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Tools for Teachers

How to Work with Yoga Students Who’ve Experienced Trauma

What you can do as a teacher to create a safe and open space for all of your students.

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Touch can be particularly challenging. In fact, it can be so triggering that most experts recommend yoga teachers assume all of their students have experienced trauma—to avoid setting off unpleasant memories, feelings, and more.

“Sometimes you can recognize signs of trauma, like if a student looks shaky or disoriented, but in most cases it’s not going to be obvious,” says Hala Khouri, cofounder of Off the Mat, Into the World and a leader in trauma-informed yoga teacher trainings. Plus, trauma is so complicated that what works for one trauma survivor doesn’t necessarily work for another, says Alexis Marbach, a yoga teacher and a member of the Breathe Network, an organization that connects survivors of sexual violence with trauma-informed, holistic healing-arts practitioners. “It would be so much easier to say always do this or always do that, but we have to be more nimble in the way we approach recommendations for working with trauma survivors.”

See also Research Shows Trauma-Informed Yoga Helps Girls in the Juvenile Justice System Heal

How to Create a Safe and Open Space

So what can you do as a teacher?

“It’s the responsibility of the teacher and studio owner to create a safe and open space and empower students to opt out of touch during a class,” says Khouri. “It can often be difficult for a student, particularly one with trauma, to tell a teacher they don’t want to be touched,” she explains. “They may worry about hurting the teacher’s feelings. Or they may feel they need to share personal details about their trauma.” And new students often don’t know that they don’t have to be touched, and so they allow the teacher to touch them, thinking that’s just the way yoga is, adds Khouri. “If we say to students ‘Just tell me if you don’t want to be assisted’ and then people struggle to speak up for any reason and then feel triggered, upset, or get a bad assist, the response from the teacher is usually ‘You should have said no,’” says Marbach. “Which is one of the classic responses that sexual assault survivors hear from abusers. If we really want to create trauma-informed environments, we can’t perpetuate the cycle of victim blaming or reinforce the message that the victim is responsible.”

A potential solution: “Studios should have signs on the door to remind students that they don’t have to be touched, similar to how there are signs reminding students not to interrupt Savasana,” says Khouri. In addition, “the teacher should make it clear that there is no obligation to explain why you don’t want touch in class.”

Being nimble in your approach, so that you can adjust to the needs of individual students, also includes reflecting on your assisting approach, adds Marbach. Ask yourself: Why do I assist? What do I gain from it? What does the student gain from it? How do I make decisions about when to assist? How do I know if a student has benefited from an assist? She generally advocates for a hands-off approach, for several reasons. “By creating a class without physical assists, we model for students that there is no one way, no one path for befriending and moving the body,” she says. “Many teachers feel the need to ‘fix’ their students with assists, but when we release attachment to the need or desire to physically correct and adjust, we are able to stay in the present moment with the whole class, not just the one student we are touching. We are able to let go of our ego and how it colors our view of our role in the class. We are there to provide a healing framework, not to impose a standard of what an asana practice should look like.”

Marbach adds: “Yoga is a way for us to get back into ourselves, to listen in and not only acknowledge, but respond to the needs of the physical and emotional bodies. Physical assists can send a signal that we need an external person to help us figure out our own bodies. There are already too many messages that we need to go outside to find our way in.”

See also What All Yoga Teachers Need to Know About Teaching Trauma Survivors