Teaching trauma-sensitive yoga

By Panayiota Bertzikis

In my work at a rape crisis center, I have spoken to many rape survivors that credit yoga to help manage their symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I’ve also spoken to many who felt that their yoga teachers were not prepared to handle the needs of those suffering from PTSD and might unintentionally cause harm or distress.

Whether you are teaching a basic restorative class or a power flow class here are some things to always keep in mind to make your space a safe, welcoming, and a healing place for all:

Don’t touch: I do not think I can stress this enough. Walking into a yoga class at does not give up an individual’s right to consent. Always ask before adjusting! No matter who the student is. No matter how well you think you know them. When a person is raped their yoga teacher is probably not the first person that they would tell, so you don’t know how long it has been since the abuse has occurred.

Find a way that works best for you. Some teachers like to start class in child’s pose and simply ask for those who do not want to be touched to raise their hand. My local studio has index cards with “no thanks” written on them, which we place on our mats when we don’t want to be adjusted. It works great.

Always make sure your students can locate you in class: This might seem obvious, but so many trauma survivors have expressed it as a concern, I had to include it.

One survivor said, “I know I am supposed to keep my practice on my mat, but I find myself monitoring the teacher’s every footstep. I am in flight or fight mode. I mentally prepare myself for when she reaches out her hands to adjust me. I leave class emotionally drained from being in such a hyper-vigilant state.”

If you must walk around, say to turn off the music or adjust the temperature, verbalize it and the direction that you are heading. For instance, “It is getting warm in here. I am going to turn the air up a bit.”

Allow your students to go at their own pace: In yoga, we always talk about listening to your own body, but are you teaching what you are preaching? Are you telling your students, “Just hold it for three more breaths”? You might be putting expectations on your students if so. For trauma survivors pleasing the teacher often becomes primary and listening to their body become secondary. Instead of, “Everybody can hold anything for five breaths” say “We are going to hold it for five breaths but it is perfectly okay to get into child’s pose whenever you want.”

Acknowledge an upset student: Do not make assumptions. Is a student leaving class in tears? Ask, “How are you feeling? Is everything okay?” Most likely they will just put on a false smile and say everything is fine. If they do choose to open up, remember that you are a yoga teacher and not a counselor. Guide the student through some pranayama or a basic grounding asana. When a survivor is upset, especially if they might be disassociating it is important not to introduce anything too difficult or new even if they are an advance student.

Please do not make assumptions. Saying, “It must have been those hip-openers that we worked on earlier” does not validate the student’s feelings. It might have been pigeon-pose, but it also might have been the way the student next to them was breathing or seeing their rapist face for the seconds he dared to shut his eyes or something you have done that triggered them.

Please don’t ignore the upset student. We want to validate not isolate the student.

Offer modifications and give options: Rape is a crime where one’s power is completely taken away from them. To help our students regain control, listen to their bodies and prevent injuries it is important that we offer options.

Props, especially straps, might be very triggering for survivors. If you plan using straps during your classes, offer the option to do the asana without straps.
Often, Savasana (Corpse Pose) is the scariest pose for survivors. Offer others options, such as seated meditation, for your students who are just not yet ready to be in savasana.

Be mindful of keeping distractions to a minimum: Distractions come in all forms; people walking in late, outside noise and of course all the chatter in your student’s mind. Some are preventable such as forbidding students to come in late and hanging a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door. Other noises might not be preventable. When it is an outside noise, acknowledge it and continue on with your class.

As for the chatter in your student’s mind, the goal of yoga might be to silence the mind. Far-Reaching than for non-traumatized students.

Many who have suffered from trauma reported that the event that caused their trauma is always on their mind. They have nightmares about it, flashbacks and always analyzing and going over the event, this is known as re-experiencing

For those with trauma, the first goal should be to replace the trauma thoughts with more neutral or positive thoughts. Thinking about a grocery list is a HUGE step towards healing for survivors. One of my all times favorites thing a teacher has said, “If your mind can not be still then picture the smiling faces of all the people that you love.” It was just perfect.

Every survivor is different. Every day is different. What might work for one student might not work for another. What might be okay with one survivor might be completely off-limits for another. Our practices are unique, our lives are unique, and our traumas are unique.