top of page

How to Create More Trauma-Informed Class Environments


Trauma impacts everyone differently and while we often think about trauma in terms of those who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, it can stem from a wide variety of sources that could be systemic, familial, or interpersonal. This equates to roughly 1 in every 3 of our yoga students carrying the burden of trauma and the impacts it can have on their relationship with their bodies, minds, and the world they navigate on a daily basis.


Yoga is a profound tool for folks who wish to find more embodiment, ease, and autonomy when dealing with the effects of trauma and other major stressors. However, many folks can also find it challenging to access those benefits in a studio atmosphere. Though we can never know all the possible triggers for any given person (as they may not even have access to an understanding of it themselves), there are some subtle things we can bring into how we create the spaces and ways in which we share the practice of yoga that can encourage a better sense of autonomy and embodiment.



 

Here are ten encouragements for how to bring more Trauma-Informed approaches into our classes.


1. Ground yourself first.

Your energy sets the tone for your class. Experiencing some nerves, especially when you’re new to teaching, is normal. How can you arrive ready to share and hold the space you need?

  • Give yourself time! Not only to set up the room and prepare for your students but also to participate in your own personal asana, pranayama, meditation, and similar practices when you’re not teaching.

  • Teach what you know and feel most confident or comfortable in sharing.

  • Try a few moments of breathwork and/or some somatic practices or movements such as shaking, tapping, or swaying arms from side to side before you begin your class.

  • If you are feeling especially unsettled for any reason (which happens to us all) that may be a day that you especially chose to ground yourself or “keep your energy to yourself” by not doing any hands-on assists or inviting more stillness for yourself.


2. Build the “container” for the practice.

  • Create a supportive space from the moment students walk in the door. Greeting with a smile and letting folks know where you will be practicing, what props they need, and so on can help to create connection and soothe any sense of anxiety they might have. Tours for new folks are extremely helpful for this.

  • Reduce your movement around the room. The more you move through the room, the more likely you are to inadvertently trigger a sense of hypervigilance in someone, especially if you spend a lot of time in folks’ “blind spots”. Consider first why you feel called to this movement (for many of us, its just habit) and then consider these options: Moving when folks are in stillness and landing in a space where they can easily see you and/or being especially mindful of walking around while folks are moving a lot (think during vinyasas) or in very crowded rooms, speaking as you are moving so folks can track you with your voice, stating why you’re changing position, and selecting one or a couple of “grounded spots” that you can return to after providing assists, etc.

  • If something potentially disruptive happens during class, it’s helpful to acknowledge it right away and invite folks back onto their mats in a way that is grounded, yet light-hearted. This is especially important if you need to exit the room for any reason during class. Let folks know that you’ll be leaving them in their shape for a moment.

  • Start on time and try to end as close to on time as possible. If starting late and/or ending late, give people updates on the time so they are aware and will have less reason to feel rushed or worried.


3. Assist students in finding a sense of grounding.

This is especially helpful at the beginning of class and before or during intention setting.

  • You might simply ask them to notice a sensation, such as a sound they can hear or where their body connects to their mat, this is a great way to bring in simple mind-body awareness.

  • Other examples could be to release anything that happened before they arrived on their mat or focus on their intention and/or breath. There are many options, find what resonates best with yourself and your students.

  • Allow a few moments for this rather than rushing this portion of the practice and going right into the physical practice (when possible).


4. Reduce stimuli.

Stimuli can come in various forms and vary in the degree it impacts each individual. Consider some of the following:

  • Music or no music? (“Your breath is your music”.)

  • Try music without lyrics. Even our favorite songs with seemingly benign lyrics can be distracting and, in some cases, triggering. Think of vocalization as an additional layer of stimuli that folks might feel they should focus on or can get distracted by.

  • Dim lights slightly or a lot, especially at the beginning and end of class.

  • Give breaks from heat in heated classes.

  • Avoid strong scents, on yourself or in the room (when possible).


5. Predictability and familiarity can help increase ease.

Adding variety to practices that encourage it, is a great way to not only bring some fun into them but to add challenges for regulars. However, having some predictability and familiarity during specific parts of the practice (such as the same set of postures in sequence at the beginning or end, for instance) can create an incredible sense of ease for many folks who may have lacked this kind of predictability elsewhere in their lives.



6. Our language can be a powerful tool or possible trigger*.

Choose language that invites personal exploration/interoception:

  • Using words such as “could”, “might”, etc. (despite many teachers being told not to do this) can help to create an invitation to try something new, for students to explore their own sense of self-inquiry, and/or adjust the alignment in a way that saying “move this body part in this specific way” cannot.

  • You might also invite in a specific exploration of varying movements or options in a particular pose and invite them to stay in the one where they feel the most ease, strength, or stability.

  • If choosing to add options and variations, try to keep to three or less.

  • It is also a great reminder to share that everything said in class is a suggestion and that folks are encouraged to listen to their body and intuition and adjust the practice in ways that feel supportive to them.

  • Invite folks to explore where they feel sensation and notice if certain emotions are called forth during certain poses where we hold a lot of tension and emotion. For example: in hip openers, heart openers, etc.

  • Invite folks to take rest in shapes that feel most supportive to them. For example: taking a different shape than savasana, like lying on your side or stomach.

Avoid language that can be potentially triggering:

  • Please be mindful of the use of the word "safe/safety”. We all want to offer an authentically safe space or container, but a sense of safety is a very individual experience that we often won’t have access to an understanding of how to create that for each person. So, it is best to leave the word out of our vocabulary.

  • The command to “relax” is sometimes used by abusers and can create the opposite effect. An alternative might be to say “invite a relaxing energy in” or “find some effortlessness here”.

  • Avoid using any cue that invites “another person” into their practice. (E.g. “Imagine [someone] is [doing any action] to [any part of their body].”)


7. Physical assistance and consent as a conversation.

Physical assists can be powerful tools and a lot of students really appreciate receiving them. However, this is a tricky area to navigate when it comes to finding a trauma-informed approach, which is why the most common approach is often none at all. This is because for some folks an assist might be welcome in one particular pose or moment, but not the next. I always recommend considering the reasons why you are assisting and if it is necessary and supportive for how you want to show up and teach.

Here are some considerations on this topic, if you do wish to provide assists:

  • Consider only offering hands-on assists to folks who are regulars in your class. If someone is new and needs assistance, try more verbal assistance or come next to or in front of them to demonstrate or explain the pose.

  • Use the word assist instead of adjustment. We are looking to support folks in their practice, not correct them.

  • Try rubbing your hands together, somewhat loudly, close enough to the person you are going to assist to gently alert that you are approaching.

  • Even if they did not raise their hand to turn down assists at the start of class or are using a “Yes” consent card, consider still asking if it's okay once you approach and assist them in a specific pose. It can also be helpful to explain exactly what you’ll be doing and why. For example: “Could I place my hands lightly on your upper back to help you feel where the shoulder blades are?”

  • You may also consider having conversations with your regulars encouraging them to specifically request an assist before class. That way there is a certainty that at that moment and in that pose they are requesting assistance.


8. Avoid “singling” anyone out.

Some teacher trainings really encourage this as a way to connect with students during class or providing hands-off assists. However, it can provide not only an additional source of distraction or invite in a comparative mindset, but also can cause some folks a great deal of anxiety to be called upon. Consider some of these options instead:

  • Approach someone who needs support during the practice and have a quiet conversation.

  • Chat with your students before and after class and let them know you see and acknowledge their struggles and/or progress in their practice.

  • Give a verbal/ hands-off alignment assist to the class as whole (someone else might benefit from hearing it, too!)

9. Reduce potential challenges for beginners.

  • Describing poses in ways that convey there is a “beginning”, “intermediate”, or “advanced” version of a pose can be extremely challenging to beginners and stir-up feelings of not being “____” enough to be there.

  • Sanskrit is a beautiful part of the yogic tradition, but it can be a challenge for folks who are unfamiliar with it. A wonderful way to bring it into practice, while also providing insight into its meaning, is to say Sanskrit terms prior to or just following the English name.

  • Keep in mind that there are some poses to which the Sanskrit term is primarily used because the English version is lengthier or more complicated (Janu Sirsasana versus “head-to-knee forward fold”.) For example: “Bring your gaze or drishti in this direction.”

  • If you are incorporating more challenging or uncommon transitions, you might say “listen closely” before beginning and/or letting people know where you’re going like “turn to face the back/side of the room or parking lot, etc.”


10. Be kind to yourself the way you hope that your students would be kind to themselves.

Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. We are only human and if your desire is to encourage more trauma-informed spaces for folks coming to your classes, but you struggle with making all the changes you would like to help encourage this, give yourself the grace and time to hone your skills. Take on one thing at a time. Recall what your purpose and intentions for doing so are, and allow for progress over perfection!

 

When you have lived through trauma or other such major stressors, it can be challenging enough to decide to exit your comfort zone and try something new. However, when people discover places and practices that have a thoughtfully cultivated space and community of supportive folks who show up with empathy and purpose, it can be life-changing. Here, we can invite folks to explore their body, mind, and spirit, and they may begin to feel the ability to come home, for the first time in a long time, to their True Self.


Are there things that I missed or you have questions on? Please reach out and continue the conversation!

 

Additional Resources:

Comments


bottom of page