How does a yoga teacher respond if a student is triggered?

When I’ve led my trauma-informed yoga practice and talk event, this question has come up. As I often mention in this event (and here) – I’m not a social worker or psychologist. I am a yoga teacher – but yoga brings me into contact with lots of people in public classes (some of whom are bound to be trauma survivors) and I seek out yoga teaching roles in underserved communities. I don’t currently work with groups expected to be high trauma, but this is still an important topic. My best answers – based on my experience as a non-yoga volunteer and on my trauma-informed yoga training – are below.

First: Have you done all the things you can do BEFORE a student is triggered?

  • make the class trauma -informed, including avoiding hands on assists LINK
  • get training, post-yoga teacher training with a trauma-informed yoga training, and/or by doing a volunteer orientation for the facility you are teaching at. LINK
  • have a staff contact who is nearby, or a second yoga volunteer or yoga instructor (who can perhaps direct a bit more attention towards a student in need if the student doesn’t want the focus of the teacher and the whole group, or who can check up on the student if the student decides to leave the room) LINK
  • if a student skips a pose or a practice or wants to leave the room … let them. The student may realize s/he is feeling triggered or near to and perhaps is taking are of him/herself by stopping or leaving. A therapist or social worker, especially someone working one to one with a client, would likely have different tools and practices available to deal with this directly than a yoga teacher would.
  • if you work with a high -trauma group of people and anticipate this might happen, have a detailed conversation with a responsible staff member on this topic before starting the class. What are the signs that someone might be getting triggered? What do they recommend you do or not do? Who can you reach out to  for assistance?

You can’t always predict what will trigger someone. If it happens despite your best efforts, what can you do in the moment? It is worth pointing out that a therapist working one one one with a client (or even a yoga teacher working one on one with a client) might have more options available.

  • do your best to stay calm yourself
  • observe what kind of reaction is it, whether it’s over or ongoing, to what extent it could be harmful to the person having it (now or later), or to the others in the group.
  • If it’s an ongoing response, it is one you are able to help resolve? If you ask the person what they need, are they able to respond (and can you provide what they say they need)? If the person needs more help than you can offer, can you reach out to a staff member?
  • Does the person want to leave the room or stop practicing for now, and if so, can the staff member (or second yoga volunteer) assist them or at least be available outside the class to check if they need assistance later? If you assist them, can someone else stay with the group? Does the person perhaps just want a few minutes to collect him/herself rather than the attention of the whole group focused on them?
  • Is the person in need of reassurance that you don’t mind their reaction, the class will be fine, and you understand that these things happen? If so, offer it. Walking the line between validating a person’s experience and agreeing with every aspect of their reaction (and, perhaps, by doing so confirming that they are in danger or what they perceive in the moment reflects reality) is not an obvious one to me. This is why I would ensure a staff member is available for support in working with a potentially high-trauma group.

If the reaction is in essence a mental health crisis, that’s no less real than a physical health crisis. Obviously, not every instance of a student experiencing strong emotions is a mental health crisis, but in the context of working with trauma survivors, it could be.  I’ve come across the view that a teacher is somehow doing a disservice to a person in crisis by reaching out to a staff member for assistance, and I just find this idea bizarre. I wouldn’t offer medical assistance beyond what I’m trained in to someone with a medical crisis – I would get help. While determining what is a more common emotional reaction (perhaps tears in a class) versus what is a mental health crisis may be harder than determining what is a medical crisis … both are real, and particularly if you work with a high trauma group of students, acknowledge this.

What can you do after the fact (after the class is over):

If the student is still around and hasn’t left or been connected with a staff member, would they like you to help make that connection now?

Take away what you can learn from it. What aspects of your teaching or your response were strong, what aspects you might change next time. If it’s appropriate, follow up with the student to ask how they are doing and to welcome them back if they’d like to come. The choice will of course be the student’s, but it may be nice to be reminded that these things happen and they are welcome to just come back to yoga. If there’s a way to shift things so they are more comfortable, offer that option, but there also doesn’t have to be a long conversation about it.



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