Exhale to Inhale’s Approach to Trauma-Informed Yoga

Over the course of five years, I had the pleasure of getting to know Jessica Lillian—first as her yoga teacher, and then as a friend. I watched her fall in love with her practice and then go on to become a teacher herself. Now, she works in the field of trauma-informed yoga, teaching yoga to survivors of domestic violence and abuse.

Jessica volunteers for Exhale to Inhale, an organization founded in 2013 that offers yoga classes in domestic violence shelters, taught by teachers who have been trained in a trauma-sensitive approach, with an aim to help empower survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

I have felt compelled to share her work, especially considering the recent mass revelation of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry—and, sadly, in the yoga world—with thousands of women having shared their #metoo stories. As we begin to recognize the prevalence of sexual assault and bring it to light, we are also seeing clearly just how many people have been directly affected by it. Creating trauma-sensitive yoga spaces, then, is a necessity.

Below, I ask Jessica about Exhale to Inhale—how it approaches trauma-informed yoga, what inspired her to get involved, how other people can get involved (if they wish), and more. Join us.

How did you transition from teaching studio classes to the general population to teaching yoga to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence?

My first yoga teaching experience was at a teen center in 2015, after which I took an asana workshop at Yoga Works in New York. Having been placed on their email list, I later received news that Lisa Danylchuk—a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and expert in the field of trauma-informed yoga—would be leading a workshop on trauma-informed yoga.

I went to Lisa’s workshop out of curiosity—I had studied psychology, and I was interested in linking psychology with the study of yoga. I’ve always been interested in the mind-body connection and the potential for using yoga to work with anxiety and mental health issues.

After the workshop, I signed up for Lisa’s Embodied Healing Y4T Online Course, and the director for Exhale to Inhale happened to be in the course with me. We became friends on Facebook and I saw that she was holding an informational session for Exhale to Inhale at an event nearby. I went to the initial training and I instantly connected with their message. I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

I really believed (and still do) in the power of yoga to heal and transform. I had never experienced domestic violence, but I did have the experience of healing myself through yoga. I also once had the experience of being in a traditional yoga class that was unintentionally traumatic for me, which brought up feelings of anxiety. I connected with the idea that there was a way to teach yoga that would avoid these triggers. I also appreciate that the Exhale to Inhale training is grounded in science, as more and more research attests to the positive impact of yoga on trauma survivors.

How is teaching an Exhale to Inhale class different from teaching your average studio yoga class?

The biggest myth about trauma-informed yoga is that it’s all like restorative yoga—always gentle and relaxing. But Exhale to Inhale’s classes are more like your average vinyasa classes. Restorative can be tricky for populations who have experienced trauma as silence and stillness can be uncomfortable territory for them. Staying in one place and getting lost in one’s thoughts can be triggering, so I get people moving and flowing through fairly active one-breath-per-movement classes. I create all of my own sequences, too—there isn't a set of guidelines or poses that we have to teach.

The biggest myth about trauma-informed yoga is that it’s all like restorative yoga—always gentle and relaxing. But Exhale to Inhale’s classes are more like your average vinyasa classes.

There are, however, some general principles that we follow at Exhale to Inhale. Language-wise, we call yoga poses yoga “forms” or “shapes.”

Posing can be linked to exploitative photography. If people are told to pose they may feel as if they are modeling or linked to inappropriate photography. Posing can also be thought of as a performance. This practice isn’t for anyone else, however—it’s for them.

How do people typically respond to trauma and how does this affect how you teach?

The three main responses to trauma are fight, flight, or freeze, and we don’t know if someone may be experiencing one of these states on any given day. To help provide a sense of equilibrium, and to avoid overstimulating or understimulating students, I include a lot of grounding forms (poses) in my classes (as these can be helpful for students who may be experiencing various states). For example, we spend a lot of time setting up and periodically pausing in mountain throughout class, feeling the rooting down of the feet on the mat and noticing feelings of balance (or swaying).

Standing forms that emphasize strength and steadiness and engage numerous muscle groups, like warrior II, can also be useful for students in different states of trauma. We practice holding these standing forms for several breaths, always with the choice to come out at any time.

At the beginning of every class, I explain that yoga is about moving in connection with our breath, noticing how we feel, and making choices for ourselves during class based on those feelings. Simple vinyasa sequences like half sun salutations, usually repeated several times, also give everyone a chance to practice moving in that way with the breath.

Sometimes I offer gentle backbends (like cobra or sphinx) to open the chest and shoulders, and gentle forward bends (like child's form or standing forward fold). But as an Exhale to Inhale teacher, I generally would not teach camel—which can be scary and panic-triggering, even for students without a trauma history. As with any yoga class, there is also always that real-time read of the room: How are my students responding? Should I adapt my sequence to fit their needs today? Should we skip a certain part of it?

We include child’s form (pose) but we don’t say that this is a relaxing form because it may not be relaxing for the student—it may make them feel vulnerable since they don’t know what’s going on around them. Instead, I give them options: to sit in a cross-legged form, or to do something else that’s more comfortable for them. Alternate nostril breathing can also be triggering because it can feel very suffocating and scary, so I avoid that as well.

A principle of Exhale to Inhale’s training is to always give our students choices. As teachers, we want them to feel empowered in their bodies and in control of their bodies. We don't want them to feel forced to do anything, or re-traumatized. For example, rather than telling a student to do something, we will often say “if you want to,” or “if it works for you.”

Even in the way we set up the room, we try to make students feel safe. I set out their mats, and they can choose where they want to practice. The mats are all oriented toward the door so that everyone can see it and no one feels trapped. I keep the lights on. I don’t play music, which is another important thing to consider (because music can trigger memories).

As a teacher, I stay on my mat the whole time. There are no adjustments. I don’t go near the students and I don’t touch them. This can be hard because I might see something that I want to adjust, but instead I have to be very clear in my cueing. Also, we aren’t doing anything that is really high-risk (such as deep backbends, inversions, arm balances, or anything that might take a student beyond their current level of strength and flexibility). If I notice that one person is doing something that could be unsafe, I make a general statement to the class. You never single anyone out, like, “Hey, you over there, your knee is past your ankle”; instead I would say, “Let’s all check our knee and make sure it isn’t going beyond our ankle.”

As a teacher, I stay on my mat the whole time. There are no adjustments. I don’t go near the students and I don’t touch them.

And safety is a big concern. Some of these women may have restraining orders against someone who is looking for them. Because their security is always important, I do not publicize the times at which I teach, nor the places where my classes are held.

As for props, we do use blocks, blankets, and the wall, but we do not use straps because they can be triggering. Some students may have been tied up or strangled, or abused with belts, and straps can trigger memories of this.

How about silence? How do you manage it in a trauma-informed yoga class?

I talk throughout the poses and there are only short silences. I guide students through the beginning, middle, and end of every pose. For example, I would say, “We are in warrior I right now [beginning] and we will be here for five breaths. You can come out at any time. Okay, two more breaths [middle] and then, when you are ready, come out of the pose [end].” I lay out the path, so I do a lot of talking and narrating in class so there aren’t any elements of surprise. I tell the students if I’m getting off of my mat to adjust the lights or close the door. I always announce my actions.

The exception is savasana (which we call “resting form”) where there are three minutes of silence. I always tell them how long it will be so that no one has to wonder how long they will be there. They never have to close their eyes.

What are the requirements to work with this population? How long did it take before you were able to lead your first class?

My path was a little different because I did Exhale to Inhale’s trauma-informed teacher training, but in my state there is also a state-mandated training for anyone who is going to work with people in the domestic violence shelters. Not all states require this, but I found it tremendously helpful. The training is for those who will become Domestic Violence Crisis Center volunteers—it is the same training someone would take if they were going to staff the hotlines or volunteer in the shelters in other ways. I was the only one there who was a yoga teacher. The crisis center training itself can be very intense. It shows the reality of a problem that many people are kind of aware of but never really delve into. It’s the kind of thing that becomes more horrifying the more you learn about it. So that can be hard in itself.

There was a lag time between the two trainings, but I wanted to stay active with Exhale to Inhale, so I volunteered with them before I began teaching. I have a background in social media content and marketing, so I did volunteer work on their Facebook and Twitter accounts for a while. That was my way of getting involved.

Do you have support when you teach—from people who work at the shelters, or an assistant yoga teacher?

Usually, it’s just me in the room. There are also staffers who participate in class. Some classes do have support. There are professionals in the building who can assist in case of an emergency. Some students may become triggered or traumatized in class, and you have to know how to deal with that. You continue creating a calm environment. And oftentimes there is someone from the shelter present in the building, so you can always call them or bring them in if a situation seems to threaten the class.

As an Exhale to Inhale teacher, there is ongoing training, mostly online, though it is optional. We have a Facebook group we can use to bounce ideas off of each other and share our experiences. Exhale to Inhale provides a lot of support. They also do a background check.

How many women typically attend class? Do the same women come to your class week after week? How long is the class?

Class size ranges from two to ten women. It’s a small room, so we can’t hold too many more. Also, in a large class it can be hard to read the room emotionally, and you wouldn’t be able to watch them all as clearly. We have regulars. Yoga is always a choice, so no one is required to come to class. You also have to keep in mind that many students are in transient circumstances, so although there are quite a few regulars, students come and go. Child care and transportation are also major factors that inhibit people from coming to class.

Other than avoiding the word “pose,” as we’ve discussed, what other common yoga language do you steer away from?

We also avoid Sanskrit in order to make yoga more accessible and down-to-earth. We don’t want them to feel it’s not right for them. For example, we say “resting form” instead of savasana.

We also don’t say things that could sound suggestive, like “thrust the hips” or “claw at the mat”—anything that might sound violent or bring back bad memories for someone who was assaulted or abused. We also don’t say “let go” or “relax,” which can be one of the worst things to say to someone who has experienced trauma. It can sound like a command, and often it stresses people out more—because there is a reason they are holding on and really can’t “let go.” It also compromises the goal of letting students have control over what they are doing.

Some yoga classes focus on a peak pose, an anatomical action, or a philosophical point. What would you say is the purpose for each class you teach?

To give students a space where they can regain a sense of agency in their own bodies, since at some point their body was used against their will and traumatized through domestic violence and abuse. To give them a space to breathe, practice, and learn how to ground themselves when they feel any range of emotions. To offer tools to help them get through difficult times.

You need the physical practice in order to get them to the mental state of feeling safer. Trauma survivors are often hypervigilant and sensitive, feeling that they don’t have control, or are disconnected. They can also feel like they are floating. We do a lot of grounding as a main theme, because across the board it can help with all of the fight, flight, and freeze states. Another purpose of the class is to focus on awareness and noticing sensations—deciphering between our thoughts and what is actually going on. I invite my students to notice what is happening and respond to what is happening in a way that isn’t fearful and that doesn’t send them off into a negative spiral. So awareness and grounding are recurring themes.

Do you have any advice for yoga teachers who would like to follow a similar path as yours, in working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse?

I think what all yoga teachers could do is to remember that these specialized classes include only a small percentage of survivors, and that it’s very likely that people who have experienced violence and abuse are in their regular classes and they just don’t know it. Many yoga teachers are already teaching survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, and those who experience PTSD from childhood trauma, war, or mass shootings. I’d ask current teachers to be mindful of some of the trauma-informed yoga principles and to see how they can weave some into their classes. One thing I’ve seen recently are the chips that students can place on their mat to give the student the power to choose whether or not they want to be adjusted. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in learning more.

My advice for those who would want to follow a path similar to mine is to keep in mind that the environment you will be teaching in may not be what you are used to. You have to be prepared for scary and disturbing things to occur while you are teaching and while you are in training.

The work has an impact but it isn’t necessarily an impact that you are going to see. It’s not as if a student will approach you, hug you, and say “I’m no longer traumatized,” but you will be making a profound impact, whether you realize it or not.

It’s important to have appropriate expectations. Trauma is complex, lifelong, and often severe. Yoga is not single-handedly going to heal everything. Remember your role, that you are a yoga teacher, that you cannot be their therapist. And remember that you, as a teacher, need to know when to back off, avoid burnout, and learn self-care. You need to draw boundaries, and this might mean recommending other resources to a student, like seeking the guidance of a counselor, therapist, or whatever particular services may be helpful for them. Yoga is just one tool among many that they can use for their healing.

Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience working for Exhale to Inhale?

You can hold a fundraising class for Exhale to Inhale under their campaign, “Move for Meaning.” This is not just for yoga classes but any sort of fitness classes, like Zumba or Spinning. Exhale to Inhale provides promotional materials—contact the organization and they will provide them anytime. 

On their website, you can also find their application to volunteer and teach.

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