Trauma-informed yoga is slowly becoming more mainstream. As more research becomes available to show the impacts of trauma, people are beginning to gain a better understanding of the topic. One evidence-based method of working with trauma is yoga, but not all yoga is trauma-informed. In fact, many yoga studios are not trauma-informed or even aware of what that means. Luckily, it does not have to be super complicated or expensive to start turning your yoga studio into one that is trauma-informed. Here are six tips that you can start implementing in your studio today.
1. Have friendly greeters.
We are all born with the instinct to survive. In an attempt to keep us safe, our nervous systems are constantly scanning for danger. When a threat is detected, our brains either trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which is commonly referred to as “fight or flight,” or the dorsal vagal pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the less well-known “freeze” part of the nervous system.
When the fight-or-flight response is activated, stress hormones are released, major functions of homeostasis like digestion are stalled so blood can rush to the extremities to prepare to fight or flee from danger, and the functioning of our rational brain disengages. When the freeze response is activated, the body is immobilized and the brain dissociates. Experiencing trauma shifts the way your nervous system interprets the world. A nervous system that has experienced trauma focuses more carefully on potential threats, sometimes causing an individual to misread social interactions and trigger one of these stress responses.
A student’s experience begins as soon as they walk into the studio. Being greeted with a warm smile and clear instructions is not only good for business, it helps others activate the social engagement part of their nervous system instead of being in fight-or-flight mode when they come into a new space.
Make sure that the employees at your front desk consistently greet everyone with a friendly hello, smile, and offer of assistance. This is especially important for people who are new to yoga, don’t know about studio norms, or just aren’t familiar with the space. Make stellar customer service a part of your studio culture.
2. Be scent-free.
Some yoga studios have an oil diffuser on in their lobby to set the ambience. As pleasing to some as this may be, certain scents can be associated with a traumatic event for people. Because there is no way to tell what scent might trigger another person, staying away from them altogether is the safest bet.
3. Create a consent culture.
Hands-on adjustments are a common practice in yoga classes. Teachers use adjustments to help students get into safe alignment, go deeper, or “perfect” an asana, or posture. Some teachers ask for consent, many do not.
Touching someone else’s body without consent in any setting can be very harmful. It strips the person of their autonomy and invades their privacy. For someone who has experienced trauma, especially sexual or physical abuse, having their body touched without consent can be extremely triggering, activating their stress response (fight/flight or freeze) or causing them to have traumatic flashbacks.
Some people are comfortable telling a teacher in the moment to stop touching their body, but the reality is many are not, and they shouldn’t have to be. In a yoga class, the yoga teacher is the authority in the room. Standing up to an authority figure and asserting your autonomy can be very challenging and frightening. Not only can touching without consent make someone’s body feel unsafe, it can trigger feelings of unworthiness and insecurity.
To alleviate this, a new practice that some studios have implemented is “consent coins.” The coins are kept in the lobby of the studio for students to pick up and drop off before and after class. If they have a coin at the front of the mat, that means they do not want hands-on adjustments during that class. Some studios have coins that are green on one side and red on the other in case a student changes their mind about adjustments during the class.
If you can’t afford to bring coins to your studio, simply informing your teachers of the importance of consent and encouraging them to request consent before every hands-on adjustment is a good practice. Another suggestion is to allow students to place any coin of their own at the front of the mat if they do not want hands-on adjustments.
The only challenge with the consent coins is they put the onus on the students to expose themselves in a way that some may not be comfortable. If you’re the only student in a class with a coin at the front of your mat, you may feel as though something is wrong with you and now everyone else knows. Maintaining the privacy of your students’ experiences is of the utmost importance. So while this is a viable option, one should consider the drawbacks it could have for students as well.
To provide more privacy, teachers can offer students the option to opt-in to hands-on adjustments at the beginning of each class. For example, students can be prompted to flip over one hand if they are open to hands-on adjustments. If teachers ask students to opt-in while they are in a pose where they are not looking at each other, like savasana perhaps, everyone’s choice can be kept completely private.
I personally think teachers should ask every time they want to give a hands-on adjustment to a student, whether there is a consent coin present or not. A student may think they are okay with a hands-on adjustment then receive one and change their mind. Some may be okay with it but need a warning before they’re suddenly touched or just want to know where they’re being touched and why. Another student may be okay with hands-on adjustments only in certain postures and on certain places on their body. Yet another may be okay with hands-on adjustments at one point in the class but then get overwhelmed if a teacher continues to come back to them to make more hands-on adjustments.
The point is, we never know when someone is okay with a teacher touching their body. Just because they are in a yoga class does not mean we should assume. Yes, teachers often do develop close relationships with students, but asking for consent takes two seconds, and if a student does not feel the need for you to ask for consent, they can let you know that.
4. Have all-gender restrooms available.
Restroom assignment is a privilege that cisgender people often take for granted. Transgender and gender nonconforming people have been met with great violence and opposition. For them, entering a gender-specific bathroom can be an especially precarious situation.
Bathrooms are isolated spaces that are sometimes the site of transphobic attacks on individuals in the trans community. Some trans people have even had the police called on them for simply trying to use the restroom. All humans should be able to use lavatories in peace. Having all-gender restrooms available for your clients makes it possible for transgender and gender nonconforming people to use the restroom in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.
5. Offer a trauma-informed yoga workshop for students and teachers periodically.
To better inform the students who attend your studio and the teachers who work for your studio about trauma-informed practices, bring in a trauma-informed yoga teacher to host a workshop from time to time.
Through working with different studios, I’ve found that many people are interested in learning more about their own neurobiology. Trauma’s impact on the human population stretches far and wide, and touches virtually every community in our society. It’s something that many of us experience whether we know it or not.
Several studies have demonstrated that yoga is a viable tool for working with trauma, but most of that information stays within those studies and the trauma centers where the research was done. Workshops provide everyday people an opportunity to learn more about the human brain, the stress response, different kinds of trauma, and how yoga can be used as a means of working with trauma.
Not only is learning about trauma healing within the context of yoga beneficial, it can be applied to every aspect of a person’s life. People can take the skills they learn on the mat and apply them to how they interact with their families, their decision-making processes in business, or their responses to triggers in general.
6. Provide more opportunities for yoga teachers to learn trauma-informed practices.
Currently, 200-hour yoga teacher trainings are not required to include anything about trauma in their curricula. Many studios offer yoga teacher trainings several times a year, so studios are pumping out new teachers at a very high rate without educating them on how their teaching can impact others emotionally.
Teachers are in a very powerful position in yoga classes, and unfortunately, if they are not trauma-informed, they are likely to cause harm. People who have experienced trauma are not a small segment of the population, and it’s not possible to identify them simply by looking at them. Equipping yoga teachers with knowledge about how trauma impacts the brain and body, how yoga can be used as a tool for healing, and how yoga can actually cause harm helps them be better teachers for their students.
The first yama in the eight limbs of yoga is ahimsa, which is Sanskrit for “Do no harm.” It is difficult for teachers to truly practice and teach ahimsa if they are not educated about the ways they can cause harm to their students. Studios do a disservice to yoga teachers and students alike when they leave this valuable topic out of yoga teacher trainings and fail to offer separate trauma-informed trainings for continuing education credits.
Yoga studios have the potential to be safe spaces for all, where healing and transformation takes place, but if we do not consider the experiences of others, we are at risk of doing more harm than good. Spiritually bypassing or otherwise ignoring the realities of the world when we step into a yoga class is irresponsible and insensitive. Making adjustments in our practices, mindsets, and physical spaces is the humane thing to do. Taking time to educate ourselves and our peers can start to open the doors for yoga that is more accessible, inclusive, and focused on healing. Implementing these six changes can begin the process of making yoga studios places where ahimsa is truly embodied.