Can yoga be harmful?

Can yoga cause harm? Many yoga teachers, and in particular those who teach trauma informed yoga, want to share this practice specifically BECAUSE it has felt so healing to us. Causing harm is often the last thing on our minds.
People – students and teachers of yoga – are of course different. The thing that serves one person so well, the practice that is so healing to one person, may be the opposite for someone else. It’s hard to know what could be triggering for a trauma survivor. So should you just give up on trying to inform yourself to avoid harm?
No! Trauma informed yoga may sound like a new and perhaps even unnecessary addition to the practice of yoga, with its long history, but as human beings we are constantly learning, and have the opportunity to infuse our practices with new knowledge. Opening up our minds to the possibility that even well-intentioned work can cause harm allows us to at least consider the possibilities of how, and to take steps to avoid it.
Most 200-hour yoga teacher trainings address well the idea of preventing physical harm with attention to anatomy, sequencing, and cueing, so that’s not a focus here…how else can yoga cause harm in a trauma-informed context?
Being triggered
Being triggered can mean something in the present environment (words, touch, sounds, a smell) bringing a trauma survivor back to back to vivid impression of the traumatic experience, or a flashback. More than “just” a bad memory, this implies experiencing at least some of the same physical sensations and thoughts as during the initial traumatic event.

It can be hard to predict exactly what may trigger a student, but a trauma informed yoga training (LINK forthcoming) will cover common triggers (hands on assisting, complete darkness or stillness) and how to navigate them (avoid assists or ask about assists; avoid turning out all lights or let people know you’ll be turning them out). No one is perfect; a well-intentioned teacher can make a mistake, or just have no way of knowing that something is a trigger. We can still reflect on our experience, our student’s reaction, and let that inform our future practice.
Unfortunately, trauma survivors often experience triggers in various parts of life; yoga did not cause the initial trauma and a yoga class is not the only space where this can happen. Yoga is, however, often a setting though where people let their guard down and feel vulnerable. Avoiding triggers in a yoga class can mean trauma survivors get to experience the benefits of yoga without being taken back to a bad time in their life.
“Othering” people 
“Othering” people means treating people of a group as separate from “me”, totally different, and less worthy of respect. Can this come up in a trauma informed yoga setting? Personally, while I do believe in trauma informed yoga training, and incorporate some different aspects into my trauma informed classes compared to my public classes…I try to make all my classes trauma informed, within the boundaries of what I teach. It feels wrong to me to treat students in my trauma informed classes wholly differently from students in my public classes, and I think this is why. It seems obvious that it doesn’t feel good to be treated as less worthy of respect – this is one subtle, and perhaps even hard to put into words, but real way harm can occur.
“Just” having a negative experience
Aside from being triggered, students who are new to yoga, trauma survivor or not, an simply have a bad experience. Some people may feel put on the spot or called out for making a mistake; others may have negative feelings about their physical ability; a teacher’s well-intentioned theme may come across in a blaming or privileged way. Certainly, some people are more sensitive than others to this sort of thing – I don’t have research to prove it but it’s very possible that trauma survivors, or some of them, do tend to be more sensitive.
Just like triggers, there is no failsafe way to prevent someone from having a bad experience, but just considering the possibility that yoga can in fact be harmful in this way may give teachers the space to look at their class in a new light, and interpret students’ reactions in a new light.

Perfection? Never making a mistake?

Thinking about harm is not about being a perfect teacher; people are different and as yoga instructors working with multiple people it is almost a given that we will all say or do things that serve some people and at the same time do not serve other people. There is no doubt we will make mistakes. We are not bad people for this. Particularly in a trauma informed yoga context, it’s important to remember that trauma has harmed people; people who have survived trauma have survived that and will be resilient enough to overcome something frustrating in a yoga class. Trauma survivors are still people who can recognize that yoga teachers can care and have good intentions and still make mistakes.

 So if it’s not about being perfect, what is it about?

  • Taking steps to inform yourself and get a basic level of training. It is not the case that every single teacher who expresses interest in yoga service should jump right in to teaching without any training in trauma. “It’s better than nothing” is not necessarily true.
  • Reflecting on your work and continually modifying it based on your experience. “Best practices” can be helpful guides and are often informed by long-term research … but they are sometimes based on anecdotal evidence that fails to incorporate the nuance of a variety of situations.
  • Considering all of us works in progress, not reaching a level where we know it all, even as teachers! Trust that your students do know what is best for them, and make that clear.
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