Updated: Nov 29, 2021
by Thread Teacher Beth Filla
I don’t know about you, but I have startled people when I have touched them in savasana. I have, at times, noticed people in class sweating in stillness, eyes darting around the room. I have sometimes felt people’s bodies become more rigid when I have gone in for hands-on assists.
I’m a nice lady. I’m a well-trained and very experienced teacher. And I also know that people have come to my classes having experienced all kinds of challenges, traumas, and Traumas with different levels of support and opportunities for processing. They have come to class for a respite, or to practice building positive neural networks, or because they thought they should. Sometimes I have served them well; other times I have made mistakes. I’m learning.
I hope we’re always learning. I hope that the longer we practice and teach, the better our instincts and the stronger our compassion. And at this point in history, as people are more open about their mental health struggles and more aware of the effects of trauma in their lives, after these years of pandemic and racial reckoning, it really is our job as teachers to become more trauma-informed.
We’ve been having a good series of conversations on this topic here in The Thread community; here are some of the major points we’ve been discussing:
Knowing what trauma really is is the first step. Trauma is something that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. It might be a one-time event. It might be embroidered into the fabric of a family dynamic. It might be as insidious as systemic racism or as unpredictable as a pandemic. Some people can manage through two or three of these, but add a fourth and they can’t cope. Some people get really thrown off with one. You don’t need to know the details, but if you notice that someone seems overwhelmed, slow things down. Repeat instructions. Turn the music down. Simplify things.
Much of what you do already in every class can support someone’s healing. Many people who have survived trauma get locked into a pattern of constantly assessing for risk. Their attention is turned outward, looking for threat. By inviting students to pay attention to what’s going on inside, you are creating the possibility of a break from that. You’re paving the way for it. It is truly a gift.
Be humble about touch in class. Some people are opting out of touch all together. Many studios use permission cards or stones. You might want to describe an assist you’re offering before jumping into it (“I’m thinking of putting my right hand on your top hip to help you feel the connection down into your back foot. Would that be ok?”). Know that if you’re uncomfortable about touching someone, there’s a strong chance they will sense it. As always, know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
Choice is where it’s at. A lack of choice or self agency is inherent in trauma. Try using invitatory language (“If you like, lift your arms to shoulder height.”). Practice instructing postures in stages, and making it truly ok to stop or progress or move back through those stages (“Come onto your hands and knees. If you like, lengthen your right leg straight back, keeping your toes on the floor. Staying there is great. If it seems interesting to you, consider lifting that leg up behind you to hip height. That’s plenty. Feel for the balance. Some of you might want to bend that knee and reach for your foot with your left hand. If you’re going for that, check in with yourself. How does it feel? Do you want to stay there or move back?”). In doing this, you’re helping your students tune into what they actually want instead of what they think they’re supposed to do. You are giving them the opportunity to consciously make choices about what they do with their bodies.
You can’t control everything. We can’t anticipate or even guess at every possible trigger. We can be respectful, clear, intentional, and humble. We can stop and apologize if something feels uncomfortable, and move on. We can check in with a student after class if it feels important to clarify a boundary. It’s not our job as yoga teachers to process the details of the trauma. It’s not our job to fix it. But we should get clear about our students’ needs and growing edges.
This is such a tiny scratch at the surface of a truly important topic. If you’re a member of The Thread, and you want to talk with and learn from each other about this interplay of trauma and yoga, join The Trauma-Informed Yoga Circle. If you’re looking for an amazing book on this topic, I recommend David Emmerson’s Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body (North Atlantic Books, 2011). I’m sure there are many more.
If you’re looking for further training on this topic, get clear about your goals. There are trainings and workshops that focus on working with specific populations, or on incorporating trauma-informed principles into regular drop-in classes. I’m particularly excited about opportunities to learn how concepts and practices discussed in classical yoga texts correspond to our contemporary understanding of neurobiology and how these together can be used to help people heal the effects of trauma.
All nerdiness aside, step one is really for each of us to acknowledge our own traumas and Traumas. Don’t expect your yoga practice to be the only thing you ever need: get the support of a therapist if you need it. Get the support of other yoga teachers if incorporating these ideas feels daunting. Be curious. Be interested and open and ready to learn. I’d love to hear about your experiences as we move forward, connected by this beautiful Thread.
Beth Filia ERYT-200, RYT-500, YACEP®, MSW, LISW
Thread Teacher and Mentor
When it comes to yoga, I want the whole kit and kaboodle. I want the devotion, the strong postures, big connection with philosophical themes. I want to hear music! Sanskrit! I want to feel every idea and word in my body. And I think you should, too.
I have been teaching vinyasa and yin yoga since 2005. I completed the Jivamukti Yoga Teacher Training with Sharon Gannon and David Life in 2012. I owned a community-based yoga studio in New Jersey for ten years during which time I taught weekly classes, led teacher trainings, and organized and facilitated workshops and retreats. I led kirtans and mentored teachers. I marketed the studio’s programs with integrity, humility, and pride.
Before I was a yoga teacher, I was a classroom teacher. Somewhere in there, I led public health educational programs. I now work as a therapist and lead “regular” and trauma-informed yoga classes through my practice, Present Counseling and Movement, in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’m passionate about teaching and healing and bodies and brains. All of my work is fueled by my deep respect for people’s strength and inner intelligence. I feel the spark of spirit and I know we’re connected.
Learn More About Beth