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’s 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.
Trauma-informed environment. More broadly, there is a different use of music, props, lighting, and room set up than in a “regular” yoga class. Use of a strap is optional or even not offered, as it could be triggering for students who might have been bound or are working through recovery from drug use. The teacher tries to be where students can see them to avoid the feeling of being snuck up on, and sets up the room or mats so people can see the door…though once this is done, it’s up to students to choose where they set up rather than being directing them to move. Turning the lights out all the way could be avoided, or if that is the plan, the teacher could tell students before turning lights off.
Often less vigorous than public yoga studio classes. Students in trauma informed classes are sometimes newer to yoga or may just have physical constraints that are rarer to studio student. For instance, at a drop-in homeless shelter, people may actually be sleeping quite uncomfrotably outdoors or on the ground or may be wearing jeans because that is all they have.
Often less focus on spiritual aspects of yoga and/or themes than in a public setting. My view: sometimes themes can come across as advice-giving much like a therapist would do. I don’t think this sort of theming is bad, and it’s pretty well-established and expected in some public yoga class settings. Since my expertise is limited to yoga, I’m very cautious about bringing in themes or quotes that appear to give therapy-like advice in settings outside of yoga studios. What can sound pleasant and benign to oner person may also come across as very judgemental to someone in very different circumstances.
Of course I also think instructors should teach what is authentic to them! There is not always one right way to do things. Students and trauma survivors are resilient and just as anyone else can hold space for instructors who approach the work with good intentions and are not perfect.
Do you have other points to add? Let me know in the comment section below!
Also published in Chicago Area Yoga.