How is trauma sensitive yoga different than traditional yoga?

Trauma sensitive yoga is a term that’s quickly making it’s way into mainstream yoga.  More and more you see classes and trainings that focus on this – as there is an obvious need for teachers who are aware and trained to share this with those in need.  But what exactly does trauma sensitive mean?  Who is it for?  Why do we need it? Kate Rice, Chicago-based trauma-sensitive yoga teacher, shares some insight.

This is a big question, and one that can’t be answered fully in the short span of a blog post. There are books written on this topic and entire trainings devoted to it.

Similarly, just as most of us realize there really isn’t one standard “traditional yoga” taught in studios to compare trauma-sensitive yoga to, there is also lots of diversity within trauma-informed yoga. And plenty of teachers who perhaps have not had training in trauma-sensitive yoga are in fact sensitive and empathetic in their teaching.

Consider this post a basic introductory outline – and, of course, my own opinion. Do you have other points to add? Let me know in the comment section below.

Here’s some basic differences that apply to trauma-sensitive yoga:
  • Fewer or no physical assists. Touch is powerful and could be triggering for those who have experienced trauma. If you plan to offer physical assists, ask in advance!
  • Invitational language/more options given. Offering options can serve to return the sense of control over one’s own body that is often lost in trauma. “In your own time…”, “Fold/twist any amount.” “Stay here 5 more breaths or finish when you feel done.”, “…or…”, option to close eyes or lower gaze/let eyelids be heavy if people don’t want to close eyes; options for savasana.
  • Trauma-informed environment. Different use of music, props, lighting, set up of room. Use of strap optional as it could be triggering for students who were bound or in recovery from drug use; teacher tries to be where students can see them to avoid the feeling of being snuck up on; set up room/mats so people can see the door…though once this is done generally allow people to choose where they set up rather than directing them to move; avoid turning lights out all the way or tell students before you dim them or turn them off.
  • Often less vigorous than public yoga studio classes. Often students in trauma-specific classes are newer to yoga or in some settings (e.g. a drop-in homeless shelter where people may actually be sleeping outdoors/on the ground; people wearing non-yoga clothes such as jeans because that is all they have) may have physical constraints greater than those typically facing regulars at yoga studios.
  • Often less focus on spiritual aspects of yoga and/or themes than in a public setting.  My view: sometimes themes can come across as advice-giving much like a therapist would do. I don’t think this sort of  theming is bad, and it’s pretty well-established and expected in some public yoga class settings. Since my expertise is limited to yoga, I’m very cautious about bringing in themes or quotes that appear to give therapy-like advice in settings outside of yoga studios.

Of course I also think people should teach what is authentic to them! Students and trauma survivors are resilient. It makes sense to think carefully about any theme you bring in, but it doesn’t mean you have to censor yourself.

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).

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