Teachers' Corner

4 Ways to be a Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher

In addition to teaching yoga and working with Bad Yogi, I’m also an advocate for sexual assault survivors. Through doing trauma-informed social work, I’ve become quite sensitive to all of the things in the world, especially in yoga, that affect trauma survivors. I’ve worked to make my classes trauma-informed. Beyond that, I’ve worked to create an environment where my students feel comfortable asking for what they need.

It’s turned out that trauma-informed yoga classes are good for all my students. We can all use a little extra sensitivity and a little extra effort to help us feel comfortable. Here are some of the ways I’ve done this in my classes.

Allow students to set touch boundaries.

Many folks have experienced trauma that involved boundaries being crossed or their control over their own bodies being disrespected. Allowing students to set their own touch boundaries and then respecting those boundaries is not only respectful, but can also be part of trauma healing for them.

The minimum I offer in my classes and expect from teachers is a “May I touch your ___?” before contact. I also start my class by saying something like, “From time to time, I might put my hands on you to offer an adjustment in a pose. If you know you’d prefer not to be touched, please let me know. You’re always welcome to decline later too.”

Yoga touch consent cards or chips can also be a great way to make setting these boundaries a regular part of your classes. One studio I practice at has a box of pretty rocks that students can choose from, and a rock at the top of your mat indicates you’re comfortable with hands-on adjustments. Easy, beautiful, and respectful!

Keep the lights up.

A relaxing savasana in total darkness sounds great, but there’s a lot to navigate there for trauma survivors. On one hand, darkness can be helpful to allow you to shut out the world and go deep into yourself if that’s something you want to do. On the other, you’re now in the dark in a class with maybe a bunch of total strangers — there’s a lot vulnerability there. That level of vulnerability might not be comfortable for everyone, and darkness itself can trigger traumatic memories or a trauma response.

I like to dim lights a bit as class winds down, but I never put my class in total darkness unless I am absolutely certain that everyone in the class is comfortable with that.

Don’t push.

Fear and boundaries might be different for trauma survivors than for other students. For example, I knew a yogi who loved to work on inversions and other challenging poses in her home, but totally froze up when this came up in class. She described the difference so aptly — feeling fear in the security of your own home is much more comfortable than feeling that same fear in public.

It’s great to offer help if your students want to push themselves, but give them space to initiate this on their own. If someone is shaky and wants a hand kicking up into an inversion, absolutely give them that. But don’t think that you can always be the only thing a student needs to move into a pose. There might be other unseen barriers, and you want to be respectful of that.

Offer options.

“Close your eyes or keep a soft gaze.”

“Relax into savasana, legs up the wall, or any other restorative pose you prefer.”

You’ve probably heard or said phrases like this in your yoga classes before, and you might not have given them a second thought. But giving cues like this lets your students know that if they don’t feel comfortable doing something, they don’t have to.

That’s something I like to make clear from the start of my class too, but I reiterate it over and over. I know students sometimes worry about offending the teacher if they do their own thing, but I love seeing this in my classes. It means that my students are listening to their bodies and are in touch with what they need, and that’s all I want to give them.

How about you, yogis? What makes you feel most comfortable in a yoga class? Teachers, what are ways that you accommodate students with different experiences?

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