Each Person is a Theory Unto Themselves

American Psychiatrist Milton Erickson once said, "The psychiatrist cannot afford the luxury of a theory, each patient is their own theory," and in my opinion, nor can the yoga teacher, as there is no such thing as one size fits all approach to teaching or practicing yoga. The heart of trauma-informed care, as it relates to yoga, recognizes that we cannot universally apply any of the 'recommendations' or 'techniques' to all students and expect the same outcome, let alone that all approaches or interventions - “best practices” included - will be experienced as therapeutic, or even helpful. One person's most liberating pose stirs another person's shame. One person craves consensual, healing touch from a gifted teacher and another defaults into freeze upon contact in a class setting. One person savors the spaciousness and exploration that meditation practice provides and another relies on the tangibility and precision of alignment-based teaching. And on and on...

The impacts of trauma are person specific and any two survivors may gravitate towards completely different styles of yoga practice based on their nervous system, the resources they've been able to access in their healing, their relationship to their body, movement and contemplative practices, their personality, their abilities, and a countless variety of other factors related to identity, interest and experience. Understandably, their responses to the same exact practice and their perception of the same teacher can be markedly distinct.

Perhaps the most basic principal in trauma-informed care would be to adapt the practice to meet the specific needs of the person in front of you. That, along with your role and presence as the teacher (which I will mention later) is the foundation that makes everything else possible in the collaborative work of teacher and student.

It would be convenient to have a single method, style or universal theory for teaching yoga in this context, but it is impossible to simplify teaching (and yoga!) in this way since trauma survivors (people!) are diverse and have dramatically different lived experiences.

While trauma impacts a wide range of people across race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability and age, it does so unevenly. This is due to a combination of systemic, cultural and social conditions that create collective oppression, harm and trauma on top of the individual experience of surviving an event or series of events. This alone would indicate that our needs, vulnerabilities and resources will vary from person to person and that no one style of yoga would address the nuances of our many experiences.

Prescriptive approaches to teaching trauma-informed yoga (think checklist) are delivered from the outside-in and they can reinforce the hierarchy and power imbalances that are often already associated with traumatic events/experiences/systems, thereby re-creating a pattern of disempowerment, marginalization and silencing. We may be drawn to formulaic philosophies around trauma-informed yoga because they attempt to make something nebulous like trauma and working with trauma somehow more predictable for us, they give us a sense of control. Predictability and control are comforting to trauma survivors and it is no surprise that many of us who are drawn to work with this community are also survivors ourselves. This is one reason why supervision, mentorship and consultation matter so deeply, though I digress.

It’s true that these set styles or approaches may work for some people: “do a, b, and c and don’t do x, y and z”, or even, for many people, but it’s risky to assume they will work for all people and it invalidates the experience of those who seek very different things from their practice.

In an era where everything is packaged and branded for sale, it is no surprise we might start to expect that something like a “trauma-informed yoga training” would give us the method, the sequence, the answers. The inconvenient truth is that one can deliver what might be considered a "trauma-informed sequence" however, if the teacher lacks presence, if their tone is commanding, if they position themselves as healer/healed and their students as wounded/victims, if they are disconnected from the people in the room or from their own experience, if they are performing a script instead of bringing their authenticity to the practice - there will not be the necessary sense of safety required for the survivor to fully drop into the practice.

One of my main influences, Dr. Peter Levine, said that "we can only take our clients as far as we are ourselves have been willing to go in our own trauma healing work" and I completely agree. It seems to me that teachers who want to specialize or be more sensitive to trauma survivors will most benefit from inquiry into their own healing experiences and healing challenges through yoga and life, examining how past trauma already informs their practice/teaching, as well as how they can bring that into their consciousness in a way that is productive. From here, they may more easily realize the importance of continually widening the spectrum for how they attempt to define trauma and how they consider accommodating the range of vulnerabilities on the mat, while also amplifying each survivor’s inherent strength.

When we do this inner work (on our own time) and then step into our role of yoga teacher, we are better able to "get out of our students' way" as one of my yoga teachers often reminded me, and thereby, empower students (trust them) to incrementally lean further into their own experience. By de-centering ourselves in the class setting, prioritizing the guidance of the student's inner teacher, and instilling messages that bolster compassionate self-exploration, we create the conditions where healing insights can emerge from within the survivor themselves. These organically emerging insights, or embodied epiphanies as I sometimes call them, are messages that arise without intentional mental effort, they are messages which can create huge shifts in how we experience, understand and sense our whole selves. They are "a-ha" moments that we feel in our core, suddenly we make sense to ourselves, or something that was once murky becomes clear. Maybe it is that something that pained us so deeply has lifted its weight from our heart and we have a visceral sense of its departure. These epiphanies can leave a positive residue, an imprint that has a somatic feeling to it which we can summon as a form of self-care when we find ourselves once again challenged by the ripples of trauma's wake. They can also create space, for something else, something new, something that can move. These remarkably meaningful, although still sometimes very simple revelations, can come in the form of words, sensations, emotions, and images and they can take our breath away in the most stunning, life-affirming way. Maybe they give us our breath back, a deep spontaneous breath is returned to us. In an instant, these moments can change us, they can suture an old wound within us, they can unburden us of something we no longer need to carry.

I would suggest that exploring and integrating trauma-informed teaching methods benefits teachers as much as it does students. For teachers, a prescriptive approach to teaching yoga in general, and specifically with the focus on trauma healing, can lack a degree of presence - we may feel a tension between what we've been told to do versus what feels most intuitive to us in the space, yet we remain bound to someone else's map of what constitutes a trauma-informed yoga class. Instead of being able to be with and respond to what is arising in that very moment, we may experience a sense of disconnect from the student/s, the room, and ourselves by being over-committed to set sequences and rules around what is/is not trauma-informed. We might draw a blank which can then create an inner panic, something that has the potential to escalate - especially for those of us with our own trauma history - from there, we may dissociate as a management strategy either temporarily or for the remainder of class.  

Yet, in our own willingness to trust the language of our bodies and make decisions, changes and choices in our teaching from our noticing of the moment, we have the possibility to actually model that possibility for our students. Of course it might feel risky, and it will likely come with some humbling foibles. Still, it is an opportunity to experience the validation of following intuition, or alternately, to learn via a gentle kind of repair or re-do process that might have to happen if our "intervention" or our teaching impulse in the moment doesn't land the way we intended. Again, this is a chance to embody the possibilities we have set out to teach: We can recover. We will survive. We can learn and do it differently, and better. Most importantly, our students will also survive. How else would we have all come this far already? Remember all the traumas and barriers and hurdles and heartaches that have crossed our paths prior to entering the yoga space? And still, here we are…in spite of it all, we find ways to keep getting through. This is the unparalleled tenacity of the survivor, this is the skill that affords our rebound after something really hard happens again - whether a trigger, a flashback or a new trauma.

It’s good to recall, no one is born an expert in anything. Skill comes with practice, patience, and more practice. None of us are strangers to trial and error, and all of us, regardless of what we think we know and all the degrees and letters and certificates we accumulate - all of us - are all lifelong learners in the ways of humility. Remember what Dr. Erickson said? Each patient (student) is their own theory. Being trauma-informed requires a willingness to be surprised, to be wrong, and to be challenged to learn something (or many things) new from the person who originally sought you out for healing.  

How do we keep learning? How do we keep growing? How do we continually refine our lens? One way is through our presence - presence to what is noticed both in the interior landscape of our body and in the surrounding landscape of the people and the world.

Presence requires that we as teachers slow down, that we are willing to pause, wait and see, and to allow something (sometimes unexpected) to unfold. This can be applied in the moment of teaching and importantly, considered with a longer-term view like seasons that rarely seem rushed. Presence lacks force and it supports ease in our body and in our mind. It is like a rebound of energy that comes naturally to us and through us. Presence is also integral to nurturing creativity, a creativity born of impulses from within our own organism which is a beautiful component to building resilience after profound loss. As both students and teachers, we can practice amplifying our creativity from the soft, yet clear, boundaries of our mat. Creativity gives way to vulnerability which gives way to authenticity which gives way to safety, so the presence that is beneath it has quite a ripple effect.

If we seek to be trauma-informed in our teaching, we will meet people where they are at without over-laying our expectations or goals for their experience. We will commit to remaining flexible, responsive and adaptive in our teaching. We can witness, sense and gently bolster the space around our students' experience, while simultaneously remembering to notice ourselves as we move within our role of guiding and holding space. We can invite our students' embodied intelligence to come online because we've done our own work of looking within to discover that source of wisdom and therefore we can trust our students' capacity to tap this internal resource as well. Ongoing reflection - both alone and with a mentor/supervisor - on how we are showing up in this space and how showing up specifically for trauma survivors impacts us is also fundamental to our integrity and sustainability as teachers. The safety of the space we hold for survivors is anchored by the fact that someone with great experience in the healing realm is holding space for us - a space that is brave, that fosters accountability, that honors the boundaries of our scope of practice and that fortifies our own healing reserves. This process can be imperfect and sometimes we will go too long between consults, push ourselves beyond our threshold and find ourselves overextended in the work. When that happens, we remember what we have forgotten and we seek out new supports, we look to our teachers/mentors/healers and we work intentionally with what has been stirred. We go deeper still in our own healing and this deepens the healing reservoir we hold for others.

As teachers, we are really co-creators of the yoga practice, our plan is like a template that interacts with our students' internal cues. Like waves meeting the shore, there is ebb and flow. It is reciprocal. We are attuning to their changing natures and we are also leaving space for spontaneity. We are honest with ourselves and those we serve that we don't know what is best for them, yet, we can support the natural revealing of what they already know, whether consciously or unconsciously, will be best for them and their healing through the somatic practice of yoga.

It serves us to remind ourselves and our students that we are all practicing and practice is a ongoing process not a final destination.

Some of these ideas aren't solely about being trauma-informed in teaching yoga, they are fundamental elements of a yoga environment that is accessible, inclusive and welcoming of a wide-range of experiences, they inform a space where we are all seen as the experts of our own precious embodiment. In yoga, we can grow an intimate relationship with our own unique “theory” - studying the one-of-a-kind biography of our lives which is held dynamically within our body. In this environment, there is room for personalized healing and for collective healing, there is increased mutuality and pronounced equity, there is experiential resilience building and there is transformative somatic connection for the teachers and the students alike.