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The Trauma-Informed Yoga Paradox

I am thrilled beyond measure to see the vast range of offerings in the world of yoga – I’m (personally) most excited when the offerings are backed by science, music, or help anyone be less of a wanker and more invested in the greater good. So trauma-informed trainings rank high on my list, as sometimes they are backed by science, and their intention is to help yoga teachers be more aware of how to navigate the complex expressions of trauma. In all the reading and study I’ve done trying to better understand my bizarre and blossoming trauma responses, I have found I most resonate with the opinion of Dr. Gabor Mate who says, “Trauma is not what happens to us, it’s what happens inside of us.”

From the outside – as in – as someone who doesn’t consciously identify as managing their own trauma response – I think this perspective is quite helpful. What it says to me, is that it does not matter if you were attacked by a shark or a shitzu, if you were physically maimed or startled, or a survivor of willful or neglectful abuse. Your response is not necessarily relative to the original incident, therefore, it’s unhelpful and unnecessary to rank people into “worse” and “better” or line them up according to their level of trauma, because it’s a fool’s errand.

However.

This is an innate human need, to understand where we fit in the scheme of things. To normalize our experience, and it is the first paradox we must overcome if we intend to serve this population. Just as we might suffer more grief for the loss of a pet than a parent, we might experience more trauma after a paper cut than a car accident. Resist the urge to qualify yourself as having experienced “sufficient” trauma to empathize, or to attempt to prove how traumatized you were to earn credibility.

You are enough exactly as you are – no explanation or qualification necessary.

The second paradox I see in people after a training about trauma-informed yoga, is that they are now hyper afraid of triggering everyone, always. Triggers are varied, and we have a tendency to assume what someone’s triggers might be. One training teaches to use soft music, another touts that music can be triggering. What to do? While it’s a common practice to allow individuals to opt into and out of physical touch, some trainings teach that it is triggering for a student to see the instructor touch another student. Touch no one? Succinct communication suggests starting with the “command” form of a verb, while another training might invite you to pepper your communication with softeners in order to avoid sounding commanding.

As teachers leave these trainings, they contact me, often in tears, recounting the number of times they have instructed their students to close their eyes in a yoga practice, and how they didn’t realize how damaging that could be. Wondering how to succinctly teach a vinyasa class by saying “if it feels ok… move into downward facing dog” while cuing one breath, one movement.

People.

If I may, I’d like to invite a few ideas that might liberate you from the teaching paralysis that sets in post trauma-informed anything:

Forgive yourself for what you did before, unless you were truly heinous (just kidding, forgive yourself regardless, and commit that you will not be willfully heinous in the future). 

Take every direction and suggestion with an enormous grain of discernment. Who are you teaching? How can you be supportive? How can this training be more freeing and less constricting in your role as a yoga teacher? 

Remember that this world does not operate with absolutes – they are a human construct, and they aren’t often helpful. It is not inherently wrong to use music, or to use hands-on support, or the command forms of verbs. You can invite people to close their eyes rather than commanding them, but if you forget, it is also ok.

Please do NOT allow a training to sideline you as a teacher. You cannot predict everything that might trigger someone, because trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside of us. People have preferences, and triggers, and quite often they cannot effectively name either. You cannot protect your students from what is inside of them, but you can offer them tools to understand, unpack, and diffuse their experience.

This is the yoga.

Be informed. Take trainings. Reflect. Integrate. 

(Be less heinous whenever possible.)


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