So as a yoga instructor in a yoga service setting, what can a yoga instructor do in the face of cynicism?
First, what I can’t do: I can’t change students’ life experiences, and at least in the setting of a single yoga service class, I can’t change the stereotypes created and, I hate to say it, damage done by an industry that portrays yoga as something for thin, rich white women. Even in a mandatory class, I can’t make people do yoga do yoga to at least see if they feel any benefits. In a trauma informed approach, every part of the class is optional, including the option to not do it at all.
I think it’s beneficial to consider what can be done, but also worth pointing out that sometimes cynicism is there a for a very good reason and isn’t necessarily something that a yoga service instructor can/should/needs to change.
What I can do:
- I can give thought to students’ likely life experiences and learn about them, both the life experiencs and my students as human beings, separate from this service context, over times. I can acknowledge, at least to myself, that stereotypes do exist, and while I may not have created them, neither have my students! It’s not just their imagination or prejudice against yoga…they have accurately read this unfortunate reality of yoga in the US.
In some settings such as shelters, participants are either literally required to go to yoga, or they may choose to go because it’s better than the alternative of nothing (and still not particularly want to be there). While there may be reasons an organization would do this, it can be hard to reconcile this with the idea of a trauma informed approach to yoga.
One of the reasons trauma informed yoga can be healing is because trauma is often related to a situation we don’t have control over, and a trauma informed approach offers participants options and choice and both symbolically and literally returns that sense of control…so mandating participation in yoga runs contrary to that idea of offering choice.
For me as an instructor, the class I taught in such a setting was the most challenging scenario to deal with cynicism LINK. To be clear, I teach adults and this post focuses on mandatory yoga classes for adults – it certainly happens that classes are made mandatory for youth in other settings, but there’s such a difference between youth and adults that I don’t expect my experience to cover both.
If it’s possible to set up a class which is optional, even if it means lower attendance, I prefer that – when we treat adults like children and dictate what they “must” do, it’s not surprising that they may not respond in a positive way “like adults”. Even classes where students “sign up” for yoga, if they are required to participate in something, it’s not clear how much of a choice it is to do yoga. That said, some non-profits will hold mandatory sessions with activities like yoga because it has been made part of their regular programming (which can be helpful for ensuring space is held for the classes and a budget alotted for mats or other props) and is essential to receiving funding that keeps them going. There are likely reasons behind every decision, and there may not be one “bad guy” creating problems … but rather a flawed system. Continue reading “Mandatory Yoga?”
First, what do you mean by cynicism? As human beings we make deductions about how others feel ALL the time, not just in yoga or in working with underserved communities. Of course there are times when our interpretations might be wrong. To me, it’s rare that people call me out or call yoga out directly, but what I think of as cynicism is the rare occasions when people smirk or laugh at what I teach or make comments quietly to their neighbor…in a way that doesn’t seem positive. In some settings, it’s very possible that cynicism is why people don’t come to class. Continue reading “Yoga Service and Cynicism: How & Why?”
Join me for low-cost community yoga near the brown line, middays on Saturdays! Just $5 per person cash. Initially class is from noon-1pm and this time will shift slightly based on availability of the space. Follow Chicago Community Yoga Facebook group to stay posted on news and updates! I hope to see you there.
When and where is the class?
Pendulum Space at 1803 W Byron. Ring the bell for #216, enter the door, and take the first staircase up on the left. Follow the signs to Room 216. Yoga will be in the back/last studio all the way down the hall. I will do my best to make temporary signs with arrows.
Generally we need to wait to enter the space until the start time of the class. If you arrive more than 5-10 minutes early and there is no response when you ring the bell, please be patient – you might have arrived before me! Definitely arrive within the first 10 minutes of the start time as we can’t hear the buzzer to let you in after that!
“The hardest pose”… “The most important pose”…Savasana is at the center of a surprising amount of strong emotion in yoga, at least in some circles of teachers! With some poses (arm balances, inversions, but any, really) we might say that the pose isn’t really the point. Not so much with this.
What if people leave during savasana, or skip it, or move during it? In particular, leaving during savasana can be noisy and disruptive to other students. In the bigger yoga sculpt classes I teach, which incorporate weights AND savasana, and where I’ve found people a little more likely to head out early in some locations, I politely request each time that I invite people to stay, but if they know they must leave early, to please do so before we start savasana, so those who are staying can experience that quiet time without the sounds of multiple sets of footsteps and weights being put away.
Why do people leave class early? In some settings, with some people, no doubt, it’s just practical. They need to get a head start on their day, they don’t want to wait to shower, who knows why. They may not care if their noise disrupts others in rest – and this is unfortunate.
For others, savasana can be triggering. What might it feel like for a sexual violence survivor to be directed to lay on your back, close your eyes, be still, and know that the instructor may circulate and massage your neck and shoulders? How about a first responder whose life is literally on the line at work, who hates closing his or her eyes because know what is going on in the immediate vicinity is essential to survival? This pose may not feel safe or relaxing at all – even if the yoga practice right before was tremendously beneficial.
At the same time, what if a sexual violence survivor, a first responder, or someone else whose trauma comes up in this pose takes the risk of trying it out? And, with eyes closed, several people walk by their resting head (perhaps with weights they will need to loudly put away?). Not good either.
And as a yoga teacher, you don’t know who is who, most of the time. Some survivors won’t be bothered by savasana; even if you know a student is a first responder – totally possible they leave early just to beat the others to the shower! As yoga instructors, we don’t know what’s going on for our students, and it’s not really the nature of our relationship to know their personal lives as a psychologist would.
The Breathe Network blog has an excellent video on why savasana might be so difficult for trauma survivors – and in particular its similarity to freeze (link forthcoming).
Of course as instructors of groups we can’t make everyone happy all the time. But what could make savasana feel safest for more people? Continue reading “Trauma Informed Yoga and Savasana”
This week I’m teaching a sequence with lots of “half poses”. Some are well-established halves (half split, half pigeon) but others are a little more creative (half tadasana, half eagle – what!? Take class and find out!). Why? Partly, for variety! I love love love sequencing and for me, when I practice, NOT knowing what to expect and really truly NEEDING to be focus and listen to know where to go is what brings me into the present moment rather than letting my mind wandering.
Looking for free or low cost community classes? Find links to new student deals here (please double check before going in person to class!) and a list of non-profits or similar organizations offering low cost yoga below:
Know of other free or low cost community classes? Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to have them added to this list.
I started teaching yoga to women at Cook County Jail (CCJ) about a year ago, as a volunteer for Yoga for Recovery, a Chicago-based non-profit that has been doing this work for years. The CCJ website lists its average daily population at 9000 detainees – it is one of the largest single site pre-detention facilities in the US. “Pre-detention” means a large number of detainees are not people who have been convicted but rather are awaiting trial. Sometimes the wait is months long or longer.
Yoga for Recovery offers its volunteers a manual on teaching, assistance with paperwork, and a network of teachers who sign up to teach yoga to women detainees about once a month. A different group of detainees comes each week. One of three weekly Yoga For Recovery classes is for detainees who are pregnant or who have recently given birth. I got involved in yoga service a long time ago but hadn’t taught in any detention centers. I was curious about what it’s like to teach in a jail (post forthcoming) and hesitant to take on a regular class myself till I knew. Yoga for Recovery provided exactly what I needed: a chance to teach occasionally in an established program to see what it’s like, but a program that could continue without me if it turned out it wasn’t for me.
Here’s what I have learned:
I can stay cool under challenging circumstances. I mean, in regular life, I manage, but my ability to chill at the jail sometimes surprises me!
In March of this year I completed 40 hours of training in sexual violence crisis intervention through the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, the largest Illinois provider of services to sexual assault survivors. I’ve trained separately in trauma informed yoga, including the Breathe Network’s Sexual Violence, Yoga and Resilience training, and took this training to prepare to teach yoga at the YWCA or any other rape crisis center. (In contrast to the YMCA, which I think nowadays is primarily known for group fitness classes, the YWCA focuses on eliminating racism, economic empowerment and counseling/other services related to sexual assault and domestic violence).
This 40-hour training is primarily intended for those who will go on to serve as rape crisis hotline volunteers, or medical advocates, who (offer to) accompany survivors through the hospital visit. If you are interested in volunteering in these capacities – reach out to the YWCA! The volunteers I met in training were amazing and inspiring. While the training is not specific to yoga, it is excellent for any yoga teacher who wishes to work with sexual violence survivors (there is a different 40-hour training focused on domestic violence)…and I’d say any yoga teacher at all, as there’s a big chance most public classes include survivors.
Read on to find out 8 ways this training is relevant to yoga classes, both public or specific to survivors.