In part 1 of our series on teaching trauma-sensitive yoga, teacher Daniel Sernicola offers tips for setting up a safe space for practice.
For yoga to heal, it is essential to be able to open up and be vulnerable on the mat. That’s why it’s important to consider the physical elements of the yoga environment to create a practice space that feels welcoming and safe to all students—and particularly trauma survivors. David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, recommends having the room set up before students arrive. Try these 5 trauma-sensitive tips before teaching your next class.
1. Adjust the lighting.
“If you have a choice between bright lights and very low lights, you go with the bright lights,” Emerson says. “Dark or dim rooms tend to be more triggering [for trauma survivors] than bright rooms.”
2. Consider privacy.
Emerson suggests windows should be covered somehow, not “open and exposed." And when working with traumatized youth, my partner Jake and I cover the windows to limit as many outside distractions as possible and offer privacy so our youth are more present in their practice. We've found that our youth are more likely to pay attention and focus on their practice if they feel they have the privacy to be themselves.
3. Select music and sounds with care.
“Part of our yoga practice is expanding our awareness and refining our senses with a focus on what is harmonious. Sound plays an important part in this because it so profoundly impacts our nervous system,” writes Max Strom in A Life Worth Breathing. He adds, “To help bring harmony into our lives—meaning, first into our nervous systems—sound and noise must be considered an important factor.” Yoga teacher Jake Hays suggests listening closely to song lyrics before adding it to a playlist. “Avoid music containing words and phrases about death, breakups, and sexual undertones,” he says. “Alternatively, look for genres of music that are ambient in tone and blend into the background.” He recommends sourcing non-top 40 hits through internet radio apps. When chosen with care, music can be an effective tool for connection.
4. Minimize outside noise.
Emerson recommends trying to minimize external noises. "The idea is to help your students stay grounded and in the present moment," he says. "Some important symptoms of PTSD to understand in this regard are hypervigilance (being constantly on the alert for danger), an exaggerated startle response (being jumpy or easily startled), triggered responses (being reminded of the trauma), or flashbacks (feeling like the traumatic event is happening again). Dissociative flashback episodes can be triggered by noises similar to those present during a traumatic event." Outside noises may not always be avoidable, though. In that case Emerson suggests naming the noises as they occur. For example, "That was a large truck that just went by."
5. Help make space for each student.
“Some people will need to be facing the door or window as a way to know who is entering or leaving the room; some will need to be by a door; and others will need to be in a corner where they can see everything that’s going on around them,” yoga teacher Marcia Miller adds. Assist students as they enter the class in finding a comfortable space for their mat.
About Our Expert
Daniel Sernicola, teaches yoga in Columbus, Ohio, with his partner, Jake Hays. They are committed to the empowerment of their students and specialize in creating compassionate, safe, and inclusive yoga environments. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram @danjayoga.