How Yoga Fails Trauma Survivors


I love yoga.

I am passionate about the healing powers of yoga.

And also, yoga sometimes fails.

If you’re a trauma survivor and currently in the depths of your healing, in the phase where sleep is elusive not even because of nightmares but because of fear of nightmares and your daytime hours are ruled by debilitating anxiety, consider the following for making choices about movement experiences that best support your healing.

Because not all yoga teachers understand trauma. Many yoga teachers have not experienced trauma themselves or have not taken the time or had the opportunity to study how trauma physically changes the brain and therefore your behavioural, cognitive, and emotional responses.  Additionally, when I ask my fellow yoga teachers how much trauma training they received in their initial yoga teacher training course, the answer is sadly more often than not…none.

They therefore don’t understand that you are spending every ounce of energy ‘just’ trying to feel safe in the world and that if they do something unsafe to you, you can go right back to the moment of your trauma in a split-second. They don’t understand that this re-traumatizes you and literally harms your brain and keeps your healing at bay. They don’t understand that asking you to do psychological work in a non-trauma-informed way, not even knowing if you are resourced enough to do this work properly and safely, is also very detrimental to your brain and health.

So when you put these two things together, the well-meaning but inexperienced or uneducated yoga instructor, you can sometimes end up with people want to promote health and healing but are actually doing the opposite and furthering harm and suffering.

So I say the following based on my own personal experiences as a trauma survivor, as a person who has participated in a wide variety of yoga experiences, as someone who deeply considers and questions these things with my fellow yoga teachers, and as someone who wants to give choice and power to my fellow trauma survivors by giving them information that will allow them to make the best decisions for them and their healing.

Some missteps in terms of supporting trauma survivors in yoga come from teacher training. Many teacher training courses do not even talk about trauma or mental health. In the way North America has morphed traditional yoga, the emphasis in teacher training courses is often largely on the physical components of the practice, what is called the ‘asana’ or physical postures, and alignment within these postures.

Correspondingly, a lot of time is usually spent teaching new yoga teachers how to do hands-on assisting of students in class. The motivations behind the assisting are many, including supporting you in stretching deeper into a pose and helping you feel what alignment feels like in the pose. No matter the motivation, the end result of this component of yoga teacher training is the same: yoga teachers who believe that they need to touch you in order for your practice to somehow be better or complete.

When and where and how and with what consent this touch is appropriate is very often not even touched upon in their training. So then we end up with teachers who will not even ask your permission to touch you. Choice can be taken away from you.  Again.

Some yoga teachers or even studios have considered the issue of touch and develop a system for it. They may ask you to indicate with a wave if you do or do not want touch or develop a ‘consent card’ system, whereby you turn a card that is by your yoga mat a certain colour to indicate if you wish to be touched or not. This is a step in the right direction. However, this still requires you to disclose your personal wishes in a public setting. It requires you to publicly declare your desires about your body.  David Emerson from the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute, indicated that in their research about touch in yoga, participants with an extensive trauma history often felt so uncomfortable publicly indicating their desire to not be touched that they chose to take touch when they didn’t want it over saying no to touch in front of other people. In his words, the most vulnerable people “said yes when they meant no.”

There are some yoga teachers who hold the narrow view that everyone should do the same thing in class.  They don’t know about choice and freedom of movement and how this applies in the yoga studio. As a trauma survivor in this kind of class, you can once again feel like your power is being taken away from you – you don’t even have choice about how to move your body.  You may feel pressure to stay with the class and do the moves as they are doing them or to resist your urge to rest if it comes up in class.  Sometimes you won’t even be cued to tune into the internal sensations of your body, something you have likely been cut off from in small or large ways because of your brain’s response to trauma. There is a much better way for the trauma survivor – a yoga class the includes choice, freedom of movement, permission to honour and follow the urges of your body.  There is a way that puts the power you lost in trauma back in your hands because power and choice matter.

Teacher Movement
A lot of yoga teachers wander around during class. Some move a little, some a lot. Some don’t even have a yoga mat to teach from. So know that if you’re a trauma survivor, this type of teacher could possibly feel unsafe to you. You cannot predict where they are going to be in the room, you don’t know when they’re going to come close or be far. You may be asked to close your eyes and then you can hear their footsteps wandering around, making you feel unsafe. It’s possible that at some points in your healing a teacher who stays in one place, positioned on his or her mat, will feel safer to you.

For Trauma Warriors Who Want to Attend Yoga:
A future blog post will outline trauma-informed suggestions for yoga teachers and studios.  For my fellow trauma survivors who are in the thick of healing, here are a few suggestions for you:

-If you don’t want touch:
If you’re in a stage of your healing where you can advocate for yourself, do it! Tell the instructor before class that you don’t want any hands on you. You DO NOT need to explain why. If they are unaware and uniformed and ask why, simply say, “I’d rather not discuss it right now.”  You DO NOT need to disclose your personal history to anyone you do not want to.

-If talking to others or people moving around feels unsafe:
Yoga can feel safe to some trauma survivors because they are coming to a community to practice movement in that community, everyone stays in their own space.  But there can be a lot of shuffling around before class starts.  If this unpredictable movement feels unsafe to you but you’re ready to take a class, an easy option to avoid the pre-class movements of others is to arrive early, set up your mat in what feels like a safe place in the room for you (consider corners, doors and exits, proximity of instructor), and then leave again. You could wait in the entry area or a change room, a hallway, your car and re-enter the studio two minutes before class starts when people are more settled.

-If you're worried about what you can or can't do:
Remember: You have control of your body at all times. This means you DO NOT have to follow the instructor’s prompts to a t. YOU choose what you do and don’t do, how and when you move and how and when you rest. You can take a break at anytime. You can leave at anytime. You have the choice and the power. REGARDLESS of who the instructor is or what he or she says. Your body, your life, your choice. Always and in all environments, even a yoga studio.

-If you’re afraid of closing your eyes:
Then DON’T. Simple. Regardless of what the instructor says, your mental, emotional, and physical health and safety is #1 always…so if closing your eyes takes you too far into your fear, your thoughts, or your traumatic memories, then don’t do it. Choose a soft gaze that looks down at the floor or towards the tip of your nose or keep your eyes wide open if that’s what makes you feel the safest!

-If you’re unsure you belong at a yoga studio:
I think almost all yoga teachers have the very best of intentions. We are a warm-heart, well-intentioned crew.  We likely teach yoga because it has helped us on our own healing path. We want to help you, wherever you are and however you’re doing. But there are some of us who understand you more than others.

Some of us who know that with every breathe you take, you are fighting harder than everyone we know just to be here, to choose to be here, to live in a world that feels unsafe. To show up and to keep moving forward. You are the bravest person we know!

So keep seeking your places and your people that feel safe, I promise we are out there. We know that sometimes the very hardest thing you might do in your whole day, maybe even in your whole life, is to arrive to our space and trust us with your bodies and minds. And we will do everything possible to not break that trust, including try to teach our colleagues about trauma. We are the ones who believe you can heal and we will do everything we can to support you, including cultivating a sense of safety in the best ways we know how and giving you as much choice and freedom while you practice yoga as we possibly can. Because you can do this. And you will!


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