“No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.” Judith Herman

There may be a time when you reach out for the support and care you deserve. It could be by reaching out to a compassionate friend, a therapist, or to a peer in your community. At some point, they may say to you, “Maybe try yoga or mindfulness or meditation?” And then you enter a yoga class. You bravely harness the energy to put on some “yoga clothes” and walk into a yoga studio with varying degrees of stimuli (boutique of tight and expensive clothing, scents, promotions of class packs, communal changing room, etc).

I’m going to generalize here based on conversations I’ve had with people I work with and therapists I collaborate with and my own experience as a student and facilitator of yoga for over twenty years. This is not every class nor every teacher. But it happens and for those who have felt traumatized in a yoga class, your voice deserves to feel heard. To those who may read this and feel defensive or offended, I hear you also. I hope that we can gracefully lean into the discomfort together.

There isn’t a requirement when being certified by Yoga Alliance to become a yoga teacher to learn about trauma and how it’s held in our bodies. Nor is there any outside governing or regulatory body when receiving a yoga teacher certification.[1] This is important to note as many yoga teachers don’t know what they don’t know if it’s not being taught. Unfortunately, without regulation, many schools and lineages of yoga are caught in a cycle of coercion on one side of the spectrum and horrific abuse on the other end.[2]

The byproduct of this type of education in western yoga teacher training is a looping of information and teaching styles that have become what we very often encounter when we walk into a yoga studio. For some, that familiarity and predictability can be comforting and feels like a deep connection to a practice that serves them. For others, it can feel like something quite different.

Our nervous systems are built for survival. Our system is constantly surveilling each moment and letting us know if the moment is safe, dangerous, or life-threatening.  Below consciousness, our nervous system is taking in millions of bits of information from inside of us, from our environment, and from other nervous systems (person-to-person relationships). When we have endured trauma, our system can become highly sensitive to cues of danger. It’s how we survived. [3]

What is being offered in a yoga class? What are the cues?

There is an inherent power dynamic in a yoga class between a yoga teacher and a student. And when it comes to the subtlety of our mind-body-spirit connection, there is an added vulnerability to that dynamic. Someone can give me the pathway towards peace and zen? I will try anything, do anything because I’m in so much pain.

And then class begins. The yoga teacher usually stands in the front and then walks around the room. There’s a sequence of movement and breathwork. The teacher tells me/instructs me/commands the following:

  • When to breathe and breathwork practices
  • How to move and very specifically
  • How to stack my bones
  • Where to place my feet
  • Where to gaze
  • How to feel or what to do so I can feel a certain way
  • May offer beginner to advanced options making movement hierarchical
  • Use language that is commanding
  • Tell me I can’t drink water
  • Tell me to endure the pain
  • Lay still
  • Close my eyes

And so on and so on.

This scenario is another situation to adapt to and survive. This is another power dynamic in a relationship and an environment where I have no choice. I can please my teacher by doing the right thing or the safe thing (very often movement cues are cushioned with safety from injury, which is a myth).[4] I will have to turn off my internal sensations to endure and cooperate with the external guidelines. I’m good at it – it is my superpower – being able to read the room and figure out how to do what’s expected of me. Or maybe, in service of survival, I disappear and go on autopilot. Then there’s the silent aftermath of this minefield. The inner narrative of how even yoga can’t help me or that there’s something wrong with me and that yoga doesn’t work. I can’t breathe right or move right. Everyone is so flexible and coordinated and I’m clumsy and restless and on alert. Everyone can lay down with their eyes closed with the teacher is walking around the room and I’m about to have a panic attack.

What is trauma-informed yoga then?

As a trauma-informed yoga facilitator, it is vital for me to understand and learn about trauma. It’s crucial to understand my scope of practice and to have safety guardrails and boundaries. My presence is one of compassion while having the capacity to deeply listen without an agenda or the need to fix it. It’s important for me to understand my own nervous system so I don’t enter the space dysregulated because of that superpower mentioned above (others will be able to immediately and below consciousness may sense my nervous system state as unsafe in some way).

Trauma-informed yoga is about sharing power, safe relationship, and offering space for the possibility of present-moment choice-making. If I’m hyper-focused on technique, methodology, ideology, curating my brand, and so forth then I am (as Judith Herman writes) taking power away and fostering disempowerment rather than recovery through empowerment and agency. I have failed, not you.

“No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”

If this has resonated with you in any way, you’re not alone. There are other options and choices and ways to explore this practice. Thank you for taking the time to be here with me. I will continue writing and advocating for trauma-informed yoga spaces.

Mindy Levine facilitates the trauma-informed yoga program at the CPTSD Foundation. She is trained as a volunteer crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line as well as being a TCTSY-F (Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga Facilitator). She recently published an article about Utilizing Polyvagal Theory practices in trauma-informed spaces for the international journal, “Voices Against Torture.” More information about Mindy and her work and writing can be found at https://www.tctsywithmindy.com/

References:

[1] Yoga Alliance (YA) as quoted on their website is the largest nonprofit association representing the yoga community (yoga schools register with YA and then yoga teachers can be certified by YA).YA also has a stance on government regulation and is against it, as stated on their website and last updated 6/8/2016.

[2] Highly recommend Matthew Remski’s book, “Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and healing in Yoga and Beyond.” I’m not advocating for regulation, only that you can’t be disbarred or have your license revoked like in other professions.

[3] Principles of Polyvagal Theory (neuroception), created by Dr. Stephen Porges

[4] According to well-researched principles of pain science, it is multifactorial: physical, psychological, and social factors. Therefore, claiming a certain movement as safe from pain/injury is trying to give two-dimensional answers to our complex three-dimensional selves. Oftentimes these cues used in yoga have no basis in science.

 

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