Trauma Informed Yoga and Savasana

“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?

My take:
Offering options (let your eyes close or be heavy/still; stay here on your back or change this shape; often stillness feels good, but if movement feels helpful take that). Molly Boeder Harris offered the idea of ending class in a seated position with reclining down to the back as an option for rest, but not the mandatory instruction.

Informing people at the start of savasana that you’ll be coming around offering assists, if you will be, and ask permission; let students opt out of savasana assists by laying a hand on the stomach.

Letting people leave without judgement before savasana if that suits them for whatever reason. Students do lots of things that we might not think are best practice. Smoking, drinking, other risk taking behavior that we most likely do not even know about. We also speak to focusing on your own practice in yoga, not worrying about what your neighbor is doing, and it seems like this instruction could be applied to savasana as well.

Simply making information available in a neutral way before the class starts, for instance, by a sign with “yoga etiquette” on the door for instance (“if you need to leave early please leave before savasana”). As yoga instructors, many of us DO come to class and also leave early…to teach the next class! It may feel obvious that WE need to leave but with students we don’t always know their reason – that doesn’t mean it’s not valid.

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