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Trauma-sensitive yoga as a tool of recovery

“Recovery can take place only within the context of relationship; it cannot occur in isolation.”

– Judith Herman

The concept of trauma-sensitive yoga is slowly but steadily building its position in the yoga world. The Trauma Center[1] developed and empirically validated methodology that is suitable for people with history of complex trauma. Based on its theoretical underpinnings in attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1979), and years of exploring and refining the nuances of this intervention, the Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) regards the relationship between the student and TCTSY facilitator (or trauma-sensitive yoga teacher) as the most important factor. The main focus is on fostering safe, clear and maximally predictable relationship and making conscious the power dynamics within.

Why is it so important? It is through relationships that humans develop a sense of self, sense of agency in the world and the capacity to identify and regulate emotions. Trauma and abuse which happen in relationships might change the way people engage in relationships in general. Trauma survivors have often learned that relationships are dangerous and can have a deep loss of trust (Herman, 1992). Complex trauma involves relationships characterized by chronic coercion or chronic abandonment. Therefore, act in a non-coercive way and avoiding the situation where people might feel abandoned, is essential. We can ask ourselves: Is it what I'm doing as a yoga teacher empowering or disempowering for my student?

Although TCTSY employs physical forms and movements, the emphasis is not on the external expression or appearance (doing it “right”). In TCTSY the physical assists are out of question as they are clearly transmitting the message of yoga teacher´s power-over the student by imposing the ideas of yoga teacher where the students should be, how should they look like and not leaving enough space to the students to have their own experiences. That is also the reason why it is prefered to refer to asanas as forms, not poses or positions, as we don't want to give a message that the students are ´posing´ for us or for someone, we want to bring the focus on internal experience.

Further, as David Emerson mentiones in his book (2015) “One way yoga can be disempowering, especially in context of trauma treatment, is for people to be told what to do with their bodies”. Receiving commands does not foster power-from-within of our students. What we can do in order to empower them would be creating a space, where our students can experiment with doing something safe with their bodies and practice noticing what they feel without getting directives what to do.

Disempowering in the context of trauma-sensitive class can be also saying one thing and doing something else. By giving an instruction to the students like “bend your front knee and tuck your pelvis in", and then walking around the room and assessing our students’ bodies. By separating ourselves in a way that gives a straightforward message that we are not in this together with our students, they are there with their brokenness and we are not there with them.

But we can explore further in more subtle nuances how can yoga teachers be perceived as coercive. If we consider for example the statement, “You can do the form this way but the full expression of the form is like this”, how our students can read such a message? For sure that we are goal oriented, evaluating their ‘performance’. But maybe also that we don't see them as sufficient, as they are.

Or what are the possible consequences in terms of power dynamics of praising a student in the class? How does it might feel for the others? How this student would feel in the next class when we might not praise her? And what are the possible consequences of praising at all? Aren't we strengthening the external focus - so the goal of our students would be to please us, instead to tune into their inner experience? Aren't we also broadcasting our attachment to the results, when we praise someone for the achievements in the yoga class?

Although the above examples might be harmless in the context of a general, public yoga class designed for people without trauma history, in the context of complex trauma they might resemble the dynamics of chronic coercion and chronic abandonment and maybe aggravating their symptoms.

How can we otherwise tailor the class for students with a trauma history from the perspective of relational dynamics? The cues that we give in a trauma-sensitive yoga class are invitational and focus on empowering the students to explore forms that match their needs and feel safe in their body. Inviting students to notice what is happening in the body and cueing language of inquiry can allow the people to actually feel themselves regaining power-from-within, supporting their agency: feeling of being in charge of their lives. And as Bessel van der Kolk points out in his book (2014) “Agency starts with interoception, the awareness of the subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater the awareness, the greater people's potential to control their lives.” We are presenting the yoga forms so our students can use their own interoceptive experience for validation and not the approval or disapproval of an external authority figure. A few key words we can utilize therefore are for example: explore, experiment, and investigate. Teaching trauma-sensitively means establishing relationships that are safe, consistent, and non-coercive, and also fostering a shared authentic experience. When we invite someone to step into the place of relative vulnerability of noticing and being in their body in the present moment, we are stepping into this practice as well, together with them. As we are providing invitations, choices, and opportunities to our students to feel their body, we are engaging simultaneously in the practice - facilitating and participating in the same time in the context of a safe relationship.

Other things we want to embrace as TCTSY facilitators or trauma-sensitive yoga teachers is to incorporate feedback from our students, enabling them to feel heard. Important is also how do we show up in the room as a yoga teacher. How do we dress? What is our voice like? All these details are pointing out, what do we do with power and how we create safety in the relationship.

I´ll close this post with quote of Judith Herman (1992), which I see as the most important frame for the work with trauma survivors: “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”

[1] Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Boston, USA

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