Ever had a student tear up in a hip-opening yoga pose and want to talk it through with you after class? Or message you on IG and start talking about their recent breakup or work situation or roommate quarrel? You’re not alone. Most yoga teachers will run into these sorts of situations, whether in a private session, studio class, even online.
More and more students are coming to the 5,000-year-old mind-body practice known as yoga for mental health maintenance. In fact, baseline surveys exploring why people practice yoga reveal that more than 90 percent of students are there for stress relief from relationship conflict, work pressures, intense expectations, busy schedules, and countless other stressors.
How does yoga help with stress?
We often don’t process challenging feelings. Instead, we store them in our bodies, explains Gail Parker, PhD, a psychologist, certified yoga therapist, meditation coach, and yoga teacher. The neurobiology of stress and trauma are complicated, but when we move through asana, these emotions can surface, she adds. Yoga has been known to unlock repressed feelings, even memories, as students let go and let their bodies and emotions flow.
To address the need for teachers to be aware of the sometimes delicate state of students, trauma-informed yoga teacher trainings and courses have flooded the market in recent years. These trainings are often designed to inform teachers how to safely support and hold space for students who are triggered in class. The trainings do not necessarily qualify you to counsel your yoga students.
Also, in the field of therapy, there is additional education and supervision as well as strict ethical and scope-of-practice parameters associated with licensure. It’s essential to delineate the difference between teacher and therapist, or even yoga therapist and therapist, so you can provide support for your students ethically and without crossing into psychotherapist territory. (This also applies if you are a licensed therapist but are teaching a group class, during which it’s inappropriate and impossible to offer your usual one-on-one support.)
There are several ways you can offer support when students start to have an intense emotional reaction or trauma response during class—without overstepping your abilities or their boundaries.
1. Breathe together
Invite the student or class to direct their awareness to their breath. Suggest that they synchronize their breath with yours as you engage with them in slow, rhythmic breathing, advises Parker. Both the breathing and attention are calming and support an effective yoga practice, she adds.
2. Note the signs of a trauma response
“When someone is having a trauma response, they will fight, flee, freeze, or fawn (which is when you try to please someone, or pretend nothing is happening),” explains Coral Brown, a licensed therapist and yoga teacher.
The latter is most likely to happen during a yoga class, as students don’t want to make a big deal about what is happening, says Brown. Instead, they may keep it in and find themselves experiencing a strong emotional response later. A flee response may look like a student walking out of class or moving into Child’s Pose.
“As a facilitator, you should notice what’s happening in the room. I’ll often stand near someone who looks like they are feeling triggered, so they feel supported,” says Brown. But she stops there. She never places her hands on someone to comfort them or addresses them directly during class, which can trigger a stronger reaction.
Once you make contact in that way, it’s not responsible to simply leave the situation unaddressed says Brown. Yet you also want to work within your abilities and also tend to the rest of your class.
Brown recommends acknowledging what the person is going through after class in a subtle way, whether with a simple look, nod, or closed statement such as “take good care.” Starting a conversation would be taking it too far. “That can take you into an area you can’t navigate, even if you have the qualifications,” says Brown. “It’s just not the right time or place.”
You also want to be careful not to ignore someone in that state—that can deepen any shame someone feels. “It’s a delicate situation,” says Brown. “Just remember to teach, not treat.”
3. Offer referrals
In addition to offering acknowledgment, it’s a good idea to know some trusted behavioral healthcare professionals in the community that you can offer should students ask for a referral or ask you to offer the kind of support only a therapist can provide, adds Parker.
4. Educate yourself
Since preparing for these types of experience isn’t typically part of a yoga teacher training, consider taking a mental health first aid class, says Brown. Mental health first aid will teach you how to spot anxiety or panic attacks, stay calm, and respond appropriately.
5. Teach what you know
When you’re teaching, it’s imperative that you “only teach what you feel comfortable with,” says Brown. Otherwise your anxiety will come through and the class may not feel secure or safe for students. If you’re wondering whether you should try a new transition and are doubtful, don’t teach it. Practice it with friends before you take it to a class.
6. Steer clear of emotionally charged subjects
Keep class within the realm of what students expect—yoga. If you start talking about politics, potentially charged topics, or trauma (your own or others’), you can consciously or unconsciously take someone into a state of stress or duress.
When you’re planning what you intend to teach in class, consider how to set it up in a way that feels nourishing, rather than jarring, for the nervous system. At the same time, be willing to honor what your students need and not dictate what their experience should be, says Brown. If she senses tension or grief or anxiety or tiredness in the room, she might weave a few words of education about the nervous system into her class. This can help students connect to their own internal experience and give them permission to do what supports their needs or feels good in the moment.
7. Encourage your students to exercise agency in their personal practice
“Yoga teachers have a wonderful opportunity to support their students by providing both structure and an environment that encourages personal agency,” says Brown. “I regularly prompt students toward self-inquiry by asking them: how do you feel? What do you need? What choice can you make in this moment to meet that need? This may help them to develop a sense of personal empowerment on the mat, which hopefully carries over to life off the mat.”