Trauma informed yoga teaching

by Margaret Riley, 01-Sep-2019

This was a short session to encourage teachers to think about how yoga practices may impact on their students who have experienced trauma.

Some background was provided to form a context for the practical approaches:

Why teach yoga through a trauma informed lens?

Research indicates around 90% of the population experiences trauma at some point in their lifetime; between 8-20% develop PTSD as a result. (Bessel van der Kolk and David Emerson)

“Trauma refers to any threatening, overwhelming experiences that we cannot integrate…  after such experiences we are often left with a diminished sense of security with others and in the world and a sense of feeling unsafe within our own skin.” (Pat Ogden)

Experiences that are commonly associated with trauma – developmental (through child abuse/neglect, living with domestic violence), war zones/conflicts as military personnel or civilians, domestic violence, first responders, refugee experiences, natural disasters, accidents and through working with people who have experienced trauma.

Trauma may impact on many levels: physiological, energetic, emotional, behavioural, mental, physical and interpersonal. Across all koshas in fact.

Specific impacts may include hypervigilance, disconnection from bodily sensations, loss of rhythms, loss of trust, past is often present and an exaggerated startle response. Loss of bodily autonomy, loss of choice, boundaries have been disrespected. Suppression of breath, abdominal inhibition, diminished core strength, locked jaw- all of which inhibit breath. There can be a sense of shame about selves/bodies.

Yoga- asana/pranayama/mindfulness/meditation have been hailed as solutions for all that ails us and have been adopted joyously, wholeheartedly and uncritically by many well-meaning people, but they can be very tricky for people who have experienced trauma.

“It is naive at best, harmful/dangerous at worst to assume that any and all yoga practices including breath work are inherently healing for and helpful for trauma survivors.” (Caitlin Lanier)

During the session Marg very briefly addressed the overall goals and general principles of Trauma Informed Yoga classes.

Some practical approaches which can be implemented in general classes as well a specific trauma specific groups were suggested:

  • Offer choice in all practices. Use invitational language and language of inquiry such “when you are ready”, “notice, feel, be curious” to encourage making effective choices and develop interoception.
  • Use slow, mindful movement to foster present moment awareness and a sense of safety.
  • Focus on function rather than alignment for movement and asana to assist in reclaiming/befriending the body. Choose asana/sequencing carefully to support students to move towards safety and comfort.
  • Respect boundaries, avoid walking behind or lingering. Stay in view and let students continually assess for safety.
  • Suggest stabilizing anchors in the environment eg: open eyes, pay attention to surrounds to shift attention towards something external if a student is feeling dysregulated.

We practised seated mountain, sun breath, standing mountain and tree pose through a TIY lens. The session was completed with a grounding exercise which might be useful if someone was dissociated at the end of class.

Whilst this experience did not prepare us to become dedicated teachers of TIY, it did encourage us to understand that we can have an impact as yoga teachers and that it is important to stay within our scope of practice for everyone’s safety.

A full day session is planned for 2020 to enable IYTA members to understand the nature and impacts of trauma, provide an opportunity for more experiential work and a chance for further discussion.

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