Around three years ago, I had just finished my first yoga class at a women’s shelter in New Hampshire.  I had meticulously planned a “trauma-informed” yoga class for the women there.  I used all of my knowledge and training with the TIMBo program, plus some additions that I found helpful to me in my own journey.  I was super proud of myself, and when the class was over I looked up and the four women in the class were all crying.

Uh oh…

Crying isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it can be valuable and healing to let these pent up emotions out, but they weren’t feeling like they had a nice release.  They thought they were going to get some exercise and relaxation, but what they got was depression, sadness, longing, and even anger.

“I feel so sad now.”

“I sit here all day.  I don’t want to be still anymore.”

“That really made me miss my ex.”

Ouch.  Okay.

I had to side-step my own feelings of wanting to crawl into a hole and really ask the women what they were looking for.  They wanted to move.  They wanted to feel calm, but also feel a bit uplifted.  So, I guess my mostly restorative class with yoga nidra didn’t fit that bill…go figure.

And that whole experience taught me some valuable lessons especially when it comes to teaching in a trauma-sensitive way:

Be aware of your agenda.  – I really thought getting my students to sit still and be in their bodies would be the best thing for them.  But if your students don’t have the tools or skills to navigate what comes up when they become more embodied they can feel overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, angry, or even betrayed.

What’s good for my nervous system, may not be good for someone else’s.   Trauma responses are as varied as the traumas themselves.  Students may be anywhere on the spectrum of numb to hypervigilant, with this changing from moment to moment.  While kapalabhati breath might be super energizing for you, it could put someone else into a panicked state for days.  Sitting still for prolonged periods of time may have some students feeling shut down.  It’s why it’s important for students to have options for more ease AND challenge.

Be prepared for what this all will bring up in YOU as a teacher.  As I talk about trauma-sensitive yoga with other teachers, they mainly want to know the do’s and don’ts:  What is good and not so good to do to prevent the most harm possible.  While those are great things to know, it’s probably equally if not more valuable to know your own patterns and responses.

In this particular situation, I noticed I felt guilt and shame immediately.  How could I have done this to them?  Don’t they have it bad enough?  I’ve totally fucked them up forever.  I have no idea what I’m doing and should quit right now.

I am all too familiar with those emotions, and they are my go to responses.  With practice, I’ve been able to recognize those thoughts and use them as cues for me to get in touch with how MY body feels.  And rather than submit to the shame spiral that wants me to hide and never show my face again, I just spent time listening to the women’s feedback.  I didn’t give them advice or rush to get them to stop showing emotion.  I didn’t give in to self-flagellation (which would have been to make me feel better, not them).  I listened and thanked them.  I implemented that feedback, and they left subsequent classes much happier.

The thing is, my original class wasn’t inherently traumatizing or dangerous, and I think this is important to acknowledge.  So much of the dialogue about trauma-sensitivity can be around what movements, breathing, or styles are considered trauma-informed or safe.  As I mentioned before, what’s good for one nervous system may not be good for everyone’s.

Trauma-sensitive yoga isn’t a style.  It’s a skill set of the teacher.  While it’s great to create a sequence that is predictable and structured so students feel safe, the thing that needs to have the most structure, predictability, trust, and safety is the teacher.  And what creates that sense of safety?  Behaving and teaching with honesty, compassion, empathy, resilience, awareness, and reliability.  Those qualities are a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, constantly assess, and mindfully respond to our own trauma responses.