Welcome to Part II of my series on the need for yoga teachers to have training in trauma and the body. I hope that by advocating for this training more people will be able to go to yoga and so enjoy its healing benefits. If you didn't catch Part I, here it is.
Also, this discussion is very much meant to be helpful to the trauma survivor looking for a yoga class she or he can attend safely.
As you read this, if you find yourself thinking something like, "I don't teach that population" or "I don't have traumatized students," take a minute and consider this: At least one in three women will be raped in her lifetime; trauma can be "secondary," "vicarious," or intergenerational -- that is, real traumatization can happen from listening to, reading, or seeing other people's traumas (yes, even in movies) or from living with traumatized parents (for instance); car wrecks, medical procedures, separations from parents (sometimes even short ones) at an early age can create traumatic injury, as can the death of loved ones and other "ordinary" events. Who gets a traumatic injury from a traumatic event or events and who doesn't is a matter of great debate, speculation, and research. For now it's enough for the yoga teacher to know that some people do develop these injuries, and some don't. Also, consider that traumatic injuries are frequently misdiagnosed, with personality disorders, bipolar disorders, and attention disorders topping the list.
Yoga teachers can go a long way toward taking care of their students by avoiding triggering traumatic responses in those students have traumatic injuries. And you should, as part of responsible, ethical teaching practice. For every time you don't trigger a trauma response in a student that's one less instance of that trauma being driven further into his body and reinforced. And then, you can help him heal himself simply by being in your class. And isn't that why you teach?
The First Three Steps to Avoid Activating Traumatic States in Yoga Students:
1. Careful with touch: Most teachers don't touch their students without permission. In my experience, teachers will approach and quietly, gently ask, "Is it ok [to touch you (here)]?" Or announce that they're going to come around and make an adjustment or other touch, and the student should simply signal their desire not to be touched, if that's their wish. This is done out of respect and caution, of course. But please keep this in mind: Someone who has been through sexual or physical violence may have become conditioned to acquiescing, saying "yes," especially to authority figures (which you are, whether you like it or not) when approached for intimate touch, or may go into a freeze response and be unable to move. The Trauma Center at JRI's yoga clinic found that the soft voice asking for touch was highly retraumatizing/triggering for many students who had been sexually abused or raped. Also, violent crime often comes with a burden of shame -- even non-sexual violence and emotional violence. For this reason, many people simply don't want to "stand out" by saying no.
2. Do not question your students' choice of a pose modification unless you really think s/he may be in danger of physical injury. Clearly, teachers need to instruct on proper alignment to avoid injury and get benefit from the pose. However, I've seen teachers make judgments on students' choices of poses based on those teachers' conceptions of a student's personality or state of spiritual evolution. "He wants to put his foot all the way up on his thigh in tree because he's so competitive!" Or, "She really needs to open her heart chakra, so I need to help her past her reluctance to go into plow." This is bogus. A teacher likely doesn't know what areas or points in a student's body are holding trauma and therefore vulnerable to being triggered by a pose. It doesn't matter, either, if you've seen her put her foot on her ankle in tree a thousand times before. It is impossible to know if she's come into class in a more vulnerable state than usual, if something has awakened an old body point today, or if the air, an illness, a song that's playing, or any other of countless variables might be present causing her to make the decision to do the pose her way. It is the teacher's job to check her own ego and let the student follow her internal wisdom. And of course we're communicating all the time, talking or not. The trick is, again, to let go of ego out of being followed or not followed. Trauma can disconnect a person from his or her body; the body has become "untrustworthy." That's one reason why yoga can be so healing; it can bring the reconnection of mind and body. The best thing you can do it to teach your student to trust herself and her body's own signals.
Lastly, some yoga teachers' tendencies to judge students' reluctance to go into a pose as a signal that such a pose is something they "need to move through" to "open up" or progress is extremely dangerous to the traumatized student. A teacher doing this could send a student into a physiological state of trauma activation that could lead to suicidal thoughts and feelings, self-harming, relationship disruptions, car accidents, or any number serious outcomes. Again, this is an area where yoga teachers can work on their own egos, their own need to be followed and respected and seen as The Teacher.
3. Careful with props. No straps. Anyone who has been bound or retrained can be triggered just by seeing a strap. If a student doesn't want to work with a strap, don't ask twice. And keep those straps in a bin somewhere, out of sight. Someone in your class may have been tied up and hurt. Really. Myself, I will never use straps in a class I'm teaching.
And remember, socioeconomic status, level of cheerfulness, "accomplishments" in life or other external factors are not indicators of whether or not someone is a trauma survivor.
Next up in Margaret's series on trauma and yoga: Steps 4-6, Language of Choice, Language of Fear, and Careful with that agni sara!
I highly recommend David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper's book for yoga teachers and students, about trauma-sensative yoga:
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
If you are a human trafficking survivor please check out Holly Austin Smith's series on human trafficking and PTSD.