The Hidden Face of Trauma: What Every Yoga Teacher Needs to Know

By: 
Lynn Crimando

Yoga teachers are generally careful to ask new students whether they have any issues that requires special attention. Most will point out injuries or conditions, such as bulging discs, arthritic knees, or high blood pressure. But rarely will a new student report having been a victim of childhood trauma, such as having witnessed domestic abuse. Even long-time students may be hiding a secret from their pasts.

As it turns out, in a class of 15 participants, as many as 3-4 could be survivors of early childhood trauma. That estimate is based on a study that was first conducted in 1995-1997 by the CDC and healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente. Researchers administered a 10-question test called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study to 17,000 Kaiser members, which sought to determine how many had experienced one or more specific trauma issues within their family systems.

Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one trauma-inducing experience. More than one in five reported three or more. High test results are predictive of negative health and well-being outcomes as adults, including developing substance use disorders. And those results may be low.

In this interview, Celeste Mendelsohn, IAYT-certified yoga therapist, who specializes in working with people recovering from trauma and substance use disorder, explains why yoga teachers should always bring trauma-sensitivity into their classes. As Celeste points out, students of all stripes come into our yoga classes. We don’t have any idea where most would rate on the test or even what their back stories are. The original study group was made up of middle-class Kaiser Permanente members, largely Caucasian, and of similar socioeconomic backgrounds from one area of Southern California, which also fit the profile of the demographics attending yoga classes.

So how can yoga teachers arm themselves to create classes that are safe for everyone?

Re-educating and training yoga teachers to raise their trauma-sensitivity is a good place to start. Says Celeste, “It’s the way that we talk, the way that we move or don’t move. It’s how we express ourselves,”

While we can’t always know who’s in our classes, Celeste suggests being attuned to clues, such as a new student hanging out in the back of the class. “When you approach them to introduce yourself, they’re looking down and either nodding their head or not talking to you, definitely not making eye contact. That would tell me that something is a little off and challenging for them. Maybe being there at all is a challenge. That they managed to walk in the door can sometimes be the bravest thing they’ve done all day.”

Since teachers don’t always have the whole story, Celeste advocates adopting a way of speaking that generally everyone can be comfortable with. She explains weaving little bits of awareness into our teaching practices can make all the difference. “It’s a matter of how we interact with our students, present ourselves, assist or don’t do hands-on assists, and what poses we choose,” she says.

Sometimes the most innocuous seeming things can be triggering, such as guiding a student with a history of sexual-specific trauma into a cat-cow pose on all fours. (Celeste would modify by putting that person into a seated version of the pose.)

Bringing heightened awareness into our regular classroom settings can shift people’s lives. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to fix them, but we may give them a light in the darkness. They have a direction to follow,” she explains.

“We discuss the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction in my workshops. At that point of freeze, both the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system are both overloaded. The body stops. And there’s nothing. It’s numb. When you’re numb emotionally and physically, recovering some of those lost sensations can be painful.”

Celeste adds that a student who is beginning to feel more body awareness may not know why or may not understand what it is specifically is being accessed on a conscious level. But as they peel back the layers, what emerges is a sense of empowerment. They recover a piece of themselves.

Take cueing language, for example. Research shows that people who’ve been traumatized may disassociate from their bodies as a defense mechanism. They are likely to have a distorted relationship to their bodies. Employing imaginative or flowery imagery to cue poses may seem creative and encouraging. But people with trauma may zone out because it’s already taking all their effort to remain present in the room.

“Talking about the beautiful energy that’s flowing up the spine and blossoming in your head may sound lovely, but a PTSD or trauma survivor is just as likely to disassociate at that point and think, “What does that mean? How does that... Huh?,” advises Celeste. “They may then miss the next few instructions. Now they realize everybody else is doing something and they’re not. What comes up next is shame–a sense of, ‘I’m clearly defective. I can’t do this like they’re doing this.’”

Allowing each student to find awareness in a place that’s comfortable by using concrete language empowers them in a safe way:

“Bringing your students into a Warrior II pose say, ‘Press down through your back heel. Notice the sensations in your foot, in your leg. Now press down through the ball of your right foot and find your body’s balance in the middle between the two.’

“Give them an idea of where they need to be in space so they can begin to understand that there’s feeling and sensation in their foot and their leg because now you’ve brought attention to it. As you cue them in class, you create the potential for association to happen. They may not say, ‘Oh, I felt that.’ But they may. And if they do, that’s a good thing.”

A level and compassionate tone that is easily audible to everyone is also helpful.

“Find that middle level where you can communicate effectively with your students, as directly as possible with a minimum of distraction. Give them the best chance of picking up on what it is that you say,” Celeste instructs.

Having the teacher moving about the room, coming up from behind, or standing too close can also be disconcerting. “Never walk up beside or from behind, Celeste advises. “Be in their vision when you come up to talk to them. Make sure that they know that you’re there, speaking in a soft and gentle voice.”

Success in small steps is key, she says. “We can’t hope to win the battle in one session. The best I hope for is that a light might go on that, ‘Oh, there’s something there. I want to do that again.’”

This teaching style will also resonate with students who haven’t had trauma in their lives. “My regular students respond very well to this approach,” Celeste explains. “It’s not really like teaching to a special audience that causes the other students to complain. They love it because they also gain that awareness of what it feels like in this leg and how that sensation affects my right hip and how it feels to press back into that left heel or whatever. It’s the essence of what I think we all want from our yoga anyway–that sense of connection to self. Yoga was designed to bring us back into ourselves.”

To learn more about creating trauma-aware classes, check out Celeste’s three-part class on YogaUOnline, Teaching Trauma Aware Yoga: Creating a Healing Space