Author’s Note: This is an edited and updated version of part 3 of a 4-part series I wrote for Yoga Journal in November of 2016. As my teaching style has evolved through more experience and studio ownership, it seemed appropriate to revisit these articles, dust them off, and give them an update with a fresh perspective. In 2020, Covid-19 began to spread, changing the landscape across the world and opening the doors for discussion on mental health and trauma. Experts and new studies conclude that nearly every person on the planet has experienced trauma either first hand or indirectly.
5 Trauma-Sensitive Tips for Speaking to Your Yoga Students
By Daniel Sernicola
Originally published in Yoga Journal, December 2016. Updated in January 2022.
“The words you speak. Your tone of voice. Your inflection. These are all considerations,” says David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga.
“Trauma survivors are often attentive not only to what is said, but also to how it is expressed.” As teachers, we never know what may trigger someone. But being more aware that there is likely someone in the room who has experienced trauma and implementing some strategies that may help them feel more at ease could help encourage them to continue coming to class to experience the healing benefits of yoga. Plus, we can all benefit from a reminder to be more mindful with our speech.
“Using a slow, soothing tone of voice will help foster a calm atmosphere of healing,” Emerson says. He reminds us that, as teachers, “we are cultivating within our students the ability to slow down and to experience each moment in time.” Make a point of being clear, concise and slowing down when giving cues and instructions, so students can hear and understand what you’re asking of them. Students tend to emulate our behavior and energy levels. If I’m feeling calm and collected or high-strung and energetic, it’s reflected in my students. The tone and rhythm of your voice should include pauses and variety of inflection, being careful to avoid monotone cueing, which may cause students to stop listening or lose interest. Avoid rushing through poses. Rushing defeats the purpose of yoga since many come to slow down their choatic lives and destress. You may get to a point in class where you realize you are short on time. Let it go. Skipping a few poses is better than rushing.
Remind students they're in control.
Emerson recommends emphasizing words and phrases that invite the student to make the practice their own and remind them they’re in control of their own body—which is very important for trauma survivors. He suggests using language such as “notice,” “be curious,” “approach with interest,” “allow,” “experiment,” “feel,”and the like. “This promotes a mindful approach to yoga in which there is no right or wrong, just experimentation and curiosity,” he says. “We are working to build a sense of empowerment within our students over their own bodies and their own experiences. They are in control of making the ultimate decision about what feels right to them.“
Empower students with choice.
Emerson describes trauma as “an experience of having no choice,” whereas yoga practice offers “opportunities to have different physical experiences where one can make a variety of choices about what to do with the body.” You can emphasize choice in your languaging by reminding the student that if a pose is painful they can always stop and by providing options for various poses. Sage Rountree masterfully offers options while eliminating judgment with the phrasing “If you’d like to spice it up, do this…” or “If you’d like to make it sweeter, do this…” These phrases immediately remove judgement from the practice.
Choose your words with inclusivity in mind.
Use gender-neutral and inclusive language, avoiding statements such as, “this may be easier for men than women” or “men have tighter hamstrings.” Using those kind of terms automatically creates judgment and false perceptions in students’ minds. Our society has been conditioned to acknowledge two separate genders, male and female, which does not include the possibility that gender identity can be fluid and not fixed. By using inclusive terminology, the fluidity of gender identity unfolds in our student’s lives and barriers are broken down that can exclude gender-variant or transgender students. Try using the word, “they” in place of “he” or “she.” The use of masculine or feminine pronouns in teaching may confuse or offend some students. By using inclusive language, you’re letting each student know that they are valued and there’s a place for them in your classes. Do not assume your students' gender. It's perfectly fine to ask what pronoun they prefer. Yoga teachers often get stressed about using an incorrect pronoun. 9 times out of 10, if you apologize and ask for the correct pronoun, both the student and teacher can learn and move on from the incident.
Let go and laugh.
Having the ability to laugh at your own mistakes—whether they be in cueing, mirroring, or even falling out of a balance pose—will generally put students at ease and help them relate to you. This takes the pressure off of the students to make every pose perfect and encourages them to take the lens of judgment off themselves, inviting self-acceptance. I’ll never forget the time I was teaching a pose and fell out of it creating a “thud” on the studio floor. I laughed, my students laughed, and we continued on with the class. We face judgment in so many areas of our lives, yoga classes should not be one of them. Approaching yoga in a fun, lighthearted, and compassionate way will likely keep your students coming to class.