BY EMMA STERN, MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL & ERYT
“Trauma informed care is about empowering, not taking power away! I think the voices coming from the yoga community can be a real beacon of support in the face of COVID-19, but they also do have power, and with that the potential to reinforce trauma when used without mindfulness. When teaching in crisis, I would advise teachers to think consciously and critically about their interactions with students and any ways they may be projecting their emotional experience onto them, rather than giving their students space and support. Choose your words and actions carefully and reflect on ways impact and intention may not always align.”
1. WHY DO YOU THINK YOGA TEACHERS FEEL THE NEED TO GO BEYOND THEIR ROLE AS AN INSTRUCTOR AND TELL PEOPLE THE WAY THEY SHOULD FEEL IN CRISIS?
I see it as a reflection of personality structure. There is a certain type of person who wants to become a yoga teacher. While every teacher is of course unique, there are a few things yoga teachers have in common: they choose to get up in front of a room of people, they choose to share their knowledge or process rather than keep these learnings private, and they teach because they want to share something that has served and supported their lives. When you think about this inclination toward sharing, it’s no surprise yoga teachers choose to act during a crisis.
I do not believe that teachers trying to help have bad intentions, however, I do think many teachers have bad models, especially on Instagram. On this platform anyone can rise to popularity as an Instagram yogalebrity, even if their practice includes spiritual bypassing, cultural appropriation, or giving mental health advice without proper training, credentials, or experience. It’s hard for instructors to have a critical lens all the time. I see many teachers replicate behavior they themselves may not see as offensive, however, they do not reflect on how it will land with students who have different identities, experiences, and realities.
2. WHAT IS THE PROPER WAY FOR YOGA TEACHERS TO HOLD SPACE FOR OTHERS WHILE TEACHING IN CRISIS?
I strongly believe that all teachers should be familiar with and practice the principles of trauma informed yoga. I think there are several misunderstandings about what it is to be trauma informed. For example, people often get confused when I say I teach trauma informed yoga because my style of teaching is rigorous and fast-paced. However, trauma informed yoga instruction has nothing to do with the style, it’s about how a teacher hold’s space.
Our emotions live in our bodies. When we practice yoga we develop interoceptive awareness (awareness of our internal experience and sensations), and are thus intimately communicating with our emotional experience. This happens even in classes that may not seem outright spiritual or therapeutic. Practicing yoga is always a deeply emotional experience in which the practitioner is communicating with vulnerable parts of themselves. When we take this into consideration, it becomes evident that yogis should be treated with the care one would hope to receive in any therapeutic setting.
3. IF STUDENTS ARE REACHING OUT TO THEIR TEACHERS FOR ENCOURAGING AND COMFORTING WORDS AT THIS TIME, WHAT SHOULD YOGA TEACHERS DO? WHAT SHOULD THEY SAY?
When teaching in crisis, I would advise all teachers to be careful and conscientious if these situations arise. Teachers have positional power, which can give their actions and words potency they may not be aware of. It’s also important for teachers to consider whether they have the capacity to hold space for certain conversations. If not, they should allow themselves to kindly, and humbly, not partake in conversations that they cannot manage. We are all experiencing the unfolding of this crisis in real time. Yoga teachers don’t have any leg up on dealing with a global pandemic, even if they happen to have flexible legs 🙂
Personally, when students share their experiences with me, I aspire to show up as a peer, an equal, and a friend. Even with mental health training, I would never act like a therapist towards my students because it would be an abuse of power and an unconsented role. With that, interactions can still be therapeutic and full of support. My personal belief is that the best way to show up is just by showing up. This means allowing people to feel what they are feeling with no judgement, no assumptions, and no need to change or fix anything. I see this as empathizing with someone’s experience rather than minimizing what someone is going through or searching for a silver lining.
4. IN YOUR OPINION, HOW CAN YOGA TEACHERS TAILOR THEIR CLASSES TO HELP STUDENTS FIND COMFORT IN CRISIS?
I think this depends on the teacher and what feels authentic to them and their community. Each yoga community has its own unique culture and flavor. And to an extent, I imagine every teacher has a student “type.” Students with certain personality traits, as well as physical and spiritual preferences, will practice with the teachers they feel they have a connection to. So my response to this question is geared around my community. Some core traits I have noticed in my yoga students are joy, play, kindheartedness, and an ability to be totally silly and spiritual in the same practice. Core values I have noticed include community, camaraderie, rigor, challenge, and appreciation for yogic philosophy. Right now, I am trying my best to embody the traits and values of my students to keep the spirit of my community alive. What my students want from my yoga classes has not changed, they are still coming to me as a yoga teacher, not as a therapist or counselor.
With that, here are some ways I think yoga teachers can tailor their classes to be more sensitive to their positional power and potential to reinforce trauma. Teachers should:
• Become aware of the basics of trauma informed yoga.
• Incorporate trauma informed cues into their language
• Critically reflect on the principles of informed consent.
• Avoid making blanket statements about what their students should or may be feeling or thinking.
• Encourage students to notice their own bodies and have autonomy over their experience.
• Trust students to make their own choices.
• Reflect on students’ personal power, resilience, and resource.
For a full list of helpful tips and suggested language to use in your classes, be sure to download this free cheat sheet.