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Power dynamics and trauma: seen from the yoga mat

"The first principle of recovery is empowerment to the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection, and care, but not cure."

– Judith Herman

Why should we, yoga teachers, care about people with trauma, if we are maybe teaching yoga just in the local studio? Studies have suggested that experiencing at least one traumatic event across the lifetime is a common occurrence (Norris, 1992). Over 70% of general public reported a traumatic event at least once in their life, over 30% were exposed to four or more (Benjet et. al., 2016). It would be peculiar then, if we would not have any people with traumatic history in our yoga classes. Hence, when we are aware that there are likely to be trauma survivors in our yoga classes, we can be more conscious. As Nešpor (1985) pointed out, yoga postures and exercises might be potentially triggering for survivors, which may result in emotional flooding or dissociation. Therefore, the ways yoga is instructed may need to be modified to fit the needs of individuals with trauma history. Probably we can deduce that for tsunami survivors the guided relaxation where the students are instructed to imagine themselves lying down on the beach can be really distressing, or that for a person who had a pneumothorax caused by a car accident some years ago, the long breath retention can be still triggering. But maybe slightly less obvious can be the precautions of having in the class the students with possibly more complex traumatic history, for example as childhood abuse, neglect or domestic violence. Let's therefore explore a bit more the relational trauma. The research suggests that traumatic events that contain an interpersonal component, such as intimate partner violence, are more likely to precipitate posttraumatic stress responses than non-interpersonal events, such as a natural disaster (Briere & Elliott, 2000). The other important determinant is weather the traumatic situation happened once, or occured repeatedly. Those who experienced trauma during childhood or have experienced repeated, prolonged interpersonal trauma are likely more adversely impacted than those who have been exposed to a single traumatic event (Herman, 1992). Growing research also proves that interpersonal trauma experienced during childhood can have a profound effect on the survivors’ adult lives, personality and interpersonal relationships (Roth et al., 1997).

How to embrace in our yoga classes the possibility that our students might have a history of interpersonal trauma? What would be the direction we should set out, in the terms of relational power dynamics? Generally speaking, as trauma-sensitive yoga teachers, we want avoid manifesting power-over, and really fuel the power-from-within of our students. We aim to create a space where they can have a chance to experience their agency, their competence. In the worlds of Bessel van der Kolk (2014) “Competence is the best defence against the helplessness of trauma”. This experience might be life-changing for the people with history of trauma and empowering for everyone else. As a guideline for assessment of our own use of power in the relationships with our clients or students we can follow suggestion of Gilliane Proctor (2017). She advises to consider the three aspects of power in therapy relationship, which are in my opinion easily transferable from psychotherapist-client relationship to the yoga teacher-student relationship:

  1. Role power, which arises from the roles of yoga teacher and student. How does yoga teacher or therapist conceptualise their position in terms of expertise and responsibility? How clear is the yoga teacher about what they can provide and their own limitations? It might be the reminiscences of the guru culture which suggest, that yoga teacher knows the best, what is right for each and everyone in the class and instructs their students accordingly. So we can ask ourselves: Are we coming with clear intentions to serve our students´ best interests? Don't we try to look that we know everything? Are we open enough to listen to our students´ feedback?

  2. Societal power, which refers to the power arising from the structural position of yoga teacher and student, keeping awareness of social and political context, when we can address the interaction of the individual with the environment and avoid pathologizing them. For example when we imagine being a yoga teacher from the mainstream culture in the refugee camp, or in a prison, do we have enough sensitivity, awareness and capacity to be inclusive enough for everyone?

  3. Historical power, which represents the power arising from the personal histories of yoga teacher and student with respect to experiences of power and powerlessness. Maybe we can imagine an example that both, yoga therapist and a client have both somewhere in their history an experience of sexual assault by stranger in the dark park. Maybe in the time of the event the person who is now a yoga therapist fought back and successfully escaped. And maybe assault of the (nowadays) client, ended up with a rape. Would be the yoga therapist compassionate and non-judgemental enough?

For sure, as yoga teachers, we are entitled with a power. But if we do not reflect our use of power cautiously and slip towards domination during the yoga classes, how can we expect our students to walk away feeling in control? Worth thinking through is, what practical tools we have as yoga teachers or yoga therapists to best empower the students or clients. be continued

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