Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Trauma Informed Yoga is People Informed Yoga

Hala Khouri

by Hala Khouri and Laura Sharkey


“Trauma informed” and “trauma sensitive” yoga trainings are getting more and more popular these days as research is showing the benefits of yoga for those struggling with trauma symptoms. Yet being trauma informed is not just necessary when teaching people who have trauma symptoms, it is important for everyone. Everyone has experienced some sort of trauma, big or small, as well as general stress, and both can impact our ability to self-regulate (to feel safe, grounded, and present).


The yoga postures offer a unique opportunity to both strengthen the muscles and stretch areas that carry tension. This combination, along with an emphasis on breathing and mindfulness, is why yoga is often called a “mind/body” practice––it can get us in touch with our sensations and emotions. This is different from other workouts that don’t emphasize body awareness.

Stillness is not a regular part of the average person’s life. When we step onto the yoga mat and move and breathe consciously, we can get in touch with emotions or sensations that are uncomfortable and that we’ve managed to avoid. For people with complex trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), this discomfort can be overwhelming and even re-traumatizing.

Yoga has been found to have a beneficial effect for people struggling with trauma symptoms. Margaret Howard’s article in the Huffington Post, Why Trauma Training Should be Mandatory for All Yoga Teachers, is an important one. She argues that not only are we likely to have people with major trauma in our general yoga classes, but that we will also likely encounter “people who have been in car accidents, witnessed violence, been affected by national tragedy, or served or treated traumatized persons in helper roles such as medical and social workers, psychotherapists, crisis line workers, juvenile court personnel, victim advocates, police, EMS, and even parents whose children have been through traumatic events. Indeed, even the loss of a loved one can cause traumatic grief, which is different than ordinary grief.”
When a yoga teacher understands that students walk into class carrying lots of different experiences in their body and hearts, and that during class the students may connect with parts of their body and psyche that have been shut off, she/he will treat them differently if she/he sees them struggle or get distracted. She/he has an opportunity to normalize how uncomfortable it can be, and offer techniques to work with that discomfort.

A trauma informed perspective asks us to come at our students with compassion and curiosity rather than judgement or pressure. This perspective isn’t afraid of discomfort, and doesn’t ask everyone to be happy all the time (one of my pet peeves is the instruction to smile during a pose).

Here’s an example:

Celine had a very sick child at home. He was on a respirator and needed medical attention 24/7. One day she finally makes the effort to get to yoga. She’s constantly nervous that there will be an emergency, so she keeps her phone discreetly by her mat just in case. She knows this will be the only way she can get through class without getting up to check it. When the teacher sees the phone, she comes over and tells Celine, in a critical tone, that phones are not allowed and that she must put it away because phones are simply a distraction. Celine is terribly embarrassed and ashamed. She doesn’t have the courage to speak up to the teacher, so she quietly leaves class.

A trauma informed approach might have looked more like this: “Excuse me, I see that you have your phone with you. We don’t normally allow that. Is there something going on that makes it necessary for you to have your phone?”

Being trauma informed doesn’t mean we assume everyone is broken or hurt, we just err on the side of caution so as to not create shame, pressure, or pain unnecessarily as we take people into vulnerable territory. Just like we are taught to offer safe physical alignment to everyone, not just those with injuries, being trauma informed is a safety protocol that we should offer all students.
Whether someone is suffering from full blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or simply feeling stressed because they have a lot going on, they will benefit from a teacher who understands that human beings are complex, and that part of healing means feeling safe to go into the un-investigated parts of ourselves with courage and compassion so that we can shine a light on the areas we’ve been too afraid to acknowledge. A trauma informed teacher will first assume that a student has a perfectly good reason to do what they are doing whether they have their phone out, are resting, look distracted, or don’t want to use a strap.

Here are some guidelines for teachers wanting to be trauma informed in a general class:
  1. Assume people are doing the best they can. Approach them with curiosity and kindness.
  2. Take responsibility for your own triggers and reactions. Don’t come at a student if you are having a big reaction to them.
  3. Remember that it is not your job to fix anyone. Your job is to do your best to create a safe environment for students to move through what they need to at their own pace.
  4. Let go of your agenda. Some people may find peace through their practice, but others may connect with sadness, grief, or anger. Don’t make them feel wrong for feeling bad. Rather invite them to be compassionate.
  5. Know your scope of practice. If someone is in severe distress, refer them to a good therapist for help.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. For more information on being trauma informed check out the article 12 Simple Ways to Make Your Class More Trauma Informed in Elephant Journal.

Hala Khouri, M.A., SEP, E-RYT, has been teaching yoga and movement for over 25 years and has been doing clinical work and trainings for 15 years. Originally from Beirut, Lebanon, she has dedicated her life to the study of trauma, justice and building resilience. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Columbia University and an M.A. in Counseling Psychology and an M.A. in Community Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. Hala is trained in Somatic Experiencing, a body-based psychotherapy that helps resolve trauma and its symptoms. Hala is a co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, a training organization that bridges yoga and activism within a social justice framework. She leads trauma informed yoga trainings nationally. Hala also works with A Thousand Joys training direct service providers and educators to be trauma informed and culturally responsive.  She leads a monthly, online membership program called Radical Wellbeing. Her first book, “Peace from Anxiety: Get Grounded, Build Resilience and Stay Connected Amidst the Chaos,” comes out in April 2021.

Laura Sharkey left the corporate world in 2011 for health-related reasons and used the challenge of chronic illness as an opportunity to shift their focus to their life-long interest in social justice. They teach meditation and have participated in several of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition’s campaigns, including a spotlight in YBIC and Yoga International's ""This is What a Yogi Looks Like"" series  and Mantra Yoga + Health's ""Every Body is a Yoga Body"" feature.   They are passionate about working to make yoga and meditation more accessible and welcoming to everyone, with a special focus on dis/ability and neurodiversity.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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This article first appeared in Accessible Yoga's Journal for the Conference Online in October 2020.

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