"One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happen to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit."
- The Body Keeps the Score
Teaching with a trauma-sensitive lens must be an essential component of pedagogy. We don't always know the experiences of our students. Is it fair to tailor our lessons to students who have experienced trauma when others have not? Yes. Absolutely. Creating a safe environment for those who have experienced trauma inevitably creates a safe space for those who have not.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, shares that trauma can lead to a list of physical ailments, including muscle tension, back pain, headaches, and other types of chronic pain. He recommends yoga as a way to manage trauma.
How do we create a trauma sensitive space as yoga teachers? Here is a list of a few of the things to consider and potential cues to incorporate into your class to create a safe space. If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comment section below!
1. Intentional Opening As you begin practice, remind students that all poses are offerings. They can skip any pose that does not serve them. Throughout practice, weave in this theme. While students don't need permission from you at any time to change their practice, students often aim to please their teacher, and this gentle reminder can give them the power to adjust their practice.
"As we hold this pose, remember, it's your mat, your practice. Move in a way that serves you."
"Remember, at any time you can skip or change a pose."
2. Don't cue "Close the Eyes." Offer this, but don't make it mandatory. Even if you're not trying to imply this action is mandatory, students often feel a need to do as their teacher says. Try these cues instead:
"If you feel comfortable, close the eyes."
"Soften the gaze."
"Lower the gaze or close the eyes."
3. Emphasize the Breath: Breath has the dual nature of being conscious and unconscious. If students are new to yoga, they are often unaware of their breath. Developing awareness of each inhale and exhale improves Heart Rate Variability. To read more about the importance of Heart Rate Variability and trauma, consider reading chapter 16 of The Body Keeps the Score.
4. Spreading the Legs: For survivors of sexual assault, spreading the legs in a wide straddle or happy baby can trigger panic. Remind students ALL poses are optional.
"Take happy baby or go straight to savasana."
"Take any other poses your body may need such as happy baby or ___________________(fill in the blank). " This reminds students they have power and control over how they move their body on their mat. This also prevents the stress of feeling like they're disobeying the teacher if they don't move into the cued pose.
5. Pay Attention During Savasana: Bessel van der Klok noted that even after yoga asana (postures), students struggled to fully relax. Remind students that they can change position.
"Rest in a position that is most comfortable for you."
"You can rest on your back or in any other position that helps you relax."
6. Ask Permission to Touch. Always. Even if it's a student you've taught before and know well. We feel different on different days. We don't know what someone experienced since we say them last. Ask permission. Always. Simply ask, "May I offer an adjustment?"
7. Be Aware of Sounds. I won't go down the rabbit hole of playlist preferences, but be aware of sounds within the studio. Some students might need to set up away from windows where it's noises can trickle in and ensure your playlist is conducive to relaxation.
While this is not an exhaustive list, consider starting here. I'd love to hear how other yoga teacher create a trauma sensitive space for their students. Please share your practices and reflections below!