Category: Opinion, Discussion, Debate

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?”

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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?”

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”

YSC 2017: Cultural Competency

I attended a breakout session on cultural competency at the Yoga Service Conference in May. I looked forward to it because I care about this topic a lot, and because plenty of my students are people of color.

A very specific topic sparked my initiative to share my thoughts. Then, I found myself needing to write another whole blog post on cultural competency in general, in large part so I could be more sure people would not think I was a racist. After that, one more. This post is the fourth! I share this now not because I feel like I’ve finally said it perfectly, or covered all there is, but because I really think this same sort of concern (I don’t want people to think I’m racist!) prevents a lot of valuable conversation on this topic.
One aspect of the conference and the session was that we want to be mindful of respecting the privacy of people within each session. Know that I’m limiting some of what I say in order to hold to that. One comment, though, worth sharing specifically, came from one of the presenters, that we need not only “safe spaces” to discuss, but “brave spaces”. In that spirit, of all the possible topics to write about, I’ve written about these:

 

Continue reading “YSC 2017: Cultural Competency”

Cultural Competency: Points from the Breakout Workshop

I participated in a Yoga Service Conference session entitled Best Practices for Cultural Competency and came away with a lot of thoughts! What I think loved the most about this session is that it made me think – and write, on my own, later! – excessively, rather than list notes during the talk. I think this speaks to both the value of this session as well as the talent of these speakers as educators in a general sense.
It’s challenging to try to summarize what was presented on a topic which is potentially very sensitive – it’s also my goal to maintain the privacy of individuals who participated alongside me. It’s probably best to read this post as what I came away with and am sharing, keeping in mind that my focus may differ from what the presenters intended, and that I am omitting some information in order to keep the confidentiality of the group.
Professor of Journalism Tamara Jeffries, and Dr. Santiba Campbell, Professor of Psychology, framed their presentation in terms of their experience bringing a for-credit yoga class to Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Bennett is a small, private historically black college. They were explicit that this was their experience, in a specific setting, which was distinct from some of the various settings yoga service teachers may work in.  I thought it still made a lot of sense to have a very specific starting point to serve as a context, rather than speaking only in generalities.

Continue reading “Cultural Competency: Points from the Breakout Workshop”

Cultural Competency…not enough?

I’m white and it’s rare that I perceive someone to be reacting to me differently in a negative way because of my race (I wrote about one unusual comment more than a year ago here). It’s very likely that people DO react to me differently because of my race – but since I’m white, it’s in a positive direction that I perhaps take for granted.
When it may seem that I’m being treated in a negative way due to my race, it’s obviously painful. I can’t change my race. I care about making our society kinder and more inclusive and I like to think of myself as on the same “side” as people of color – it hurts to feel I’m being grouped with the white people I’d consider racist. So what to make of it? I won’t pretend my answer is right for everyone, and of course my perspective has evolved,  even somewhat since I wrote the post linked above last year.
I can’t read minds –  I could be wrong.
I could be mistaken that someone is making a judgement based on appearance. In her workshop on facilitation, Dr. Melody Moore touched on the concept of projection – assuming a person feels x because *I* feel x.. Personally, I DO feel guilt or at the very least unease regarding this country’s poor treatment of people of color. It’s possible that because *I* feel personal guilt, I assume that in a given setting a person of color considers me personally guilty –  even if they don’t.
What if I’m right?

Continue reading “Cultural Competency…not enough?”

Do I encourage my students to talk in trauma informed yoga classes?

Mostly, no.

Why not?
One of the biggest things that spoke to me personally about yoga was that I could move and breathe and participate in the group without needing to talk. Practicing postures and breathing helps me get out of my head (for many of us, being in our heads can be related to anxiety, stress, or trauma) and into my body (often this means more focus on the present moment). The need to talk pulls me right back into my head, not only the work of putting things into words, but “What is the right answer? How are people going to judge me for this?” It’s one thing to talk about letting go of that stuff – I agree that we all should! – but in practice it is much harder than we’d like to think.

I don’t think everyone has to benefit from yoga in the same way I do (assuming that everyone has the same experience as me would be a form of privilege), but there is an intention behind making minimal use of student talking, aside from hearing myself talk!  There are various group activities where talking makes up the essence of the activity … while talking isn’t necessarily incompatible with a physical yoga practice, it’s also not an essential part of it.

Why else?  Continue reading “Do I encourage my students to talk in trauma informed yoga classes?”

Do I talk about trauma in my trauma informed yoga classes?

Mostly, no.

Trauma informed yoga means different things to different people – my definition of trauma-informed yoga is yoga that is informed with info on trauma (how a traditional class might trigger to trauma survivors) to make it feel safer and friendlier to trauma survivors, and to the extent that I can, I bring this perspective into all of my classes.  I have come across instructors who make a distinction between “trauma sensitive yoga class” and “trauma specific yoga class”, which may also be a helpful way to consider the topic.

My trauma informed classes don’t focus on trauma. One of the most awesome benefits of yoga, in my opinion at least, is that the physical practice and breathe are incredibly powerful tools without the addition of words.  There are other modalities, therapies (some would call these “treatments” though I don’t think of yoga as a treatment), that focus on talking and words; many people benefit from these, and people are free to seek them out.  I offer yoga to those who want to try out something that is not focused on talking (and mostly don’t encourage my students to talk either).

My training (and/or How do you lead group therapy? I do not have the answer…) Continue reading “Do I talk about trauma in my trauma informed yoga classes?”

YSC 2017 – The Science and Research Evidence for Yoga for Underserved Populations

I’ve been blogging about upcoming sessions I’ll attend at the Yoga Service Conference – and I’m looking forward to hearing about the science and research on yoga as it pertains to underserved groups.

“This presentation with Sat Bir Singh Khalsa will review some of the basic science underlying the psychophysiology of yoga practices…[it will] also examine the scientific rationale for the benefits of yoga as a therapeutic intervention for underserved populations including veterans, the elderly, trauma survivors, and in public schools.”

My impression is that people in general, including many medical professionals and social workers, see yoga as primarily a tool for physical fitness. The “yoga industry”  – which I also work for – probably bears a lot of the responsibility for this image! Obviously any serious research will help to frame yoga more realistically for the benefits it can offer.

I’m also fascinated by the limitations of research, how those limitations impact what is studied, and consequently, what sort of evidence we can reasonably expect to have regarding the benefits of yoga. (Sat Bir Singh Khalsa’s work is particularly interesting because of its depth and focus on mental health factors that more basic research might not capture.) Continue reading “YSC 2017 – The Science and Research Evidence for Yoga for Underserved Populations”