A Safer Space

In my years of teaching yoga, I have witnessed many of the hardships my students face in their lives—death of a loved one, divorce, illness, depression, anxiety, body-image issues, sexual assault, substance abuse, cancer, financial stress—just to name a few. I too originally came onto my mat managing depression, alcohol abuse and disordered eating. You would not have noticed me because I would have been the one that looked on top of things, friendly, confident, doing all the poses instructed, seemingly self-sufficient without a need in the world. The reality of what was underneath this facade was something quite different.

Yoga can be healing for many, so it is no wonder our vulnerabilities seem to reveal themselves on the mat, and we as yoga teachers bear witness to many of our student’s life struggles. Creating safety for our students is a heart-lead responsibility. What has become most important to me as a yoga teacher is creating a supported, non-triggering space for my students so that they can journey into their own process at their own pace. This took practice on my part of letting go of some of what I had learned through the more traditional teaching paradigm including my need to prove myself as “expert.” Instead, I began to create opportunities for students to be experts of their own experience and self-discovery.

Melissa Lucchesi and I founded Trauma-Informed Lens Yoga because we understood the healing potential of yoga and knew from our own personal and professional experiences what people were carrying with them onto their yoga mats. When you are vulnerable, the words and actions of others can be incredibly empowering or can do harm in a way that can last a long time. Something vulnerable does happen on the mat for many of us. Whether it is because we are dealing with something specific or we simply let down our guard enough in a yoga practice to feel things we may have otherwise buried deep inside, we are left open in a way that calls for a high level of responsibility on the part of the yoga teacher.

What we have found in our work to bring trauma-informed practice to public yoga classrooms is that many students are looking for safer spaces to practice. They may not share their story ever, but the spectrum of trauma is present in every classroom. This safety includes, among other considerations, consent for touch, respect of boundaries, and acceptance of students as experts of their own bodies and practice. A commitment to providing this kind of space starts with identifying how we may be using our yoga expertise to micromanage students, which can inadvertently steal their process and may even be harmful to some. This can be difficult to accept when we have the urge to “fix” a student or show them a “better way” with all of the knowledge we have accumulated over the years.

I know that when I was less experienced as a teacher, I did not understand this. I came into the room with an attitude of “I am going to teach you.” What I understand now is that the only way we really learn how to heal is to find our own capacity to do so. This cannot be forced or directed by someone else. Offering students permission stones to indicate affirmative consent for physical assists and adjustments is not just about touch. It also symbolically marks the yoga mat and practice as belonging to the student. The small piece of yoga mat real estate is private, and teachers are invited in when the student decides to do so.

We don’t need to know the specifics of our students’ stories. We just need to know we have an opportunity to create a space that feels safer than what may exist outside of the boundaries of our yoga mats. With a trauma-informed lens comes an attitude shift about how our actions, words, and gestures may affect others. There is deeper understanding of how we are in relationship with each other and whether we intend it or not, what we say and do has an impact. I have by no means figured this all out, and I continue to make mistakes that I can’t take back. What this lens has provided me, however, is a means to notice the mistakes, pay attention to how people respond, and adjust to do better the next time. What I can say is that the more I wear the lens, the clearer my vision gets.

Gwen Soffer E-RYT is co-founder of Enso in Media, Pa. and co-founder of Trauma-Informed Lens Yoga (TILY). She is an MSW and trauma certificate candidate at Widener University, and in addition to her public classes, facilitates trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive yoga for groups and in agency settings. For more information about TILY’s Trauma-Informed Lens Certificate program, go to traumainformedlensyoga.com and for more information about Teaching Gentle Chair Yoga in Agency and Community Settings workshop, go to www.experienceenso.com.

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