The rise of ‘trauma-informed’, ‘trauma-aware’ and ‘trauma-sensitive’ yoga trainings and teachers is a positive thing… right?
At the risk of kicking the hornet’s nest, the current trauma-informed teacher training culture desperately needs some critical evaluation. Although this isn’t true of all of them, many of them — including some of the most established ones — overlook some fundamental elements of trauma survivors’ experiences. Consequently, they have developed teaching modalities that are ineffective or unsafe for many trauma survivors. Unfortunately, at their absolute worst (and this is something I have heard about frequently) trauma-informed classes can end up being traumatising or dangerously triggering in ways that could have been easily avoided.
So how did something so well intentioned and as much needed as trauma awareness in the yoga setting (because I fully agree that in principle, it is a good thing) end up hitting so many dud notes?
This is the second installment of our Trauma and Yoga series. The first part explores the significance of agency when teaching yoga to trauma survivors and why it is the bedrock of
Nourish’s Yoga, Trauma, and the Nervous System course (a requisite module of our 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training). This second part explores the existing culture of trauma-informed teacher trainings and how, why, and where they have missed the mark. It also covers the yoga teacher’s responsibility when teaching trauma-informed classes.
I recommend reading the first part on agency before you jump into this one to give you a point of comparison between how yoga and trauma can be approached in a supportive way, and why this is different from many of the existing trainings.
The Existing Trauma Training Culture
‘Trauma-aware and ‘trauma-informed’ have become catch-all phrases in yoga spaces. In many instances, these trainings stem from incredibly well-intentioned yoga practitioners. However, if a trauma-informed training is one way you are looking to develop your teaching offerings then there are four important things to consider.
1: Who developed or who is teaching the trauma-informed yoga courses?
Most often, not trauma survivors. Consequently, trauma-informed trainings are most frequently developed from a top-down perspective instead of built from the bottom up. Traditionally, these courses rely on what the existing research and theories say. They are courses full of broadstroke ideas on what trauma is and how to navigate it and potentially ‘heal’ from it in a yoga setting. Many courses and practitioners are well-intentioned, but often they are misinformed — they are misinformed because they don’t have the lived experience. They may know survivors, have listened to accounts, and read all the relevant literature, but there will always be a gulf between someone who has lived experience and someone who is trying to understand it. This also opens up important conversations about who is profiting from traumatic experiences. On top of that, the research and dominating theories on trauma are wildly limited.
2: How does the course think about and define trauma?
Trauma is as old as humanity itself; however, as a diagnosed medical or psychological condition, it is an incredibly young idea.
Although marginalised people overwhelmingly experience trauma, the medical establishment’s awareness of trauma is connected to white British men around one-hundred years ago as a result of World War One. Shell shock is widely recognised to mark the medical community’s research into a range of physical and psychological conditions and symptoms that stemmed from the trauma of war, and it wasn’t until 1980 that the term PTSD came into widespread use.
Since the understanding of trauma as something that happens to men who have been in military combat has developed, the understanding of who and how trauma is experienced has widely expanded. From a medical or research perspective, there are a growing number of conditions that relate to trauma and how it is experienced as individuals or collectives. A prescient example is the trauma as a result of COVID-19.
This is all positive. However, we at Nourish, and as survivors of trauma, strongly feel this is just the tip of the iceberg. The research and theories on trauma may be helpful, but they are not everything. Much trauma is self-diagnosed. For many people, particularly those who face systemic discrimination, seeking help or a diagnosis based on their trauma can be a traumatic experience in and of itself. There is also a high probability that they will be misdiagnosed and receive incorrect treatment. In addition, trying to put a fixed treatment protocol on trauma is fruitless; trauma is complex and vast and how it is experienced is unique. Recovering or being able to move forward from a traumatic experience will always require a personalised approach.
The takeaway from this is not that the medical and scientific insights on trauma are redundant — they certainly aren’t and are enormously illuminating in many ways. However, they are not the be-all and end-all. Nor should they take prescient over a survivor’s reported experience. If a trauma-informed course is only rooted in research and evidence-based approaches, it will most often be placing the scientific community’s understanding of trauma over that of the survivors.
3: How is trauma-informed yoga taught?
Given that trauma and its fallouts are so wildly complex, how is it possible to teach in a trauma-sensitive and safe way?
Frequently, trauma-informed teacher trainings consist of a checklist of things to do and not do, teach and not teach, say and not say. This is built upon a rigorous, although probably simplified, understanding of the trauma response and nervous system regulation. There is scientific theory, with a teaching theory layered on top, and a checklist on how to enforce that theory practically on top of that. All these theories and checklists have somehow been shown to be effective and true for the cohorts that have been studied. On top of this, some trauma-informed classes will claim to heal trauma and promise to be trigger free.
I hope your red flags are waving.
As I said before, everything about trauma is complex. It cannot be generalised and homogenised, and the reality is that what works for 80% of the room may be anywhere from ineffectual to triggering for the other 20%. If you are promising a trauma aware class and one in every five students is falling through the cracks of what you are selling, surely we have an issue.
To give you an example, many trauma-informed courses advocate the use of specific breathing patterns and ratios. A prevalent one recommended is coherent breathing, which essentially involves bringing awareness to your breathing and slowing it down. This is troubling for several reasons:
- One, consciously being aware of and slowing the breath down can be a trigger.
- Two, its evidence-based rationale stems from one incredibly small scale (15 people), not particularly high-quality, study on the use of coherent breathing with Iyengar yoga for people with depressive disorders, most of whom had experience with trauma. The exclusion criteria for this study included anyone in psychotherapy, on medication, overweight, who consumed alcohol, had experienced suicidal thoughts, amongst other criteria.
- Three, although different variations of coherent breathing are taught, the practice is trademarked by someone who claims to have invented the breathing practice. The cultural appropriation of yoga practices and the science community claiming to have invented pranayama practices is an ongoing, deep-running issue.
4: Who is selling you your training?
Like many other areas of yoga, the rise of trauma-aware yoga is at a comfortable intersection with capitalism and the multi-billion dollar wellness industry.
There has been a spike in trauma-informed trainings and classes recently because there is a growing understanding of how widespread trauma is. At its most insidious (and boy, yoga can be insidious), trainings have been developed in response to market demand, effectively capitalising on trauma. This is not the first time I have reflected deeply on Nourish’s offerings. Each training we offer is carefully considered along the lines of integrity, authenticity, and why we feel we are able to teach a particular skill or topic. There are some things we will never teach because it is not our place. Our Yoga, Trauma, and the Nervous System training has not only been developed by trauma survivors, but it aligns with Nourish’s overarching philosophy of being person-centred, community-focused, rooted in social justice, non-dogmatic, and critically aware.
What is a Yoga Teacher's Responsibility?
One of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to teaching classes that are safe for trauma survivors is what is the role of the yoga teacher and how much training or knowledge around trauma should they have?
You may be relieved to read I am here to absolve you of your responsibilities. Not all of them — you have a very specific code of conduct and duty to your students as a yoga teacher. However, regardless of how much training, research, personal experience, knowledge, or interest you have in trauma, you are nor not a therapist or trauma specialist. Even if you are a therapist, in the context of a yoga class, you are a yoga teacher. How the yoga class space is navigated differs from how therapeutic and treatment spaces are conducted.
Similar to anatomy, there are very specific yoga relevant things you need to understand about trauma in order to teach trauma-aware classes.
Define and Respect Your Boundaries
Respecting the boundaries of your role as a yoga teacher is integral for both you and your students. Even if you think you might be able to help a student in some way that transgresses the boundaries of the yoga space, don’t. Your student did not consent to that. You also don’t know how quickly you might get out of your depth or unwittingly cause harm. Yoga lacks regulation, which means yoga communities and mentorship are important to help keep ourselves and our students physically, psychologically, and emotionally safe.
Conversely, your students might appeal to you for support that extends beyond what you are capable of as a yoga teacher. By respecting your boundaries, you are setting a precedent. If a student is asking for more that you can reasonably offer, you have options: you can signpost them on to other helpful resources; having a network of charities, therapists, physios, osteopaths, etc., that you can personally vouch for is incredibly helpful as a teacher. Try not to give a general recommendation of someone/thing you don’t know, as they may not be a safe choice. If you don’t have a suitable person or organisation to recommend, then acknowledge that and say what they are asking is beyond your scope. Say if they find your classes helpful, they are welcome to keep coming and signpost them towards fields and modalities you have an understanding of that may be helpful.
It is important to stress that offering resources, advice, or recommendations beyond your scope as a yoga teacher is an abuse of your position. As the teacher, you occupy the position of power within any dynamic with your students. Doing something that transgresses your role as a yoga teacher is an abuse of power. You may not feel that it is, and it may be a small abuse compared to the ones we are so used to reading about in the media, but it is an abuse of power nonetheless.
So, what is your responsibility if a student is in distress? Simply treat them as you would any other person that is in distress. Check-in with what they need — ask if you can do something, if they need to leave the space (or stay in the space with extra comforts, such as blankets, etc.), or if there is someone you can call. Yes, you have a responsibility to your other students in that space, but they will understand that this individual deserves to take priority at that moment.
You will rarely have someone so distressed that a class has to be halted so you can seek help. However, if their experience is so severe that it warrants that, then that is what you do. Just as if a student was bleeding or had injured themself in your class.
The reality is that most often, when a student is distressed or triggered, they will know what they need and be able to enforce that for themself (although they may appreciate you checking in and providing extra supports, such as water or blankets). The key is to create a space where they feel safe and able to do what they need to do.
Nourish’s Yoga, Trauma, and the Nervous System course was thoughtfully developed to emphasise the complexity of the trauma survivor experience and how to foster a safer yoga environment. If you are curious about what agency means, the role it can play in the context of trauma, and how to support personal agency in a yoga setting then have a read of the first 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!