I first found my way to a yoga class because my naturopath recommended it.. She told me I needed to chill out and yoga would be just the thing to help me do that. Between a demanding job and an even more demanding workout schedule, I was on the verge of a complete mental and physical breakdown.
At the end of my first class the yoga teacher pulled me aside. I was thrilled to get the attention—that is, until she told me I was doing savasana wrong. Instead of fidgeting and looking around, she told me I should lie still, close my eyes and “relax”, “melt” and “yield” into the pose. Assuming she must be right, I wanted to show her I was up for the challenge and get savasana “right”.
With some great effort, I tried to submit to this pose even when my nervous system was screaming NO. I continued to practice savasana this way for almost a year, enduring unwanted stillness over and over again. I felt uncomfortable, anxious and disconnected from my body. Often I was filled with shame for not being able to do savasana the way I was “supposed” too. I worried that I would never find a place of calm and ease in my body the way everyone else in the class seemed to.
I now know that—as a person with a complex trauma history—finding that sense of calm and ease was never going to happen for me, at least not using the typical means that worked for others. When I lay down in savasana, my autonomic nervous system went into survival mode. It was detecting danger based on previous traumatic experiences. Whether that danger is real or imagined, no amount of insight or understanding alone will turn the survival response off. Instead, your thought patterns, behaviors and basic physiology will operate in a defense mode.
In that state, you’re primed to survive—not relax and restore. This design is a common denominator across all human experience. It’s what keeps us alive and functioning—always in service of our survival.
When you start to take the nervous system into consideration, you begin to understand some of the reasons why people act the way they do. You see that actions and behaviours are often automatic and adaptive, generated by the autonomic nervous system well below the level of conscious awareness.
The same applies to your students. When you become more aware of what’s actually driving their actions and behaviors, it opens the door to greater compassion toward yourself and those you’re teaching and interacting with everyday.
With that in mind, what can we as movement educators do to better support the students walking into our classes who are often in need of more than sun salutations, inversions and savasana?
Use the list below to reflect on your current teaching approach. Notice what comes up (defensiveness? curiosity?) when you read through each point. What are you already doing well? Where is there room to improve?
If you’ve been following the Detour Method you’re already ahead of the game in many ways. You know that “shoulding” is never in service of any student experience, especially for those who don’t feel or relate to what you are suggesting. Cues like “this should feel relaxing” or “this should feel challenging” might not land well despite good intentions.
What if, instead of telling a student how or what they should feel, you simply asked them to notice what they feel? Invite your students to attend their own inquiry-based experience; one that is free of judgement and fosters agency and introspection.
#2 SOME PEOPLE CAN’T SAY NO
Have you considered that some people believe they can’t say no, especially with hands on adjustments? Many emotionally vulnerable folks believe they have to say “yes” in order for you to like them, or to be accepted, even to be “safe” within the community.
How do you make it clear to your students that you respect their choice to decline? Do you have protocols or policies in place that allow for students to opt out (which can include opting out of essential oils, partner work, etc.)?. This is one way you as a teacher can encourage self-advocacy even before the student steps on their mat.
#3 BREATH IS NOT ALWAYS A CALMING RESOURCE
Some students do not find breathing exercises to be a grounding or stabilizing resource. For some, breath practices can be a cue of danger. And just the mention of bringing awareness to the breath can evoke feelings of panic and anxiety or loss of connection with the body.
Simply acknowledging that breathing activities are not always immediately helpful can help normalize this for many students. During breathing exercises, you can also introduce other grounding resources that bring the students’ attention outside of their body. (If you’re wondering what that could look like in practice, join me in an upcoming Creating Safe(r) Spaces training.)
#4 GO TO YOUR “SAFE PLACE”
Guided imagery that speaks to a “safe place” may seem harmless to you, but may also come with an emotional charge to someone else. Safety is subjective and never absolute. Life experiences and the systems we operate in are all going to affect one’s capacity to feel and experience safety, if at all. We need to go beyond just the material “feeling” of safety to discover why it is an inherent need and basic human right.
As an alternative, try using guided focus on concrete physical sensations – noticing sound, noticing physical contact between the parts of the body in contact with the floor, noticing physical sensations such as temperature, texture, heaviness/lightness, tension and ease. These are just a some of the ways you can orient students (and their nervous systems) to the present.
We already know the benefits of a yoga practice can be tremendous. The empirical research—which continues to expand and provide more insight into the general population, i.e. the folks coming to your classes—tells us so.
At the same time, there’s more mainstream attention and less stigma attached to talking about trauma and mental health. That’s led to more people seeking out yoga classes without getting a referral from their doctor or therapist. They’re often unaware of how vast the spectrum is when it comes to styles of yoga and teaching and can end up practicing in spaces, or with teachers, that may not be an ideal match for their needs.
In order to better meet our students where they’re at, building more awareness is key. Specifically, we need to become more attuned to what we take for granted as harmless and instead acknowledge how what feels beneficial for one person could send someone else into a tailspin.
By doing so, we can begin to see how trauma-informed yoga is a philosophy—a holistic approach toward human interaction—and not just a specialty class or certification. This philosophy has just as much (if not more!) reach and impact outside of the studio as it does in our classes. It is a best practice for everyone working with the public, not just “mental health” or “recovery teachers”.
You have a great opportunity here to advocate for a community care model that includes making mental health resources more accessible. You can do this through the classes you already teach. Expand your capacity to understand, hold more space for, and express more compassion towards that next student that shows up in your space.
The good news is, you don’t have to do this alone. There’s a whole community of folks out here working to better integrate what we know about mental health with what we love about movement. While it’s not an easy bridge to gap, this integration is a vital link between our good intentions as teachers and the needs of each person walking into our classes.
To experience what it’s like to prioritize human lived experience alongside cutting edge knowledge about trauma and the nervous system, check out Creating Safe(r) Spaces. These trainings run annually and never fail to create major shifts in perspective amongst those who attend. For more details about our upcoming January session, go here.
Guest post by Jenn Cardoso