5 Trauma-Informed Considerations for Online Yoga Teachers


As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe, many yoga studios have gone online, or are moving in that direction. The instant switch to virtual classes has come with a steep learning curve for many. Aside from wondering which virtual platform is best and troubleshooting technological difficulties, there are other more personal concerns to consider. Around the world, people are experiencing heightened stress and anxiety. This is especially true for those with preexisting conditions that could make them more vulnerable than most. But we are all concerned about our futures and our loved ones, and we’re confronted with the challenge of sheltering in place. What we’re all experiencing in this pandemic is a kind of collective trauma. 

Trauma is anything that overwhelms our ability to cope. It alters the way our nervous system experiences the world around us. As a trauma-informed yoga instructor, I recognize the ways our trauma and stress manifest on the mat. Because of this, I know people need yoga that is trauma-informed now more than ever. 

Below, I offer ways to start making your virtual yoga classes trauma-informed. It will help you hold space for students in a way that is sensitive to the overwhelm they may be feeling during this pandemic and beyond.

1. Precautions and Orientation

As a precaution, you should collect emergency contact information for all of your virtual students just as you would for in-person classes. Having emergency contact information is particularly essential for people recovering from trauma because you never know what may trigger someone. If an emergency, either physical or emotional, were to arise during class, you want to be able to contact someone who can assist your student. 

It’s also important to begin every class by orienting your students to the classroom environment, even if that “environment” is virtual. Orientation helps reassure one’s nervous system that although the individual is in a new space or having a new experience, they are safe. 

Although your online students will be practicing from the comfort of their homes, taking your class that day is still a new experience. For some, even using this kind of technology may be new. First, be sure to orient them to the technology itself. If you’re using a platform like Zoom, take some time to explain how to mute or unmute their audio, how to access the chat function, how to turn their video on or off, and how to change the display from gallery view to speaker view. Then, introduce your teaching style (you never know who may be watching and how much or how little they know about you). Finally, let your students know what props they might need (I’ll go into this in more detail later), and share the class agenda. 

Perhaps you plan to start with a brief meditation and then move on to warm-ups and a full vinyasa practice before closing with a brief savasana. Sharing the structure of your class ahead of time helps students know what to expect. And having a clear outline of what is to come can be especially important for people with anxiety. Experiencing anxiety shifts your focus away from the present to a concern over what will happen next. By orienting students to the technology, your teaching style, and what to expect in class, you free up space in their minds to be present and enjoy the class.

2. Language

With virtual yoga classes, your language matters more than ever. With in-person classes, you can always see your students and know when they need additional teaching cues. In virtual classes, however, unless you’re streaming live on a platform like Zoom, where students can turn on their camera and allow you to watch them, you can’t see your students (and even with Zoom, the view is limited)—so you have to teach with even more clarity and precision than you’re used to. Additionally, some of your words may trigger a student without you realizing, and without you being there to support them. 

Trauma-informed practices prioritize respect for a student’s autonomy over any particular pose or sequence. While this should be the case in all yoga classes, it is not always the reality. Sometimes teachers unintentionally pressure students to do or stay in poses longer than what feels physically or emotionally safe. While teachers may assume all students know they have the choice to opt out of a pose or instruction, being compliant may be a trauma response for some people. For some trauma survivors, ignoring their own feelings in order to please someone else is a subconscious learned survival tactic. In those cases, it can be especially difficult to not follow the teacher’s direction, even if it feels unsafe. 

Additionally, with online classes students cannot easily see and take cues from each other. In an in-person class, a student may feel more comfortable modifying a practice to suit their own needs if they see another student doing it, but online classes do not offer students that same empowering visual support. 

That said, whether online or in person, teachers can support student autonomy by offering students cues rather than telling them what to do with their bodies. For example, instead of saying, “Move your right foot over an inch,” you can say, “Consider moving your right foot over an inch.” Or instead of “Come out of the pose,” you might say, “When you’re ready, come out of the pose.”

These suggestions are very subtle changes, but for someone who may not feel empowered in other ways, being reminded that they are in control of their bodies on the yoga mat can be refreshing. I like to begin every class by reminding my students that while I will be offering suggestions for alignment and stability throughout, I encourage them to listen to their bodies, and I fully support them if they need to come out of a pose sooner than I or anyone else (or if they’d like to stay in a pose longer). They can spend the entire practice lying on their mat if they choose. I want to be sure they know that I am not the one in control of their bodies, and that I support them in doing what they feel is best for themselves.

3. Sequencing and Variations

When presenting a class to your online students, it’s important to keep in mind three key things that impact your students' experience: preparatory poses, variations, and the way variations are offered. As mentioned, you can’t always see students in virtual classes (or at least see them clearly), and because of this, you aren’t able to properly assess their alignment and stability. This means that students will need to rely on their own assessment of how they feel in a pose, and whether or not they are even ready for a particular pose.

One survival tactic in trauma is learning how to subconsciously numb yourself from pain, which can sometimes also alter your ability to feel sensation in whole parts of your body. Someone who may not be able to sense when they’ve gone too far is more at risk for injury and needs more guidance from a teacher on safe alignment and pose variations. This is why it is important that you include several preparatory poses before a more difficult pose, that you offer variations as often as possible, and that you’re careful about your language when you do offer variations.

When I guide students through bridge pose, I start by telling them they can hold on to the edges of their mat or they can use “robot arms” or they can interlace their hands under their back. I don’t make any value statements about these variations. I simply present them as different ways to do the same pose.

Also be mindful that even the use of the word “modification” versus “option” or “variation” can send the wrong message to students. “Modification” can give students the idea that doing a pose the traditional way is the right way and every “modification” is beneath that. Using “options” or “variations” instead takes the pressure off and encourages students to experiment and choose whatever pose is best for them that day.

As teachers, part of our role is to help our students judge themselves less, not more. Unfortunately, the emphasis in yoga is often placed on “advancing” to the most challenging poses as though there are no physical or mental benefits to be gained from foundational practices or being exactly where you are. This hierarchy can leave students feeling as though they “can’t do yoga” or that it’s not for them. This is not the message we want to send to our students, especially while they are practicing at home and possibly already dealing with elevated stress. Being mindful with our language and sequencing can help prevent this.

4. Props

Teaching with props enhances inclusivity. For a lot of people who have experienced trauma, not being seen or considered has been a major part of their trauma and can be a major obstacle to their healing. When a teacher does not consider the physical needs of students who may not be as flexible or have as much physical strength in a particular part of their body, students are more likely to feel isolated or ashamed. Furthermore, assuming that students do not need props for their practice excludes people with different abilities and adds to the structural exclusion that many people with disabilities are already faced with. Just because students are practicing from home and you can’t see them does not mean that their practice could not benefit from props. However, because students are practicing online instead of at the studio, they may not have access to props other than a wall and a chair at home.

Depending on the size of the class, there are a few ways you can approach this with your students. If you have a small class, you can ask which props the students have at home, and then you can teach around those props.

For both small and larger classes, you can suggest prop alternatives. For instance, yoga blankets can be replaced with folded towels or regular blankets. A yoga strap can be replaced with the strap of a robe. Blocks could be replaced with books (as long as they are stable). By incorporating props virtually, we make the practice more accessible. This frees students to focus on the benefits of the practice rather than feelings of inadequacy because they are not able to do particular postures. 

5. Follow-up and Connection

Finally, be sure to foster connection in your virtual classes. One of the reasons many people participate in in-person yoga classes is for the opportunity to be with others. For trauma survivors, having safe encounters with others is especially critical because it counteracts the notion that they are always in danger. Humans are social beings, and the connection that is felt when you are in the room with someone else cannot be replicated—but we can do our best.

One way to ensure that your students feel connected is to invite them to turn their cameras on during class if they'd like to allow everyone to see each other. You can also start class with a brief check-in, allowing each student to share their name and how they are doing. Or you can invite them to respond to another simple prompt like, “Share a color that represents how you are feeling today” or “What’s one thing, big or small, you’ve been doing for self-care lately?” These small engagements at the start of class can help the experience feel more authentic.

Finally, teachers can follow up with students after class via email to thank them for participating, open the floor for any questions, and invite them to the next class.

We're in this together. Let's prioritize kindness. 

None of us have ever experienced anything like this pandemic, and many feel unsure about the way forward. One thing that is certain, however, is that we are all going through this together. We can all use this challenging time to become more mindful about how we engage with others and as yoga teachers, how we engage with our students. That means what language we use when speaking with them, what biases we may be communicating by the way we sequence postures, how often we use props, and whether we foster connection with and between our students. Perhaps with this kind of empathy and consideration in our hearts, we will find a way forward that makes us more united than ever before. 

About the Teacher

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Jasmine Allen
Jasmine Allen is a yoga instructor and Philadelphia native. Jasmine uses yoga as a tool to help people... Read more