I like yoga. I suppose that’s clear. I also use yoga. I use to yoga to try to relax, de-stress, heal and find solace. I use it when my body is being unfriendly or my mind is too cluttered. I use yoga so that I do not get lost in past trauma.
We all have trauma. We all have loss. For some of us, though, that trauma is so severe or so long term that we cannot easily separate ourselves from its effects on our bodies and minds. For people like me, yoga can be a great tool.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the sorts of yoga and the types of yogic settings I find most conducive to my own healthy experience. What I’m going to share here are my own observations. I hope people feel free to share their experiences in the comments. This is my advice to yoga instructors looking to create a space that is safe for survivors of trauma and those who suffer the after-effects (like post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia or anxiety.)
1) Change the Layout
A typical yoga room is laid out in a grid, whether exact or loose. The students face the instructor. It looks like this:
The problem with this layout is that, save the people in the back row, everyone has someone at their back. I always take a spot in the back row. I feel self-conscious being watched and I don’t feel safe without a wall at my back. I know that may seem extreme, but there you have it.
Solution? Lay the class out like this:
With this layout, everyone’s back is covered and everyone can see the teacher. In fact, it’s changes the entire dynamic, moving away from formal and classroom-inspired to casual and free.
2) Change the Numbers
A typical yoga class has somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 people. With this many, elbows get bumped, spaces get invaded and trauma survivors like me can feel trapped. Solution? Smaller classes. Half sized should do. Here’s the deal: I know that the more students you have, the more money you make. I know yoga is a business, no matter what else it is. Perhaps you could think of this as karma. (No? Not gonna work?). You charge us full price, but you understand that you’ll be seeing fewer of us. I suppose some survivors wouldn’t mind paying a premium for a safer environment, but a girl can dream, can’t she? I acknowledge that this presents a potential problem. Smaller classes might mean turning people away. I suppose a work-around would be to make it a pre-registered class. Commit to 8 weeks, and you get a guaranteed small class and a safer place, plus every week you see the same people.
3) Change the Script
Most yoga teachers have a pretty solid sense of where they are going before a class starts. There are things you say and do every week that help set the tone and pass along vital information to students. Consider changing that around a bit. Somewhere in your intro, offer students a chance to share their class-applicable triggers (dimmed lights, being touched, chanting and heavy scents are all likely.) By giving your students a chance to help create the space, you’ve empowered them. By allowing them to place limits on things like touch, you’ve given them ownership of their own bodies. Explain any changes you’ve made to them. Explain that they should stop if they are uncomfortable. It is better to be safe than to be perfect. To be on the safe side, even if a student is cool with touch, announce yourself before making contact.
4) Change the Space
No yoga room seems complete without a few key elements – statuary of religious icons, symbols of spiritual ideas and candles all rate high on my yoga-room-recognition scale. So why am I about to suggest you sweep these things into a closet for this class? Religion and spirituality can be a very positive pursuit, however, whether good or bad, religion is generally tied to heightened emotion. People who have had negative religious experiences may intellectually disconnect and those with positive experiences may feel overwhelmed and, again, disconnect. Since one of the biggest services that yoga provides to PTSD sufferers and the like is the opportunity to be in the moment, this potential disconnection is counter to the benefits a class provides.
5) Change the Ending
We all love savasana, right? Um no. Imagine you are a survivor of sexual abuse, physical abuse or combat. Now imagine just how many triggers are going to be tied to lying, arms and legs spread, on your back, in a dark room full of strangers, with your eyes closed. Yep, I pretty much hate savasana. No matter what trauma one has survived, this position is strikingly vulnerable. While attaining the ability to lie happily prone may be a great long term goal for a trauma survivor, there’s no way one hour of yoga will get me ready for it. I’m always the first person to get out of this pose. That’s not to say that every trauma survivor will feel as I do. For some, it may be just what they want. Still, I suggest offering alternate positions for your group to finish and rest in. I generally default to child’s pose. By offering alternate poses or evened altered versions of poses, you can help your group find their own comfort zone.
I know that this is a lot of work. It’s not a few simple changes, it’s an entire re-thinking of how yoga is approached. It’s also a commitment to bringing peace to group that needs it very, very desperately. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and consider creating the sort of space trauma survivors need. I hope that other survivors will offer suggestions below, which I will include in a follow up blog. Teachers, please add your thoughts as well. Together, we can create something profound. Together we can find moments of peace.