Priya: Tell me a bit about your background and experience teaching yoga.
Patty: My focus throughout my yoga teaching career has been on adapting yoga to make it accessible for all. From the time I received my 500-hour teaching certificate, I knew I wanted to teach people who would not necessarily walk into a yoga studio, maybe because they feel their age, state of health, or body size doesn't suit them for yoga; or because they are hospitalized or incarcerated.
I teach yoga in a women's maximum-security prison, and at a local Gilda's Club for people living with cancer. I have also taught patients in the nursing home section of a VA hospital. In addition, I currently teach chair yoga classes to seniors, and am a teaching assistant at a Yoga for Multiple Sclerosis class. I've also taught private classes to people with mobility and health issues.
Priya: You have a wide range of experience working with different populations. In particular, I'm curious about your time teaching trauma-informed yoga. Tell us about that.
Patty: To follow through with my interest in teaching incarcerated people, I took James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project workshop in 2011. This training made me understand the importance of considering the background of the people I teach, and that many, if not most of the men and women in prison deal with unresolved physical and emotional trauma. At that training, I met Anneke Lucas, who became the founder and director of Liberation Prison Yoga (LPY), the non-profit I teach with now. LPY’s trauma-informed training has been an enormous influence on my teaching both inside and outside of correctional facilities.
In yoga studios the teacher-student relationship is hierarchical, and the inherent imbalance in the relationship can have the unfortunate effect of the teacher behaving in an authoritarian manner (“I command, and you do”), and the student turning their power over mind and body to the teacher. This type of relationship is triggering to people who have experienced trauma, either as children or as adults. They may have suffered physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by an authority figure at a time when they had no power over their own lives or bodies. Incarcerated people have no power over their bodies or their actions; they are watched and commanded 24/7 by a system that has absolute authority over them.
According to Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, healthy relationships encourage neural integration. In trauma-conscious yoga we connect with our students as equals through empathy and non-judgment. We don’t command but use invitational language, offering options and emphasizing the personal nature of one’s practice. Through unconditional acceptance, the teacher creates a safe space for the student to experience emotions, develop empowerment from within, and find release and healing from trauma. Along with asana practice, a trauma-conscious class may include mindfulness exercises, meditation, and healing modalities such as support group-style sharing and stream-of-consciousness writing.
Priya: Can you share with us some of the specific poses, language, or techniques that you use in trauma-informed classes, and please explain why they are appropriate for this practice?
Patty: No matter where I teach, I always remind my students that it is their practice. I am just a guide, and although I may come in with my own ideas of what to teach, if something we do is not appropriate for their bodies, if something doesn’t feel right to them, it is always OK to do another pose, to modify, or to sit it out. I always offer different levels of a pose, and never imply that one version of a pose is better than another, always referring to them as “options.” I use the word “maybe” a lot, as in “maybe you lift the arms overhead, or maybe you prefer to hold them in a wide V-shape.” This type of language is especially important in my prison classes, as my students are always told what to do by the authorities, and choosing how to conduct their practice gives them a sense of control over their bodies and actions.
In setting up the room for trauma-informed classes, we arrange the mats in a circle, with the teacher positioned so his or her back is to the door. People who have undergone trauma are hypervigilant, and this set-up prevents anyone coming up behind them. For the same reason, the teacher does not walk around the room or touch the students; he or she stays on the mat and practices with them.
For students who have suffered sexual trauma, whether they are incarcerated or not, any pose that resembles a sexual position is best avoided as it could be triggering. Some examples of those poses are Downward-Facing Dog, Happy Baby, and any pose where students are on hands and knees. For classes in prison, we avoid clasping the hands behind the back which resembles handcuffing, and poses where hands are placed on the wall as for in a Downward-Facing Dog modification, which is like “assuming the position” to be frisked. As with any class, it is important to know your students.
Priya: Can you give an example of a mindfulness exercise that you use in a trauma-conscious class, and share with us any additional thoughts you may have on the subject before we end the interview?
Patty: A guided meditation that I have used in my prison class is called “magic carpet.” As the students lie on their mats, I tell them the mat is a flying carpet that can take them anywhere they want to go. I ask them to choose a place, then “fly” there and visualize it – what do they see? Are they in a city or an open space? Are they alone or with other people? What is the weather like? What sounds do they hear? What do they smell? After visualizing the location in as detailed a manner as possible, their “carpet” brings them back to the room and settles down again. I remind them that, any time they need to, their minds have the power to take them wherever they want.
Many mindfulness exercises have “grounding” as a goal. However, people in prison do not forget they are in prison. Guards, bars, locks, and ribbon wire are the everyday reality surrounding them, their eternal present. An exercise like “magic carpet” reminds them that although their bodies are incarcerated, their minds are not. They may not have physical freedom of movement but their imaginations can always fly free. It is my opinion that this knowledge can lighten the emotional burden of incarceration.
Patty Schneider received her 500-hour yoga teacher certification at YogaWorks, and a 100-hour certificate in Healing Yoga with Jillian Pransky. She received her certification as a Laughter Yoga Leader from Joan Castellano. She has completed workshops in teaching yoga to seniors and to victims of trauma, served an apprenticeship in teaching chair yoga, and is also a Reiki practitioner. Her desire to bring yoga to underserved populations led her in 2011 to James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project training. Since 2013 she has taught yoga to the women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (Bedford, NY) through the non-profit Liberation Prison Yoga.
Besides leading gentle and slow flow classes at Gilda’s Club in Westchester County NY, Patty teaches restorative yoga in Mamaroneck, chair yoga for seniors in Dobbs Ferry and Mamaroneck, and is a teaching assistant for a Yoga for Multiple Sclerosis through the National MS Society.
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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