A Matter of Trust
“One in four women experience sexual assault, and a large percentage of yoga students are women,” says Jenn Turner who will be teaching a workshop at Ishta called Trauma Sensitive Yoga Training on May 27th - 29th.
"It’s not a special population – it is OUR population, a large portion of our community, and we’re underserving them…possibly creating an environment that is potentially unsafe."
In any yoga class there are likely to be people who have experienced trauma, domestic violence, and emotional or physical abuse. And they may be looking to yoga to provide a safe space, a place to learn coping strategies and heal. But do teachers consider this possibility when they plan their classes? Is the class always safe for everyone?
"It’s important that general classes have the same awareness of specialized classes that we
offer," says Turner who runs the yoga program at the Trauma Center in Boston.
"When a yoga teacher asks a survivor of trauma if they want to be touched, some will say ‘yes,’ even if they don’t want to be, because there’s a power dynamic at play," points out Turner. "At Kripalu we were taught to ask permission, but I’ve learned from working with students with PTSD and complex trauma, that’s not really enough. It’s a challenge for people to find their voice. Students need to be able to say no.”
Yoga is not immune from the trappings of everyday life and society. In fact, “in some ways it’s a little more dangerous because of that sense of specialness. A teacher may be on a pedestal because a student puts their hopes and wishes in terms of their own spiritual growth onto teachers…it’s quite easy for that to be seductive,” says Turner.
Turner doesn’t teach a specific class sequence, and a class has no mandatory forms. She wants to constantly remind students that, as with everything in life, they have a choice.
“We try not to be prescriptive. There is not a suggested flow that says, ‘this is going to heal you from PTSD.’ It depends on the specific population. For example, there is a woman I’ve supervised who works on a Marine base. People in the military are trained to shoot on the long exhale.” So that most fundamental of yoga cues, to simply breathe, becomes itself a trigger."
Turner's course will lay the groundwork for understanding PTSD and complex trauma. She will teach the neuroscience and brain research behind the work, the psychology of attachment theory and trauma theory. Finally she will dissect the yoga class and explain how to modify it. A portion of the proceeds from the training will go to Exhale to Inhale, an organization that teaches survivors of domestic violence to reclaim their lives through yoga.
This training will be followed on May 30 by a workshop called Teaching Trauma-Informed Yoga for those who are already engaged in this work, and is taught by Lisa Danylchuk, psychotherapist and author of Embodied Healing: Using Yoga to Recover from Trauma and Extreme Stress.
Danylchuk plans to have teachers review the foundational elements of trauma and yoga philosophy that inform choices they make as teachers so they make intelligent choices based on the new information and research, and apply that in a way that is compassionate and encourages ongoing growth.
"I want to give teachers the opportunity to talk about the challenging cases they worked with and the struggles they've faced personally," she says. "To come with things like, 'My training is to teach grounding, what do I do when I have a student whose legs are part of their trauma?'"
It’s very important for the teacher to read the needs of the individual student. Many of the overcrowded go-to yoga spaces have adopted a “one-size fits all” mentality, losing site of the needs of the individual. However, what might be right for one person, may not be right for someone else. For instance, with a PTSD survivor, needs may not be immediately apparent. Words that are meant to be helpful, and touch intended to be therapeutic, can go the other way.
"Anything can be a trigger," says Danylchuk. "It would be very un-trauma-informed to walk into a Juvenile Hall and start a class in supta baddha konasana with a group of women who have been sexually traumatized. However in a class where there is relational consistency, where a teacher comes four days a week and talks about the poses and benefits, then it doesn't mean that a student can never do that pose safely."
What’s most important is that teachers stay open to listening to students and understand as much as possible what they're experiencing, adds Danylchuk. "We can't be total mind-readers, but we can be responsive."
For information about rates and schedules, click here.
-illustration: Abby Walsh