Category: Practical / How To
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.
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?”
Invitational language is language that incorporates invitations and options rather than imperative style commands. In yoga, instructors might offer students options to choose from, or encourage students to notice how they feel and choose how to move (or be still) based on that.
Why use invitational language?
Particularly in a trauma informed context, making choices about how to move one’s own body can help return a sense of control that is sometimes lost in trauma. In settings where people may be very new to yoga or to movement in general, it can also often feel more inclusive to have people choose between options rather than frame these as “modifications” of the “full expression”.
I’ve come across the view – and agree! – that a teacher does not have to offer an option every single cue or use the word “invite” every single cue. It will often be enough to create an invitational environment, let students know you respect their ability to choose how to move, and then reflect that approach in your language and approach in general.
If you do choose an invitational approach, it makes sense to consider how other aspects of the environment and your teaching reflect this approach. For instance, although I don’t offer hands on assists outside of yoga studio spaces, I do in my public/yoga studio classes – where I still try to create as invitational of an approach as possible. I don’t think hands on assists are necessarily outside the scope of an invitational environment, but if I encourage students to choose the length of their warrior two stance based on how much intensity they’d like in their legs today, it makes sense to let them actually do that, rather than to assisting someone deeper into the lunge.
These are examples of cues I have heard or used, to illustrate some differences between more traditional cues and more invitational cues. Obviously there is no one “right”way to teach, or words, phrases, grammatical structures I would consider “forbidden”. Context matters! These are just examples.
- Traditional cue: Close your eyes
- Invitational cue: I invite you to close your eyes or lower your gaze.
- Traditional cue: Fold as far as you can; use your hands to grip your feet
- Invitational cue: Fold any amount. See if you can feel gravity doing some of the work of the fold, maybe all of the work of the fold. If you’re curious about more sensation in your hamstrings, grip something with your hands – your mat, your feet, your legs.
- Traditional cue: Create a ninety degree bend in your front knee.
- Invitational cue: Notice your front knee; check that it’s right about over your ankle, rather than forward of it. Choose the length of your stance – a longer stance will usually bring more intensity to the legs, a shorter stance may feel more stable.
- Traditional cue: Sink your hips lower in chair pose
- Invitational cue: Draw your knees back in space so they stay behind your toes. If you’re interested in more depth, draw your hips both back and down. Experiment with a lower seat, either stay or come back up!
- In some bodies, it will feel good to … in others…
- In your own time…
- We’ll be here another six breaths or so, or finish when you feel done…
- Options in savasana (LINK forthcoming)
My thoughts on this topic were inspired by Jasmine Chehrazi’s Yoga Service Conference Session “Inclusive Cuing: The Art of Offering Sensitive Cues for Diverse Experience Levels, Intentions, and Mobility Expressions” which has unfortunately been cancelled. Hopefully it will be rescheduled to fit into another part of the conference!
“We’ll explore the best practices of using objective rather than subjective qualifiers in cuing, as well as process-oriented cues rather than goal-oriented cues. This discussion will also examine how to present options sensitive to common physical and psychological conditions. We will learn how to use class time before the practice begins to set guidelines that promote inclusivity and celebrate diverse practice expressions”
My Master’s Degree is in International Communication, and while I don’t use that degree in the capacity I planned to (media development in post-conflict and transition countries …obviously!), I do love using words in a logical way to communicate in general, and enjoy finding creative ways to communicate in yoga.
Why do verbal cues matter?
Much of our lives revolve around visual input, so, for me, switching to audio without visual creates a qualitatively different experience. This is part of what a lot of us want in yoga. Since I don’t offer hands on assists in my trauma informed classes, and usually at least some students are newer to yoga, I mostly do the postures as I teach them. This has both advantages and disadvantages (students working to replicate what I’m doing instead of making the practice their own, for one). But cues still matter, quite a lot, both when I do the poses in trauma informed classes, and when I mostly don’t, in public classes which I also work to make trauma informed.
How do I personally use cues to make classes more inclusive?
I feel like there is always space to learn! Right now, I work to make my cuing inclusive in a couple main ways:
- using invitational language
- [if I’m right with my interpretation] using objective rather than subjective cues, speaking to “if you feel stable here, lift your back knee up” versus “level one keep your back knee down, level two lift it up”
- offering cues that speak to intentions other than finding the “deepest expression” of a pose; intentions other than physical alignment (notice your breath, move with your breath, identify where you feel the most sensation in this pose and also somewhere you feel ease). Physically the “full expression” may not be accessible to some students due to experience level, injury, body type, or anatomy. Always speaking as if there is one “full expression” that is the goal can imply that their practice is somehow “less” because of this. It’s not!
Isn’t alignment important for safety?
I feel strongly that it makes sense to give yoga students a sense of what to expect in a yoga class, and stick to a predictable format, particularly in a trauma informed yoga context. Here’s why:
Creating a sense of safety
Trauma is often connected with a loss of control – over a situation, over one’s own body, even over one’s own thoughts in some cases. Having access to a practice that is at least somewhat predictable and consistent can be calming.
Life will often offers triggers that survivors have no control over; yoga is a free time activity that ideally will be pleasant. Some students want a restorative practice, or a practice with discussions on the philosophy of yoga, or a primarily physical class. Some people know they will find stillness, quiet, meditation triggering – spending time with the contents of your mind can be challenging for any of us, and some trauma survivors might prefer to avoid this in a public yoga class setting to instead focus on it with a trained therapist. People in this mindset might deliberately avoid a more restorative class. Some people just know they will be tired by a certain time of day and a class with a lot of movement would be unwelcome – these folks might prefer a more restorative class. Continue reading “This Is What You Came For: Predictability in Yoga Classes”
I’ll be traveling to Rhinebeck, New York to Omega for the 2017 Yoga Service Conference in May. I’ve been involved in yoga service work for a while, and founded Share Your Practice in 2015. People approach this work in so many different ways. I’m excited to meet new people and encounter new ideas to add to my existing mental inventory of yoga service knowledge!
- Cultivating Inner Resilience: Embodied Practices to Help Cope With Disappointment, Difficulty, Even Disaster (Linda Graham)
- Yoga for Underserved Populations: The Science & the Research Evidence (Sat Bir Singh Khalsa) and my questions/thoughts on this exciting topic!
- Best Practices for Cultural Competency: A View from a Historically Black College (Santiba Campbell and Tamara Jeffries)
- A Sustainable Model for Nonprofits (Brett Cobb)
- Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: The Transformative Power of Stillness & Its Role in Yoga Service (Gail Parker)
- Changing the Paradigm of Self Care From Individual Act to Communal Covenant (Leslie Booker and Teo Drake)
- Inclusive Cuing: The Art of Offering Sensitive Cues for Diverse Experience Levels, Intentions & Mobility Expressions (Jasmine Chehrazi) … how I try to do this now and why it’s important!
If you are looking into trauma informed yoga training, you are likely realizing that training to offer your services on a volunteer basis also costs money.
What does it cost?
While many organizations offer yoga services to underserved groups at low cost or no cost, there is almost always a cost affiliated with the training. Most 3-5 day intensive trainings range from $200-500.
It can initially be disorienting to think of paying for a training so you can volunteer. Ultimately, you support the important work of these organizations by investing your funds to train. Many trauma informed teachers see it as a responsibility to get trained on trauma as one means to minimize the possibility of causing harm….it also makes sense to ask, “What’s the cost of NOT getting training?” (Can yoga cause harm?)
How can you reduce this cost?
My trauma informed yoga classes are largely made up of postures and breath. While I don’t teach a lot of vigorous pose-to-pose sequences, I do incorporate simpler breath/movement coordination. I don’t believe that achieving a certain alignment in yoga postures is the goal of yoga, even though my classes are mainly physical in nature – but how can you teach yoga postures in a way that isn’t solely about alignment? For many yoga teachers, learning alignment is a huge part of teacher training, perhaps the main part.
In my trauma informed yoga classes, I’m not assisting, and I’m mostly doing the practice with students. I still give alignment cues, but the fact that I’m doing the poses too means my cues can be fewer and farther in between than if I were not.
I also try to choose cues that speak to things other than physical alignment. “Resist gravity with your arms.” “Feel the length from your front big toe to your fingertips” “Notice where you feel the most sensation from this pose” “Focus your gaze somewhere that brings ease to your neck”. I offer options and agree that choosing what to do with one’s own body can help rebuild a sense of control that is sometimes lost in trauma.
I avoid assuming that the goal is the deepest most challenging expression of each posture every time. Rather than “sit lower” in chair pose, I might say “if you’re interested in more depth, draw your hips lower and further back” or “draw your hips lower and further back, notice what’s going on in your quads. Choose to stay here or to come back up”. Continue reading “How do you teach movement without focusing on alignment?”