What’s the Purpose of the Yoga?

Are the poses the purpose of yoga …?

Both my public classes and my trauma-informed classes mainly focus on movement and breath. Power vinyasa is the branch of yoga that initially spoke the most to me, and while most of my trauma-informed yoga classes are considerably slower and gentler than a typical power vinyasa class, this is still the style that has been healing and invigorating to me. It’s what my 200-hour teacher training is in, and it continues to influence me.

As someone who has run half marathons and is active almost every day, a vigorous yoga practice feels good to my body, and offers a tool to keep my mind engaged in the present moment. Many people who can benefit from yoga, and perhaps many trauma survivors who come in all different physical ability levels, are turned off by a slow-paced or meditation-based yoga practice. This doesn’t mean I think those practices have no value, just that some people who can benefit from yoga more broadly will simply never do them. Plenty of instructors offer classes with little movement or primarily seated poses, and I think that’s fine – there is room for all different modalities!

There are lots of ways to approach yoga, and obviously different things will speak to different people. Since my work is both in a power yoga studio and in trauma informed settings, I sometimes get exposed to views and practices very different from my own. I prefer to avoid “my way is the right way and yours is inferior, here’s why!” … since I avoid this, though, I sometimes feel like I have to defend my approach. I invite you to read this post, and, really, all of my posts, in that light!

So if I’m teaching a largely physical practice, do I think achieving yoga postures is the goal of this practice? No! And this is true both in public classes and in trauma informed classes.

My view is that yoga postures provide a context for:

a) physically taking care of the body,

b) bringing our awareness to the present moment, at least in part through some attention to where our body is in space (eg alignment), and

c) improving our own body-mind connection, where our body in space, how moving one part might affect something else, linking breath and movement.

In a public yoga class at a studio, it can be fun and empowering to realize you can move your body into a “peak posture” that you didn’t know you could…but even in a mainly physical practice, I don’t believe this is the PURPOSE of the practice.

So are the yoga poses the tool for “releasing” trauma? I do believe “even” emotional trauma has an impact on the body; how we hold our bodies impacts our mindset; traumatic memories are stored differently than non-traumatic memories (link forthcoming).

Personally, I do not believe that movement alone, at least in the sense of doing a specific yoga pose with a specific alignment, will release trauma from an area where it is held. And, accordingly, I don’t believe people NEED to move their body in a super-specific way to draw benefits, again even in a practice that is largely physical in nature.  I’ve written my views on how yoga can help us heal -and (spoiler alert) it is not getting really deeply into half pigeon.

There are forms of treatment such as Somatic Experiencing, for instance,  which incorporates movement alongside other techniques to help survivors heal from trauma.  SE and other treatment techniques have research supporting them and my impression – as a yoga teacher and informed reader – is also that they make a lot of sense. That said, I would never claim I could implement this sort of thing based on my 200-hour yoga teacher training, even with a handful of additional 25-hour workshops under my yoga belt. I don’t think most yoga teachers, myself included, even have the language to summarize the scientific framework for how SE works (but there IS a scientific framework for it!).

This still leaves a question, though – if you teach yoga in the sense of postures and breath, but achieving postures isn’t the ultimate goal, how do you teach alignment in trauma-informed classes?

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