Working with victims of trauma is a unique challenge for therapeutic practitioners of all kinds, including psychotherapists, bodyworkers, yoga teachers, life coaches and many more. It could, in fact, be reasonably argued that any human services related work should be done through a trauma-informed lens. But what does it mean to do work that is trauma-informed?
In 2010, Mark Lilly and Jaime Hedlund of Portland, Oregon’s Street Yoga—a non-profit dedicated to working with those struggling to overcome the impacts of poverty, abuse, addiction and other kinds of trauma—conducted a study on the therapeutic yoga program they designed specifically for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
In their paper, they outlined nine guidelines for the creation of a safe environment for healing, specifically in the context of teaching yoga to trauma victims. The following have been adapted from their guidelines.
1.If you plan to use meditation, choose guided meditations rather than silent ones.
For those who’ve experienced trauma, it’s important to create a balance between experiencing a source of support and experiencing traumatic material. Sitting in silence can disrupt the necessary connection with the source of support, creating an environment in which traumatic content can overwhelm the patient.
2. Be sure students have the option to keep their eyes open or close them, depending on what feels best for them.
Establishing security is a critical component of any trauma treatment, so your first priority should be to make students feel safe in the yoga room.
Victims of trauma often struggle with overactive threat-detection systems, which can make things like not being able to see their surroundings extremely frightening. You may think it goes without saying that keeping the eyes open during meditation or certain yoga postures (such as the final resting pose, shavasana) is allowed, but it’s a good idea to say it aloud anyway.
Lilly and Hedlund also suggest not turning the lights out completely when entering the rest period.
3. Do not use physical adjustments.
Another integral part of healing trauma is re-establishing the victim’s sense of safety in his or her own body. Particularly for victims of physical or sexual abuse, who have endured severe boundary violations on their bodies at the hands of others, fostering a sense of personal sovereignty over and safety inside one’s body is critical to healing.
Instead of physically adjusting students in postures, Lilly and Hedlund suggest modeling the intended adjustment or describing it verbally.
4. Consider your clothing.
The yoga room is often a space of tight and even minimal clothing choices. Be mindful when working with victims of trauma—whether the trauma was sexual in nature or not—that revealing or potentially suggestive clothing can compromise the sense of security that is required when doing any healing work with trauma.
Certainly, this is a personal choice, but it is one that all instructors working with traumatized populations should strongly consider. Lilly and Hedlund report that students may be “triggered by clothes that are more revealing.”
5. Model consent.
Trauma is by nature non-consensual, and so part of healing from trauma is establishing new norms of consent and personal choice. Lilly and Hedlund cite examples of instances in which this principle can be used, such as when guests or visitors may be attending the class or when a photographer may be there taking photos.
In addition to honoring the importance of consent, asking for permission from students before allowing guests into the space is also a way to set a tone of predictability, another important part of creating safe space.
Because making contact with emotional content connected with traumatic experiences can be in itself re-traumatizing, it’s critical that teachers who wish to work with these populations are adequately trained and informed about what trauma is, the best methods for healing it and how to create the environments most likely to foster healing. Fortunately, there are many resources and trainings now available for those wishing to teach yoga with populations who have experienced trauma.
As a rule of thumb, yoga instructors who aim to teach trauma-informed yoga but are not mental health professionals should keep an updated list of mental health clinicians on-hand and be ready to refer out when needed.