Putting trauma into words is no easy feat, but there is one idea that speaks to many elements of trauma, covering both how it is experienced and how we might understand it.
That one word: Complex.
Trauma is complex. The lived experience of trauma is complex, the medical establishment’s understanding of trauma is complex, and the intersection of trauma and yoga is also complex.
So, given these complexities, how do we navigate trauma in the yoga space? Nourish’s Yoga, Trauma, and the Nervous System course (a requisite module of our 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training) was developed to help provide yoga teachers with the knowledge and practical skills to offer classes that are safer for trauma survivors. It was also developed in response to the shortcomings and downright problematic elements in the existing trauma-informed yoga culture.
This blog covers the one essential key principle that if you can successfully understand it and introduce it into your yoga classes, you will be providing a much safer space for trauma survivors. Thankfully, given the complexity of trauma, it is a principle that is relatively easy to integrate into all yoga classes, making a majority of yoga classes more suitable and safer for trauma survivors.
This one principle: Agency.
This blog, part one in our Trauma and Yoga series, uncovers why agency matters above all else. It also unpacks how a yoga setting can help restore, emphasise, and create space for personal agency, and offers practical advice on how to do this.
The second part of our Trauma and Yoga series provides a framework in which to locate this understanding of the importance of both agency and the complex nature of trauma in the existing culture of trauma-informed yoga. Spoiler alert: there is a lot trauma-informed and trauma-aware teacher trainings need to improve on for them to be safe, effective, and in any way meaningful in supporting trauma survivors.
What is Agency?
A sense of agency or personal agency is our ability to feel in control or be able to take action. A nice, although not entirely inclusive, definition of agency comes from psychologist and researcher Dr James Moore:
‘When we make voluntary actions we tend not to feel as though they simply happen to us, instead we feel as though we are in charge. The sense of agency refers to this feeling of being in the driving seat when it comes to our actions.’
The principles are ‘voluntary actions’ and the transition from something ‘happen[ing] to us’ to being in control or ‘in charge of our actions’ in situations.
Sometimes control is painted as a dirty word or phenomenon — and in some instances it is — but when it comes to trauma survivors, being able to restore and freely exert a level of control over all or some aspects of a situation is paramount to feeling safe. Exerting control can help in reclaiming a part of one’s self that previously had all elements of agency and control annihilated.
Agency is often experienced as a sliding scale: we may not always feel in complete control of a situation, but we might feel like we at least have a say in the situation. Or, we may not be able to control absolutely everything in a situation, but we may be able to identify areas that we can control.
A sense of personal agency is integral for everyone, in and beyond a yoga space. But the role of agency takes on particular significance for trauma survivors.
The Relationship Between Trauma and Agency
A traumatic experience represents a multi-faceted loss of agency. The traumatic event is a physically, emotionally, and/or psychologically threatening event. The individual’s response to this event is some form of emotional overwhelm. The consequence of this — both whilst experiencing the trauma and in its aftermath — is a threatened or diminished sense of self coupled with some form of emotional dysregulation. Importantly, the individual’s response to the traumatic situation was helpful and essential at that moment as it ensured their survival. When the traumatic experience becomes embedded in you, the pain, distress, and/or physical and/or emotional response experienced as a consequence of that event can be triggered and re-lived in a wide variety of ways (flashbacks, physical sensations, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and anyway in which the individual is somehow reminded or transported back to that event). Traumatic responses and triggers are not fixed; how and what is experienced can change over time. Triggers and responses can have different intensities; they may be completely debilitating and overwhelming, or be manageable, albeit uncomfortable. Furthermore, those who experience trauma are significantly more likely to belong to vulnerable or marginalised groups. The more disenfranchised you are by society, the more at risk you are for multiple traumatic events, e.g. people of colour, LGBTQIA+ community, immigrants, women, anyone who lives in a marginalised body.
Every single sentence of that above paragraph somehow equates to a loss, threat to, or removal of agency. In many ways what survivors are tasked with doing for the rest of their lives is finding ways to restore and reconnect to their agency.
Importantly, trauma is unique. Although under the eye of a medical professional, trauma can be categorised under a series of events, reactions, and ongoing responses, the reality is always personalised. Medical definitions do not capture the range and depth of how trauma is experienced. What is traumatic for one person may not be for another, or the trauma may be experienced and processed in very different ways.
What this means, in the context of trauma-informed yoga or any trauma sensitive space, is that a checklist of potentially helpful things to introduce or remove won’t cut it. However, what all trauma survivors share is a loss of agency; but the form that takes and how that is experienced is different for everyone. So, creating a yoga class where agency is emphasised in different ways can create pathways for students to become aware or and embrace themselves in meaningful ways.
Just as trauma is experienced in unique ways, what agency feels like is different for everyone. Experiencing agency doesn’t always feel comfortable; for many people being able to freely say or do what they need, and their actions to be respected, is anywhere from odd to overwhelming to terrifying.
An exercise that may be helpful for you to do is reflect on what agency feels like for you. Try not to only list definitions of agency, but how you feel in situations where you can take voluntary actions, are in charge, or feel in control. Are these all positive or any feelings or situations intimidating or uncomfortable in some way?
Three Key Ways to Think about Trauma and Agency in Yoga
Trauma and Triggers
Understandably so, trauma-informed yoga trainings often focus on removing or minimising potential triggers. Of course, no one wants to trigger a survivor, and we should all be conscious of minimising triggers. And yet, if survivors themselves can’t control for or explain every trigger, how can you, external to the survivors’ experience, be expected to do that or be a better authority on their triggers than they are?
Triggers are complex, chaotic, and dynamic. Triggers can be random, they can change over time, and what is triggering one day may not be the next. Triggers are very often unexpected. A survivor may go to extraordinary lengths to avoid triggers, but as any survivor will tell you, they are a fact of life.
So, what can you do in a yoga setting?
Create a space in which regaining agency is possible. Create a space where it is possible, if an individual is triggered, for them to do whatever it is they need to do to help re-establish their sense of self. If your yoga class is a space where students are actively encouraged to and supported in practising their agency, then if they are triggered by something in class, they are hopefully in an environment where they can do what they need to support themselves.
The thing about trauma survivors is they are strong and resilient. You don’t need to wrap them up in cotton wool or act overly apologetically or sensitively for everything you are uncertain about. Instead, recognise your students’ strength, resilience, and how much they know themselves. Chances are they have been living with their trauma for weeks, if not years or decades, and they have strategies for managing triggers.
It is not the end of the world to trigger a survivor because survivors understand it happens. What is unacceptable is to make a bad situation already worse by trying to control or minimise their experience.
What a trauma survivor does not need is to be triggered when they have been explicitly told they won’t be (red flag). What a trauma survivor can do is navigate a trigger when they are in a space that is safe enough for them to do that. We cannot account for every sound — be that an unexpected sound outside the studio or a certain song — but we can establish a space where our students feel able, perhaps even empowered, to do whatever it is they need to do to take care of themselves.
In all situations, consent should be informed, enthusiastic, and ongoing. But, as we know by now, the lack of consent in the yoga space is a serious and persistent issue.
Navigating consent and how it is explored is an integral part of creating a space where survivors can rebuild their agency. For many students, their trauma will be linked to non-consensual experiences resulting in a threat to or loss of agency. Or they have used sublimating their agency as a form of survival, in these instances, although they may have expressed consent, it is not genuinely empowered, enthusiastic, or freely given — so it is not consent.
We often think of consent as saying yes enthusiastically, but in a trauma space, saying a happy, confident, guilt or anxiety-free no is arguably more powerful. The ability to comfortably change your mind, i.e. withdraw consent, is something that needs to be celebrated. All decisions involving mat set-up, asana, meditation, or pranayama should be informed and be able to be met with a confident ‘not today.’
As soon as a student walks into your class they are saying yes to being there (which means they can also say yes to walking out and no to your class). You can do something unbelievably helpful before your student even signs up to your class: make your class descriptions clear.
Have a look at the classes I teach. My class descriptions are purposefully detailed, giving context for the class, covering what to expect, identifying who the class is appropriate for, and what equipment is needed. My class description is essentially a contract — me saying this is what I offer, which means potential students can say yes, no, maybe, or ask me questions about any of the elements.
I have written extensively on the relationship between yoga and healing before; in short, yoga may be a part of our healing journey, but healing is not the goal of yoga. We may heal through yoga, but yoga does not heal us.
Claiming something can or will heal us takes away our sense of personal power, as it puts forward the idea that healing is done to us. When we heal through yoga, it is something that comes from within — yoga can help us uncover personal healing, but yoga and healing is not done to us.
Many trauma-informed approaches premise themselves as healing or a method to help survivors heal. This is sticky territory for several reasons. Broadly put the concepts of healing, therapies, and therapeutics, is brought more and more into yoga spaces. Yoga is sold as healing. But yoga is not a drug or a tried and tested medical intervention. Furthermore, the studies that have been conducted on yoga are often rife with limitations. Yoga is almost impossible to control for, unlike, for example, analysing cell behaviour. Although some studies on yoga are interesting, and some are certainly better than others, replicating the testing methods for traditional drug development and therapeutic interventions from medical disciplines into the yoga setting shouldn’t be our driving source of knowledge in the yoga community.
At the intersection of yoga, trauma, and healing, the most effective thing yoga can provide is a space where people can practice consent and agency. I know I sound like a broken record by now. But, exploring and practising these in a space that actively encourages you to express agency and consent in a community setting can be healing. This is an example where we can heal through yoga, by connecting to something in ourselves in a space that facilitates these attributes. Importantly, trauma-informed yoga should not promise healing (even the most experienced doctor in the world won’t promise you that, it is never a given, even when the odds are good).
In my opinion, the word healing should be left out of the trauma-informed yoga space entirely. If something has helped healing, that is up to the individual to determine. Instead, a trauma-informed yoga setting should outline that it is a judgement-free space where trauma survivors are welcome, where different modalities relating to yoga will be explored, and where the individual will be respected, welcomed, able to choose what they do and don’t want to do.
Practical Ways to Encourage Agency in a Yoga Class
The wonderful thing about these upcoming tips is that you can do pretty much all these elements in any yoga class, whether it is a class specific to trauma survivors or not. These tips are good practice in general for making your classes inclusive. It’s also worth remembering that in any class, at least one, if not several, of your students will have encountered and be carrying trauma with them in some way.
- Give choices and options. The choice to rest or move. Options in the poses (Nourish’s guides are a great insight on how to give and create options — I have linked them below). Choices not to do a specific pose, meditation, or pranayama practice. The option to leave the room, no questions asked, for whatever reason.
- Don’t just say everything is a choice or optional; describe what that might look like or mean, such as exploring variations, taking longer in poses, skipping others, and how taking rest, bathroom breaks, and leaving the room as needed is encouraged.
- Use invitational language, as opposed to instructions so your students are aware they are being invited to try something or turn it down, as opposed to being told what to do.
- Demonstrate a variety of pose variations. Often students will emulate what you are doing, so when you demonstrate don’t default to the most complex variation of the pose.
- Explain what you are doing and why. Avoid saying a pose will make you feel X, Y, Z or explaining poses in terms of their goals. Instead, give the option for your students to tune in to sensations of spaciousness, resistance, awareness of the space around them, etc. This ties into embodied approaches to asana; for trauma survivors the experience and ability of being connected to their bodies will likely be complex — keep everything optional.
- Emphasise the space around your students. Yoga often focuses on interoceptive experiences (building awareness of sensations inside the body), but emphasising proprioception is helpful (and preferable) for many students. Proprioception is building awareness of where our bodies are in space; for example feeling your feet press into the mat, the sensation of your fingers extending upwards, using props, and exploring poses, such as balances, at the wall. It is not always comfortable for people to constantly draw their awareness into their bodies. Proprioceptive awareness gives an alternative way to acknowledge your body and spend time with it without dwelling on internal sensations.
- Be authentic. Let go of the performance of yourself as a perfect/zen/aligned/shit together all the time teacher. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and laugh about it. If you are injured, so you are restricted in how you teach, say so. Students will respond (and trust) your humanity, less so a performance of authority.
- Encourage your students to take ownership of their choices in your class (which pose variation, to rest or not, to stay or leave). Let your students determine what level of challenge is right for them on any given day.
- Verbally recognise and celebrate the variety of choices your students take. Be mindful that students may not be comfortable being individually pointed out (unless that rapport has been established between you over time), but you can acknowledge the great choices you see in the room.
- Model props and lay them out beforehand. Many students may not feel confident reaching for props or know what they might need in advance. But remember to state that using them is optional.
- Get to know your students and their communication style. Teach in a way that supports students with different communication needs (e.g. non-verbal), and be willing to explain a pose in multiple ways.
- Avoid prescriptive breathing patterns. Simply encouraging your students to breathe is enough, especially if you notice them holding their breaths. If you do teach a specific class style where you offer movements cued with the inhale or exhale (e.g. Vinyasa based styles), keep the breathing invitational and make sure students know they can (and should) take extra breaths as needed.
- Provide clear and informative class descriptions. If the class is in-person include images and even a video of the space.
- Adjustments: in general, and in a specified trauma-aware class, steer clear of hands-on adjustments. If you do offer adjustments (and really, they should be the last resort of explaining a pose to a student), make sure that you state in your class description that consensual adjustments are offered. Keep reconfirming consent; receiving consent at the start of class is not enough — a student may not fully grasp what that means. For example, If I am adjusting, I tell the student what I would like to do (‘is it okay if I move your top arm in order to encourage more strength and lift in your trikonasana? You can tell me to back off at any time.’). Even in this scenario, it is possible for a student to say yes without fully wanting to (patriarchal society has conditioned a lot of yes-saying). As the teacher, it is your responsibility to actively foster an environment where enthusiastic no’s and changing your mind is celebrated.
Nourish How To Guides
Nourish’s Yoga, Trauma, and the Nervous System course was thoughtfully developed by trauma survivors in response to the existing culture of trauma-informed yoga. If you are curious about some pitfalls in the current culture around yoga and trauma, have a read of the second part of this series.
You can also reach out to us about future Yoga, Trauma, and the Nervous System course dates. Nourish’s course is unique in how it addresses the experience of trauma, the role of the nervous system both in traumatic situations and how nervous system regulation is powerful in helping to manage a trigger, and the overarching cultural context of trauma and yoga. Understanding these elements helps inform and develop ideas on agency and how it may be fostered and experienced for trauma survivors in a yoga setting.
As always, we love hearing from our community. Reach out or drop any questions or comments below about this blog and trauma and the intersection of yoga in general!