I can *really* fold (and I'm a yoga hypocrite)

I have a great yoga student in a small, slower paced class who will ask one great, specific question each class - definitely not disruptive, just genuinely interested and engaged. And I invite people to ask questions. As it's such a small class, and in a gym setting not a studio, I do most of the practice with the students.

Last week, as we all did a wide legged forward fold, my student said, "How do I fold more? Like, I can fold a little but you...you really fold!" My reaction shocked me.

Immediately I felt proud. That's right, I thought, I really DO fold!

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Trauma Informed Yoga Workshop: What it's NOT

I've used all my word skills in the Eventbrite listing to describe what my trauma informed yoga workshop is about, but thought it would be helpful too to mention what isn't involved. I'll also point out that, while I do think there are a lot of commonalities in approach among the various trauma informed trainings I've taken and read about, there is no "one way". And similarly, while I most often do have a specific intention for doing what I do, and for not doing what I don't, none of the info below is meant to be a critique of how others approach this work.

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A Day In the Life of a Yoga Instructor (Me!)

A recent Thursday in my life

5:11 am

Wake up

Feed Flora the cat


Pack my bag with the food I prepared yesterday (yogurt to be eaten on the train; sandwich for lunch, frozen chickpea curry with rice for dinner, which will hopefully begin to de-thaw in my bag)

Make coffee

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How do you teach yoga without only teaching alignment?

My trauma informed yoga classes are largely made up of postures and breath. While I don't teach a lot of vigorous pose-to-pose sequences, I do incorporate simpler breath/movement coordination. I don't believe that achieving a certain alignment in yoga postures is the goal of yoga, even though my classes are mainly physical in nature. But how can you teach yoga postures in a way that isn't solely about alignment? For many yoga teachers, learning alignment is a huge part of teacher training, perhaps the main part.

In my trauma informed yoga classes, I'm not assisting, and I'm mostly doing the practice with students. I still give alignment cues, but the fact that I'm doing the poses too means my cues can be fewer and farther in between than if I were not. A long list of alignment cues can contribute to the idea that yoga is all about getting these poses right.

I also try to choose cues that speak to things other than physical alignment.

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What's the purpose of the yoga?

Both my public classes and my trauma-informed classes mainly focus on movement and breath. Power vinyasa is the branch of yoga that initially spoke the most to me, and while most of my trauma-informed yoga classes are considerably slower and gentler than a typical power vinyasa class, this is still the style that has been healing and invigorating to me.

As someone who is active almost every day, a vigorous yoga practice feels good to my body, and offers a tool to keep my mind engaged in the present moment. People who can benefit from yoga, including but not limited to trauma survivors, come in all different physical ability and experience levels, and some are no doubt turned off by a slow-paced or meditation-based yoga practice - perhaps even more so those dealing with trauma as introspection can be scary (for anyone, but all the more so if you've been through some bad times).

This doesn't mean I think those practices have no value, just that some people who can benefit from yoga more broadly will simply never do them. Plenty of instructors offer classes with little movement or primarily seated poses - there is room for all different modalities, including the ones that speak to me.

So if I'm teaching a largely physical practice, do I think achieving yoga postures is the goal of this practice? No! And this is true both in public classes and in trauma informed classes.

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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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