Personal best practices for a community yoga service class

I've taught a few community classes in different settings and here tried to generalize about what seemed to work well. Obviously many factors vary from site to site, and some may be impossible to control. Please feel free to share your own experience setting up your own yoga service class and thoughts on this topic!

1. Independence of set up: My longest-running yoga service class happened very independently in a Chicago west side library. There was a security guard but the indoor space we used was unlocked, it was the same space each time, and under normal circumstances, I didn't need to check in with anyone to start class. It can be useful to have a single staff contact, but if the person isn't there regularly, and you need to interact with someone, it can be time consuming to communicate with a different person each time if they are unfamiliar with the arrangements.

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How does yoga help us heal?

A lot of us drawn to yoga have very personal perspectives on yoga's power to heal. My answer isn't exhaustive, but it's mine! And it touches on more objective things that can be offered to skeptics more easily than exclusively personal experience. Yoga is a great example of a physical practice that uses physical movement for a purpose ... but the physical practice isn't (or at least doesn't have to be) the goal of the practice. How can trauma-informed yoga help survivors heal?

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How to find a trauma informed yoga instructor for your organization

Mostly I write from the teacher's perspective, but if you work at a non-profit serving trauma survivors and would like to find a trauma informed yoga instructor for an ongoing class, what do you do?

Training for the teacher

The most obvious route to finding a yoga teacher may be to post an ad on Craigslist, or reach out at your local yoga studio, especially if you personally know and like a teacher. Trusting your gut is important, particularly if the teacher you know is also familiar with your clients and some common concerns, but most teachers do not receive training in trauma-informed yoga unless they seek it out.

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Requesting donated yoga mats

If you are teaching in a non-traditional location, you need yoga mats! Particularly if you are working with people who may not have or be able to afford their own mats. How can you get mats? Of course you can just purchase mats, but finding donated mats can be a nice way to re-purpose unused mats and of course to stretch your budget further.

  • Reach out to likely donors. Yoga studios often have piles of lost-and-never-claimed yoga mats that you could take off their hands and put to use. If you teach yoga, students may enjoy donating their mats when they purchase new ones if their mats will be used in yoga service. Reaching out in person will be nice, but my experience is that happening upon the person responsible for donating mats may be unlikely. Email is not a bad starting point.

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Invitational language

What is invitational language?

Invitational language is language that incorporates invitations and options rather than imperative style commands. In yoga, instructors might offer students options to choose from, or encourage students to notice how they feel and choose how to move (or be still) based on that.

Why use invitational language?

Particularly in a trauma informed context, making choices about how to move one's own body can help return a sense of control that is sometimes lost in trauma. In settings where people may be very new to yoga or to movement in general, it can also often feel more inclusive to have people choose between options rather than frame these as "modifications" of the "full expression". Ata very basic level, different things feel good or appropriate to different people, and when our focus is on alignment, we might lose sight of that as instructors. Invitational language is a way to offer guidance but guide people to do what feels best to their body, without guiding everyone to do exactly the same thing at the same time.

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What's the cost of trauma informed yoga training?

If you are looking into trauma informed yoga training, you are likely realizing that training to offer your services on a volunteer basis also costs money.

So what does it cost?

While many organizations offer yoga services to underserved groups at low cost or no cost, there is almost always a cost affiliated with the training. Most 3-5 day intensive trainings range from $300-500.

It can initially be disorienting to think of paying for a training so you can volunteer. Ultimately, you support the important work of these organizations by investing your funds to train. Many trauma informed teachers see it as a responsibility to get trained on trauma as one means to minimize the possibility of causing harm....it also makes sense to ask, "What's the cost of NOT getting training?" (Can yoga cause harm?)

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Setting up your own yoga service class

As a yoga instructor, where do you even start? The steps you take will  vary based on the location and community you plan to work with. Teaching yoga in a prison or jail, for instance, will involve a lot of red tape and bureaucracy... you may need a background check, a drug test, an orientation, and other things. Teaching at a non-profit where you already work for your full-time job might be much smoother.

These items are based on my own experience setting up and maintaining yoga classes in libraries, shelters, and other non-profits where I did not work. Certainly my administrative work with Yoga Activist informs my views too.

If you have other helpful tips, please comment below!

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How is trauma informed yoga different?

This is a big question, and one that can’t be answered fully in the short span of a blog post. There are books written on this topic and entire trainings devoted to it.

Similarly, just as most of us realize there really isn’t one standard “traditional yoga” taught in studios to compare trauma informed yoga to, there is also lots of diversity within trauma informed yoga. And plenty of teachers who perhaps have not had trauma informed yoga training are in fact sensitive and empathetic in their teaching.

Consider this post a basic introductory outline – and, of course, my own opinion! I’m not an authority - just a yoga instructor who has been interested and involved in this field for a while. 

Here’s some basic differences that apply to trauma informed yoga:

  • Fewer or no physical assists. Touch is powerful and could be triggering for those who have experienced trauma. If planning to offer physical assists, a trauma informed instructor will ask in advance.

  • Invitational language/more options given. Offering options can serve to return the sense of control over one’s own body that is often lost in trauma. “In your own time…”, “Fold/twist any amount.” “Stay here 5 more breaths or finish when you feel done.”, “…or…”, option to close eyes or lower gaze/let eyelids be heavy” (if people don’t want to close eyes); options for savasana.

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