Author: theyogakate

Trauma informed yoga training: taking care of YOU (the teacher/trainee!)

Street Yoga will be coming to Chicago this weekend for it’s very last (for now) trauma informed yoga for youth training, before the organization disolves mid-April. Lots of yoga teachers care deeply about offering yoga to underserved communities to help people heal, often in ways we feel yoga has helped us heal. Getting formal training in trauma and how to make a yoga practice trauma informed is something my experience in this fiels makes me feel is essential.
But these trainings often deal with difficult topics. What situations may lead youth to become homeless, what challenges they face on the streets…teachers may do roleplays which are tremendously useful…but also just sad. It’s not impossible to feel triggered yourself.
How can teachers take care of themselves during these trainings?
Molly Boeder Harris adresses this topic in the training I took with her (Teaching Trauma Informed Yoga: Trauma, Yoga and the Physiology of Resilience, coming to Yogaview again soon!), so while my ideas below are probably a mix of ideas I’ve taken from a variety of sources, she deserves a lot of credit for tackling this head on!
  • Go into the training aware that you may be encountering heavy topics.
  • As much as possible, ensure you have support available outside the training, or even within it – think of a friend or relative or therapist who may be available to check in with, or someone in the training you know.
  • Take breaks when you need to. Make it a bathroom break or a water break or a walk break. Every training is different, I thought it was tremendously valuable that Molly encouraged us to do this, to sit comfortably or do legs up the wall or to slouch if we needed to … maintaining “solid alignment” seated cross legged may be good for our spines but really doesn’t take into account our mental health at all. You shouldn’t need to give a reason to take a break.
  • Nourish yourself adequately with water, food, and self-care practices outside of the training.
I’m excited to be attending the Street Yoga training and it will be hosted in a public school by my friend and yoga student (she was actually in the very first studio class I taught more than four years ago!). I have a number of friends attending too. I have not-pleasant memories of high school, of most school, and have not been in a public school setting much since leaving. The one time I was in recent history, it was to teach a “yoga club” class a few times. The students were lovely and very sincere in their interest in yoga … but it was also unsettling to be in a school environment, even though it wasn’t my own former school. Even being aware of this, and the reason why, made me feel a little less icky.
What tips do you have for yoga teachers (or others) attending trauma informed trainings on how to take the best care of themselves?

Something For (Almost) Everyone

How can a power/vinyasa trained yoga in structor offer a more accessible class?
My 200-hour yoga teacher training is in power vinyasa yoga, but I teach in a variety of settings where it’s essential to make classes accessible to a broader range of experience levels that usually appear in a yoga studio class. This includes yoga service settings ( where people may be new to yoga or have physical constraints that aren’t very  common in power vinyasa yoga studio setting (knees so sensitive that it is rarely helpful to have them on the ground as a modification; a lot of difficulty getting up and down off the ground) – but also even corporate classes or classes in residential buildings where participants have all variety of experience levels.  Of course there are many styles of yoga, restorative and yin to name a few slower paced ones, that may suit participants well too, not just variations of power vinyasa yoga! But this post details how I’ve modified a more power vinyasa focused sequence with the many other power or vinyasa trained teachers in mind.
It’s worth noting that a trauma informed approach ( also very much influences my own teaching style, and this includes giving lots of options, including the option to rest or not do poses.  This post is focused on very specific and literal pose modifications, but language can also play a pivotal role in creating a friendly environment where people feel comfortable doing what they need to do to take care of their bodies.
Power yoga practice: From downward facing dog – lift your right leg – step your right foot between your hands.
Something for everyone: No down dog. Starting from forward fold or halfway lift, step your left foot back, perhaps with blocks underneath your hands. If lowering down towards the ground and coming back up is too much, this could also be done from tadasana – just step your left foot back.
Power yoga practice: Flow one breath per movement between poses – inhale warrior one – exhale warrior two – inhale reverse warrior – exhale chaturanga
Something for everyone: Vinyasa with the arms moving one breath per movement, but the legs stable, rather than pose to pose. Inhale warrior two – exhale gather your hands at your heart, inhale warrior 2 – exhale hands to heart.
Power yoga practice: Long holds of some poses.
Something for everyone: Slow enough to set up. Give a cue and wait for people (some! perhaps not all) to do it, then give another, but no super-long holds either.  The intention is not to bring uber importance to alignment, but to give people a chance to actually implement the cues given. Also use invitational language such as, “We’ll be here another four breaths, or you can finish when you feel done.” Sometimes me talking in between poses or sections of the class is an opportunity for participants to reconnect with the breath, pause and observe.
Power yoga practice: Offer a pose and then offer the modification. Inhale crescent lunge/high lunge – exhale revolved crescent lunge. Option to bring your back knee down to the ground for more stability.
Something for everyone: Start with the modification, then offer the advancement – in words but perhaps without a demo. From table top pose, step your right foot forward. Inhale kneeling warrior – exhale twist. If you’re stable here you can tuck your back toes under and lift your back knee up.
Power yoga practice: Offer to bring a block or strap if anyone needs one.
Something for everyone: Suggest everyone take two blocks at the start of class and speak to them as options more often than not (again as I’m very influenced by a trauma informed approach, I don’t often use straps outside of studios but if you are in a setting where you do everyone could be encouraged to take one whether they use it or not).
There are a few poses from the “skeleton” sequence I learned in teacher training that I regularly omit from my community classes, generally because there are safety concerns related to correct alignment and because in my experience many students (including regular practitioners in studios) do not practice safe alignment even when it’s offered: dancer pose, floor bow, half pigeon. I offer other balancing/spinal strengthening/hip opening postures instead.
In many of my studio classes, students who practice power yoga regularly also struggle to practice safe alignment in chaturanga and upward facing dog and yet do not practice modifications when offered, so I almost always omit this sequence from my community classes. If weight bearing on the arms for plank is a possibility, you can add holds of plank or forearm plank, or other core strengthening movements (tapping the shoulders, tapping the toes). In most community class settings I do not use plank holds.
To be fair, these examples are not truly something for everyone. People who want weight bearing on the arms, inversions, and generally a vigorous practice would probably not find this practice engaging. These people (and I include myself in this group as a student) are equally deserving of a suitable practice, but generally are well served by studio classes, including low cost community classes at studios.
I also think the idea that a single class can suit everyone well is not realistic for teachers or for students. Because of this, it makes sense to describe the class well in any promotional materials. For instance, “Participants should be comfortable sitting on the ground and coming up to standing; chairs are available for those who prefer to sit on a chair or rest on a chair, but this is not a chair yoga class.” And then mostly stick to that.
“One size fits all” may be promoted in some settings with the business goal of drawing as many people in as possible. As instructors, of course we can and should do our best to accommodate all students, but it need not be personal if what we offer doesn’t make everyone happy provided we’ve made an effort to offer safe alternatives and options to rest or skip.  Please feel free to share any tips or practices you have found to make a power vinyasa style of yoga more accessible.


Yoga Service and Cynicism: What Can Be Done?

So as a yoga instructor in a yoga service setting, what can a yoga instructor do in the face of cynicism?

First, what I can’t do: I can’t change students’ life experiences, and at least in the setting of a single yoga service class, I can’t change the stereotypes created and, I hate to say it, damage done by an industry that portrays yoga as something for thin, rich white women. Even in a mandatory class, I can’t make people do yoga do yoga to at least see if they feel any benefits. In a trauma informed approach, every part of the class is optional, including the option to not do it at all.

I think it’s beneficial to consider what can be done, but also worth pointing out that sometimes cynicism is there a for a very good reason and isn’t necessarily something that a yoga service instructor can/should/needs to change.

What I can do:

  • I can give thought to students’ likely life experiences and learn about them, both the life experiencs and my students as human beings, separate from this service context, over times. I can acknowledge, at least to myself, that stereotypes do exist, and while I may not have created them, neither have my students! It’s not just their imagination or prejudice against yoga…they have accurately read this unfortunate reality of yoga in the US.

Continue reading “Yoga Service and Cynicism: What Can Be Done?”

Mandatory Yoga?

In some settings such as shelters, participants are either literally required to go to yoga, or they may choose to go because it’s better than the alternative of nothing (and still not particularly want to be there). While there may be reasons an organization would do this, it can be hard to reconcile this with the idea of a trauma informed approach to yoga.

One of the reasons trauma informed yoga can be healing is because trauma is often related to a situation we don’t have control over, and a trauma informed approach offers participants options and choice and both symbolically and literally returns that sense of control…so mandating participation in yoga runs contrary to that idea of offering choice.

For me as an instructor, the class I taught in such a setting was the most challenging scenario to deal with cynicism LINK. To be clear, I teach adults and this post focuses on mandatory yoga classes for adults – it certainly happens that classes are made mandatory for youth in other settings, but there’s such a difference between youth and adults that I don’t expect my experience to cover both.

If it’s possible to set up a class which is optional, even if it means lower attendance, I prefer that – when we treat adults like children and dictate what they “must” do, it’s not surprising that they may not respond in a positive way “like adults”.  Even classes where students “sign up” for yoga, if they are required to participate in something, it’s not clear how much of a choice it is to do yoga. That said, some non-profits will hold mandatory sessions with activities like yoga because it has been made part of their regular programming (which can be helpful for ensuring space is held for the classes and a budget alotted for mats or other props) and is essential to receiving funding that keeps them going. There are likely reasons behind every decision, and there may not be one “bad guy” creating problems … but rather a flawed system. Continue reading “Mandatory Yoga?”

Yoga Service and Cynicism: How & Why?

How does cynicism show up in yoga service, and why? And what can you do as a yoga instructor do about it?

First, what do you mean by cynicism? As human beings we make deductions about how others feel ALL the time, not just in yoga or in working with underserved communities. Of course there are times when our interpretations might be wrong. To me, it’s rare that people call me out or call yoga out directly, but what I think of as cynicism is the rare occasions when people smirk or laugh at what I teach or make comments quietly to their neighbor…in a way that doesn’t seem positive. In some settings, it’s very possible that cynicism is why people don’t come to class. Continue reading “Yoga Service and Cynicism: How & Why?”

NEW $5 Community Yoga Class – Midday Saturdays at Pendulum Space



Join me for low-cost community yoga near the brown line, middays on Saturdays! Just $5 per person cash. Initially class is from noon-1pm and this time will shift slightly  based on availability of the space. Follow Chicago Community Yoga Facebook group to stay posted on news and updates! I hope to see you there.

When and where is the class?

Pendulum Space at 1803 W Byron. Ring the bell for #216, enter the door, and take the first staircase up on the left. Follow the signs to Room 216. Yoga will be in the back/last studio all the way down the hall. I will do my best to make temporary signs with arrows.

Generally we need to wait to enter the space until the start time of the class. If you arrive more than 5-10 minutes early and there is no response when you ring the bell, please be patient – you might have arrived before me! Definitely arrive within the first 10 minutes of the start time as we can’t hear the buzzer to let you in after that!

Is this class ongoing?

Continue reading “NEW $5 Community Yoga Class – Midday Saturdays at Pendulum Space”

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? Continue reading “Trauma Informed Yoga and Savasana”

Half Poses

This week I’m teaching a sequence with lots of “half poses”. Some are well-established halves (half split, half pigeon) but others are a little more creative (half tadasana, half eagle – what!? Take class and find out!). Why? Partly, for variety! I love love love sequencing and for me, when I practice, NOT knowing what to expect and really truly NEEDING to be focus and listen to know where to go is what brings me into the present moment rather than letting my mind wandering.

Continue reading “Half Poses”

Teaching Yoga in Jail: What I’ve Learned

I started teaching yoga to women at Cook County Jail (CCJ) about a year ago, as a volunteer for Yoga for Recovery, a Chicago-based non-profit that has been doing this work for years. The CCJ website lists its average daily population at 9000 detainees – it is one of the largest single site pre-detention facilities in the US. “Pre-detention” means a large number of detainees are not people who have been convicted but rather are awaiting trial. Sometimes the wait is months long or longer.

Yoga for Recovery offers its volunteers a manual on teaching, assistance with paperwork, and a network of teachers who sign up to teach yoga to women detainees about once a month. A different group of detainees comes each week. One of three weekly Yoga For Recovery classes is for detainees who are pregnant or who have recently given birth. I got involved in yoga service a long time ago but hadn’t taught in any detention centers. I was curious about what it’s like to teach in a jail (post forthcoming) and hesitant to take on a regular class myself till I knew. Yoga for Recovery provided exactly what I needed: a chance to teach occasionally in an established program to see what it’s like, but a program that could continue without me if it turned out it wasn’t for me.

Here’s what I have learned:

I can stay cool under challenging circumstances. I mean, in regular life, I manage, but my ability to chill at the jail sometimes surprises me!

I try to work with the same set of “rules” (for myself and my approach) in all my classes… but teaching in a jail is just different.  Mostly, for those I teach at the jail, I am the one yoga instructor. People don’t have other classes, other days, other times, other studios to go – this is it. I sometimes teach classes quite different from classes I would take or, quite honestly, classes I would enjoy. But beyond the yoga poses and breathing practices and breath/movement vinyasa, these classes offer participants an experience. That experience may well be more important than the strictly-speaking “yoga.”
In my public classes, I tell students they have options, and I say that here too… but in a setting where people are incarcerated, and in which many or most times they don’t actually have options, my saying it may not make people feel that they really do.  As a yoga instructor, as a volunteer, as someone who is not also incarcerated, I am in a position of power over them, whether I like that or not, whether I think that’s right or not. I try to be mindful of that in how I approach things with this in mind.
People who have had dramatic experiences, like many who are incarcerated, are strong and have survived those experiences. I aim to teach an inclusive trauma informed yoga class, of course, and to a large extent I believe I do. But my work, or a mistake, will not break them. As meaningful as the classes are to ME (and they are: this is a tremendous way to feel I’m using the skill set I have to be of service to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to yoga and the benefits it entails), and as meaningful as I like to hope the classes are to the women I teach, this is one hour or less of their week. There may not be lots of other activities, but a lot is going on. Loss, anxiety, a whole host of new people and circumstances to acclimate to.
There’s a difference between nervous and friendly laughter, on the one hand, and making-fun-of laughter on the other. Both have come up in yoga classes at the jail. More of the nervous/friendly kind but some of the making-fun kind, and I usually have a sense of which it is. There’s not necessarily a “solution” to stop people from making fun of yoga, but it’s reassuring to know that not all laughter is that kind, and in fact, most of it isn’t.
For detainees who seem to approach things differently than me … I sometimes imagine how they’d respond to different things in my life, in my shoes, and sometimes I think their response would be better than mine.
I grew up very shy. I don’t like to be the center of attention. It can be hard to tell people no diplomatically. I sometimes indirectly undermine myself. Certainly there are incarcerated women like me, and perhaps these aspects of our personalities are connected to the reasons some of us wind up incarcerated, but there are also plenty of women who come across differently – louder, bolder, happy to say no and without any explanation!  I wouldn’t want to trade places and don’t intend to glorify being incarcerated, but I can learn from them too.
The women I teach are not that different from me. It would feel easier to imagine that this group of people is so unique and different from “the rest of us” that “we” could never wind up in their shoes. Most of the time, we could. Perhaps life circumstances set us apart. It’s rare we know all the details of anyone’s life story, but realizing how similar we are can make it harder when we do learn details of people’s lives or involvement in the criminal justice system.
People are, however, different from each other. Stereotypes aren’t true. Detainees are different from each other, and so are staff. I hadn’t thought a lot about staff at CCJ.  I think volunteering in this capacity has given me at least a sliver of insight into what it might be like to work in a detention center, and an appreciation of why it could be a challenging environment to exist in, both as a detainee and as a staff member. It’s not as simple as condemning the system or supporting it wholeheartedly…and that’s it, there’s no clear final answer. This experience makes me question anyone who presents things as if there is.