In March of this year I completed 40 hours of training in sexual violence crisis intervention through the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, the largest Illinois provider of services to sexual assault survivors. I’ve trained separately in trauma informed yoga, including the Breathe Network’s Sexual Violence, Yoga and Resilience training, and took this training to prepare to teach yoga at the YWCA or any other rape crisis center. (In contrast to the YMCA, which I think nowadays is primarily known for group fitness classes, the YWCA focuses on eliminating racism, economic empowerment and counseling/other services related to sexual assault and domestic violence).
This 40-hour training is primarily intended for those who will go on to serve as rape crisis hotline volunteers, or medical advocates, who (offer to) accompany survivors through the hospital visit. If you are interested in volunteering in these capacities – reach out to the YWCA! The volunteers I met in training were amazing and inspiring. While the training is not specific to yoga, it is excellent for any yoga teacher who wishes to work with sexual violence survivors (there is a different 40-hour training focused on domestic violence)…and I’d say any yoga teacher at all, as there’s a big chance most public classes include survivors.
Read on to find out 8 ways this training is relevant to yoga classes, both public or specific to survivors.
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?”
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?”
What is invitational language?
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)
Continue reading “Invitational Language”
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?
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.
Continue reading “Can yoga be harmful?”
How is a trauma informed yoga class different from a public yoga class? How would a yoga teacher get training in trauma-informed yoga and set up a class with a non-profit?
This 2-hour event starts with a short trauma-informed yoga practice. I’ll share my experience in this field and my take on the above questions, using the practice as a reference point and example. My perspective is that of yoga teacher, and accordingly the talk is aimed at yoga teachers/trainees, but anyone with an interest in the topic can practice and participate. Ideal for yoga studios looking to raise awareness of trauma-informed yoga among staff or for teacher trainees as they learn about hands-on assists or additional opportunities to do service through yoga.
Space requirements: enough floor space for the group to lay yoga mats down and practice; space that can be used exclusively for the event for the full two hours (without other clients or staff passing through the space, peering in, etc.).
Time requirement: two hours; if desired, we an add more time and incorporate an interactive group discussion and readings.
Pricing: please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss affordable rates. This event helps support the free trauma-informed yoga classes offered by Share Your Practice in Chicago.
Find feedback on past events here.
Note that this is a yoga practice and an informal talk on trauma-informed yoga, based on my participation in approximately 60 hours of continuing yoga education in trauma-informed yoga and my administrative work for a yoga non-profit. This is not itself a training in trauma-informed yoga. This talk will help participants decide their own best path for training or further educating themselves on this topic.
I am a yoga teacher – not a psychologist or social worker or yoga therapist. Yoga teachers definitely CAN become informed about trauma and trauma-sensitive practices without being social workers or psychologists, and can make public or private classes safer and friendlier to trauma survivors …making a yoga class trauma-informed is different from treating mental health conditions. Any public class most likely already includes trauma survivors without any effort on the teacher’s part to gather them.
Share you additional print resources here!
The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel van der Kolk
Waking the Tiger – Peter Levine
Overcoming Trauma with Yoga – David Emerson
Best Practices for Yoga in Schools – Yoga Service Council
We’re All Doing Time and Prison Volunteer Guide – Human Kindness Foundation
Reading lists that others have compiled:
Anahata International / Dr Laura Rubenstein (scroll to end for reading list or READ the tips that come first too)
YogaHope (books and TED talks)
This is a big question, and one that can’t be answered fully in the short span of a blog post. There are books written on this topic (see print resources on trauma-informed) and entire trainings devoted to it.
Similarly, just as most of us realize there really isn’t one standard “traditional yoga” taught in studios to compare trauma-sensitive yoga to, there is also lots of diversity within trauma-informed yoga. And plenty of teachers who perhaps have not had training in trauma-sensitive yoga are in fact sensitive and empathetic in their teaching.
Consider this post a basic introductory outline – and, of course, my own opinion. Do you have other points to add? Let me know!
In outline form:
- Fewer or no physical assists. Touch is powerful and could be triggering. Ask! See: “Please don’t touch”
- Invitational language/more options given. “In your own time…”, “Fold/twist any amount.” “Stay here 5 more breaths or finish when you feel done.”, “…or…”, option to close eyes or lower gaze/let eyelids be heavy if people don’t want to close eyes; options for savasana. See “Trauma-Informed yoga in public classes” for additional examples.
- Trauma-informed environment. Different use of music, props, lighting, set up of room. Use of strap optional (could be triggering for students who were bound or in recovery from drug use); teacher tries to be where students can see them to avoid the feeling of being snuck up on; set up room/mats so people can see the door (though once this is done generally allow people to choose where they set up rather than directing them to move); avoid turning lights out all the way or tell students before you dim them or turn them off. Trauma-sensitive yoga trainings will often go into much more detail on this topic.
- Often less vigorous than public yoga studio classes. Often students in trauma-specific classes are newer to yoga or in some settings (e.g. a drop-in homeless shelter where people may actually be sleeping outdoors/on the ground; people wearing non-yoga clothes such as jeans because that is all they have) may have physical constraints greater than those typically facing regulars at yoga studios. How I modify poses and sequences for community classes.
- Often less focus on spiritual aspects of yoga and/or themes than in a public setting. My view: sometimes themes can come across as advice-giving much like a therapist would do. I don’t think theming is bad, and it’s pretty well-established and expected in some public yoga class settings. Since my expertise is limited to yoga, I’m very cautious about bringing in themes or quotes that appear to give therapy-like advice in settings outside of yoga studios.
Themes that are light and easy in a yoga studio setting may come across differently in a setting where people have very different day to day lives and concerns (e.g. my recent theme of “lean into your discomfort” might come across as unsympathetic or privileged at a class for veterans struggling with physical injuries).
Of course I also think people should teach what is authentic to them! Students and trauma survivors are resilient. It makes sense to think carefully about any theme you bring in, but it doesn’t mean you have to censor yourself.
Trauma therapist Margaret Howard explains well how Facebook memes can trigger trauma survivors
(I think these are often similar to yoga class themes which are short and sweet and drawn from wider contexts that there is often not time to explore)
One yoga teacher’s take on managing his own PTSD with yoga
Post-traumatic stress is a thing – but what about post-traumatic growth?
Liberation Prison Yoga founder Anneke Lucas writes on overcoming trauma from childhood sexual abuse
Study on Holocaust survivors indicates trauma is passed on in genes
I recently participated in a 14-hour Trauma Sensitive Yoga training led by Molly Boeder Harris of The Breathe Network
. The organization and the training focus on survivors of sexual violence; I don’t work specifically with survivors of sexual violence, but as founder Molly
Boeder Harris points out, sexual violence is unfortunately pervasive. Even if you don’t know it, in your public yoga classes there are likely survivors of sexual violence – in addition to survivors or other forms of trauma, many of which manifest in the body in similar ways.
I attended the Breathe Network’s 3-hour workshop
last year, and what struck again even more so this round is that – on top of all the practical info – the trauma-informed perspective was infused into the workshop itself.
Right at the start Molly said to take breaks when you need them, and feel free to move around (bonus points for legs up the wall!). And my inner child glowed when she offered pages from one of these new “meditation coloring books for grown ups.” Doodling can be a great way to take a break, let your mind wander when the topic is an intense one, and then refocus and join back in.
It’s just nice as a participant to experience this, particularly in a workshop connected to such a serious topic as sexual violence. But it’s also significant when someone really embodies the philosophy they teach. As yoga teachers (and as teachers of any subject, really) we learn to tell people what to do – and often this is expected of us! Offering options, including the option to disregard the teacher’s cues, is a big part of trauma sensitive teaching. As yoga teachers, workshop leaders, or in any number of other roles, it can be disorienting to have people doing their own thing – but part of letting people do this is trusting that they are in charge of their body and their movement and their time – and conveying that to them by letting them do that.
Continue reading “Training: Yoga for Survivors of Sexual Violence”