Author’s Note: This is an edited and updated version of part 1 of a 5-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 Ways to Create a Safe Yoga Space for Trauma Survivors
By Daniel Sernicola
Originally published in Yoga Journal, November 2016. Updated in January 2022.
For yoga to heal, it is essential to be able to open up and be vulnerable on the mat. That’s why it’s important to consider the physical elements of the yoga environment to create a practice space that feels welcoming and safe to all students—and particularly trauma survivors. David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, recommends having the room set up before students arrive. Try these 5 trauma-sensitive tips before teaching your next class.
Adjust the lighting.
“If you have a choice between bright lights and very low lights, you go with the bright lights,” Emerson says. “Dark or dim rooms tend to be more triggering [for trauma survivors] than bright rooms.” At the beginning of class, it is encouraged to ask students what they prefer. At times, a dimly lit room can allow students to focus on their practice instead of worrying about being watched.
Emerson suggests windows should be covered somehow, not “open and exposed.” When working with traumatized youth at a youth facility, we cover the windows to limit as many outside distractions as possible and offer privacy so our youth are more present in their practice. We’ve found that our youth are more likely to pay attention and focus on their practice if they feel they have the privacy to be themselves. In the studio setting, our windows are frosted to allow light in and keep distractions out. What we don’t want to do is create an environment where a student feels extremely enclosed in the room. This can lead to feelings of claustrophobia. Instead of focusing on the class, students will be focused on the class end so they can find freedom.
Select music and sounds with care.
“Part of our yoga practice is expanding our awareness and refining our senses with a focus on what is harmonious. Sound plays an important part in this because it so profoundly impacts our nervous system,” writes Max Strom in A Life Worth Breathing. He adds, “To help bring harmony into our lives—meaning, first into our nervous systems—sound and noise must be considered an important factor.” Yoga teacher Jake Hays suggests listening closely to song lyrics before adding it to a playlist. “Avoid music containing words and phrases about death, break ups, violence, homophobia, and sexual or racial undertones,” he says. “Alternatively, look for genres of music that are ambient in tone and blend into the background.” He recommends sourcing non-top 40 hits through internet radio apps. When chosen with care, music can be an effective tool for connection. Music is not to be viewed as “bad” for yoga classes as it can help put some students at ease so they can benefit more from the practice.
Minimize outside noise.
Emerson recommends trying to minimize external noises. “The idea is to help your students stay grounded and in the present moment,” he says. “Some important symptoms of PTSD to understand in this regard are hypervigilance (being constantly on the alert for danger), an exaggerated startle response (being jumpy or easily startled), triggered responses (being reminded of the trauma), or flashbacks (feeling like the traumatic event is happening again). Dissociative flashback episodes can be triggered by noises similar to those present during a traumatic event.” Outside noises may not always be avoidable, though. In that case Emerson suggests naming the noises as they occur. For example, “That was a large truck that just went by.” In meditation we encourage students to notice thoughts, but not acknowledge or get carried away with these thoughts. This same methodology can be applied to outside noise. Students can be encouraged to hear it, recognize it, and not let it take them away from their practice.
Help make space for each student.
As students arrive to class, encourage them to find a comfortable space for their mat. When students are invited to make choices, it is empowers them. Some students may want to face a door or window as a way of knowing who is entering and exiting the room. Others may want to be in a corner providing them a full view of everything and everyone in the class. Some will prefer a front row space while others feel more comfortable in the back row. Our advice is to place your mat where you’ll be teaching and give students the autonomy to choose where to place theirs.