoga teachers, we don’t ask people about their trauma history, and I don’t think we should start.  Much of trauma-informed yoga teaching is about creating a safe place via trust, choice, and predictability.  Many people want to pursue this type of training because they want the magic formula for “never harming a student ever.”  Although, that drive to not harm others is well-intentioned, sometimes wanting specific formulas for human interaction is another way in which we seek to avoid engaging in present moment awareness and feeling.  Certain trainings are meant for the clinical treatment of trauma, and do contain many parameters for behavior such as eliminating touch in class.  If you are interested in this type of work, make sure you know if the training you are taken is meant for the clinical treatment of trauma, has a specific program curriculum, or just creating a more trauma-informed approach in a studio class because they all will differ in approaches.

When I completed my training with TIMBo, I kept the skills I learned in that program very compartmentalized.   My power vinyasa classes trudged along business as usual.  While the TIMBo program is a specific curriculum and not simply “trauma-informed yoga”, the awareness and tools I had learned dramatically changed my relationship to my students.  Specifically, I became more aware and responsible for my own responses to my environment.  How do I feel when a student tells me not to touch them?  How does my body feel when a student gets up to leave in the middle of class?  How do I feel when I witness a student being vulnerable and displaying emotion?  Do I want to fix them?  Run away?  Ignore?  Silence?  Over time I have learned and am still learning to hold the space for my students to make their own self-determined choices, rather than pushing them where I think they need to go.  Also, I’ve had to learn how to hold space for my own responses when I feel uncomfortable in class.  This term holding space hasn’t really been defined yet, according to my preliminary Google searches; although it has been used a lot in conversations.  The evolving definition I’ve come up with so far is:

Holding space – to give someone compassionate, non-judgmental, present moment support free of attachment to outcomes.

This is what a trauma-informed teacher brings to the classroom:  adaptability, empathy, compassion, acceptance, safety, and choice.  When you are really attached to running your class a certain way, giving your students this much freedom can feel scary and unpredictable.  Yet, you use the same tools you teach your students.  You breathe.  You ground yourself and you stay.  I can stand in front of a class and command them through a pre-planned sequence designed to give them a specific experience.  Or I can be responsive to what’s in the room, adapt my plans, notice my own physiological sensations, and allow my students to have their own experience.  It’s not special treatment or coddling.  It’s actually the harder choice.

 

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