Teaching Yoga, Not Just Alignment

My trauma informed yoga classes are largely made up of postures and breath, with some simple breath movement coordination. I don’t typically bring in philosophy or verbal themes, but my classes are still about more than alignment. How?

Of course, alignment has a role in a physical yoga class, for basic safety, and as a tool for bringing our awareness to the present moment. Other things matter too, though.

Cues

In my trauma informed yoga classes, I’m not assisting, and I’m mostly doing the practice with students. My cues can be fewer, and speak to things other than alignment: Feel the length from your front big toe to your fingertips…Notice where you feel the most sensation from this pose…Focus your gaze somewhere that brings ease to your neck.

Avoiding Assumptions

I don’t assume that the goal of yoga is getting the poses “right”, and getting into the deepest expression every time. Rather than “sit lower” in chair pose: if you’re interested in more depth, draw your hips lower and further back.

I can speak to alignment but still offer the option not to go as far as humanly possible. A holistic view of well-being – feeling successful in a class, enjoying the one hour of free time you’ve chosen to spend going to yoga – reinforces that the benefits of this practice are not simply the sum of the physical benefits of each posture.

Sequencing

In trauma informed classes I try to offer something for everyone and avoid postures in which people tend to mis-align in ways that are unsafe. Sometimes as yoga teachers trained in and (sometimes) fascinated by anatomy and alignment, we speak as if having perfect alignment is the only way to be safe …. that’s just not true. there is a wide range where people may not be in “correct” alignment or in a deep expression of a pose, but they are also not unsafe.

I may have an anatomical theme (twisting, hip opening) but don’t gear the whole class towards doing a single peak posture and lots of time breaking down that posture.

“Fixing” People

More than once I have heard students use this term to describe hands-on assists. Hands on assists have many diverse intentions, many more positive than “fixing” people! But this is sometimes how students see it.

Hands on assists certainly aren’t bad, and many students likely will receive them in a positive way that isn’t only about alignment … it’s hard to know this without being a mind reader, so this could be a topic to speak to specifically prior to assisting.

The Bigger Intention

In the 23 hours of the day that we are not in a yoga class, we all take care of our bodies mostly without another person’s input. As a yoga instructor, I encourage students to bring that intuitive sense into class and hopefully develop it further.

It’s okay for different people to be doing different things in the class, and provided students aren’t hurting themselves, it’s okay to be uncertain about what to do. That happens in life, in much more serious circumstances than a yoga class, and sitting with uncertainty is hard and important. If I respond to a student’s uncertainty by singling them out and telling them “how to do it right”, I’m taking away their opportunity to tune in to their own body, honor their intuition, and adjust accordingly.

Do you get “less” of the benefits of the pose by doing it “imperfectly”? If the benefits are solely physical, sure.

But if the benefits are higher order things like “linking breath and movement to rebuild the connection between the body and the mind that is often lost in trauma”, “regaining a sense of control over your own body”, “gaining a stronger intuitive sense of where your body is in space so you can use that sense to take care of your body off your mat as well”, “noticing sensation in the body and bringing your awareness to the present moment to allow the mind a break from ruminating on the past or anxiously anticipating the future”… no.

Is it always bad to approach an individual with an alignment tip? Of course not. Might it help calm a student down to do so, so they can relax and gain these broader benefits? Sure. I would not critique a teacher for doing this – but there is much more to yoga than alignment.

 

Kate Rice fell in love with vinyasa yoga at her gym in Washington, DC about 8 years ago. She returned to her Chicago roots after teaching English in eastern Europe and completed yoga teacher training in 2014.  Passionate about making yoga more accessible, Kate has completed trauma informed yoga trainings (Street Yoga, Prison Yoga and others) as well as 40 hours of sexual violence crisis intervention training in order to teach yoga to survivors served by the YWCA counseling center. Read more from Kate on her blog. In addition to public classes yoga at Cook County Jail through Yoga for Recovery. Follow her work at shareyourpractice.org (which now also offers a directory of trauma informed yoga trainings throughout the US).