Trauma-Informed Yoga in Public Classes

One of the most significant things I’ve learned about trauma-informed yoga is that “being” trauma-informed exists on a spectrum. Classes can be more trauma informed or maybe less, but it’s rarely an either/or situation. I’m no expert, I haven’t been teaching that long, but it is very possible to take small simple steps to bring more trauma sensitivity into your public classes. Trauma-sensitive yoga trainings (and in particular the Breathe Network’s training) can offer some great ideas for this.

Why? Trauma survivors are all around and don’t always (or often) identify themselves. And different people like different yoga practices, regardless of their history of trauma or lack thereof. My public classes – which include yoga sculpt! – are definitely not the same as a class billed as trauma-sensitive at a non-profit. But I do bring it in. Here is how:
1. Always offering the option to opt out of hand on assists. I offer assists in my public studio classes; not in gyms or community classes.
2. Offering options throughout class, and doing my best not to rank them in terms of “easier” and “harder”. See below for wording ideas.  In many traumatic situations, the survivor had little to no control or choice over events – making yoga different from this by offering options can be significant.
3. …and once I’ve given multiple options, I respect people’s choice to move their own bodies in a way that feels most suitable. I will talk to people about safety if they look in danger of injury, or if they seem to be feeling really unwell, but sometimes people do things contrary to what I say. They may have a reason – or they may not! – they don’t have to tell me or be confronted about it unless their safety is at risk.
4. Giving options for savasana. They don’t have to stay still and they can choose a different pose or shape to rest in.  Some trauma-sensitive teachers advocate not asking people to stay for savasana. I wouldn’t stop someone from leaving, but in (public class) settings where it has become common for multiple people to depart from class – loudly – not just before savasana but during, I do have concern for the experience of the students who stay – and who might be trauma survivors themselves. To be lying on the ground with your eyes potentially closed and have multiple people walking around you, opening and closing the door to the room – not a very calming experience. What I usually say: “Savasana. Extend your legs long, extend your arms. Close your eyes or soften your gaze. The purpose of this pose is rest. So if another shape or pose would be more restufl, feel free to take it. Feet on the ground, fetal pose, seated meditation. I do ask that you stay for this part of class so we can all enjoy the calm atmosphere. If you need to move to find more comfort or ease, do that.” Another great idea is to have a seated posture or breathing practice immediately before savasana, and offer the option to simply stay or to recline down.
5. In my opinion, trauma sensitivity also includes situations where students may just feel uneasy or uncomfortable because they  feel they can’t do what others can do. This might not be because they are a “trauma survivor” but it can be a very alienating situation for someone new to yoga to feel in the spotlight for NOT being able to do something – and if someone who is a trauma survivor is also new to yoga, feeling singled out for something negative might be enough to make them not want to come back. I am just mindful of this and let this inform my decisions on when and what to address with alignment.
Specific language and wording I’ve come across and/or use:
  • At the start of class (and particularly in the gyms I teach in where many students are newer to yoga): “I offer a lot of breathing cues and alignment cues. I invite you to follow but always check in with your own body first. If any poses don’t feel suitable today, feel free to skip them, wait for the next one, or find something that does feel okay.”
  • Option to (release your back knee to the ground in revolved crescent) rather than “If your balance is unsteady, put your back knee down.”  In some bodies, it feels good to (keep your legs straight in a fold), in others it might feel good to (take a generous bend in your knees). Alternately, teach the pose starting with the modification and offer the “advancement” as an option to add on, rather than starting with the “full expression” and indicating that some people should put their knee down, etc.
  • If you’re curious about more sensation (for instance in baddha konasana), hinge your torso forward and fold any amount. (Thanks to Molly Boeder Harris at the Breathe Network for this and several other awesome cues!)

  • Your breath is a resource – use it to empower your movement, and also as a guide. If you start to lose sight of your breath, feel free to find rest in child’s pose or any other posture that feels restful and rejoin when you’re ready.
  • In your own time (rise up to standing)
  • Find 3 more breaths here, or finish when you feel done…In the power vinyasa style I teach at studios, teachers and managers are sometimes vocal about the importance of being directive. I think there are benefits to clear cues that keep people largely moving as a group, and just as an employee, I try to respect studio culture and my employer’s preferences. One suggestion that makes sense to me is that offering something like this at the start of the class (and then respecting people’s decisions to move at their own pace etc.) may be sufficient to convey the spirit of this without necessarily offering it every time.
Language I avoid:
  • I want to see everyone doing this.
  • Level one (put your back knee down), level two (lift your knee up).
  • If this is too hard…. if you have issues with balance…
  • Breathe through the pain. You can do anything for 5 breaths.
  • And as someone whose had issues with food and body image, I avoid language like “suck your belly in”; pre-paschimotanasana, I love “remove your sitting flesh” or “shift side to side to root down through your sit bones” rather than some more colorful ways I’ve heard this said.

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