Author’s Note: This is an edited and updated version of part 2 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 Establish Safety, Trust and Boundaries in Your Yoga Class
By Daniel Sernicola
Originally published in Yoga Journal, November 2016. Updated in January 2022.
For some students, coming to yoga class can be a scary experience. David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, encourages yoga teachers to “pause and recognize how brave it is for your students to just show up in the room.” He encourages teachers to create a safe place for them to begin to befriend their bodies through the yoga practice free of judgment. “The focus is not on the external expression of the form but rather on the internal experience of the practitioner,” he says. Use these 5 strategies to help trauma survivors feel more comfortable.
Start gentle and encourage self-awareness.
Try incorporating gentle poses at the beginning of class and invite students to "tune in" to themselves. I start almost every class with students lying down. They are led through a small body scan awareness beginning at the feet, traveling to the arms, and back to the head. From there, they are invited to turn their eyes inward and begin to explore the mind then drop awareness into the heart. The prompts of inquiry questions are helpful here: Does your mind feel active or calm? Is your heart beating fast or slow? Does your heart feel heavy or light? When teaching beginners, make the class approachable and teach in a way that does not require students to need a break. Telling a student to go into child's pose to rest may make them feel embarrassed and judged because they can't keep up with the rest of the class.
Encourage students to make the practice their own.
"Teach cat-cow movements linked with breath at the beginning of class to provide an opportunity for students to find and honor their own rhythm", Emerson says. Letting students know that everyone in the class may have different movement and breath patterns eliminates judgment. Our job is not to get our students to do the perfect Instagram pose. First and foremost, we encourage students to feel good in their bodies. As teachers we can let go of the desire for perfection. When we accept our students as they are, our students accept themselves.
Provide hands-on adjustments only with permission - or not at all.
Emerson says there are the three types of touch in a yoga class: visual assists (when a teacher demonstrates or models the pose), verbal assists, and physical assists.
“For the yoga teacher to put her or his hands on a student is a serious decision that requires thoughtful deliberation,” he says, reminding teachers that many forms of trauma involve some sort of physical violence. My thoughts on adjustments have changed over the years. When this article was originally written in 2016, giving students permission cards to place at the front of their mat seemed like a great idea for empowering them to make the choice on whether or not they wanted adjustments. My experience has been that even with a choice, many trauma survivors have a desire to please their teachers and will often allow them to make adjustments - even when not welcomed. Adjustments should be used sparingly and mainly in advanced classes with students the teacher knows well and has an established relationship with. Even then, if using adjustments, teachers should let the student know they are approaching (i.e. "Behind you."). Then, ask the student if they want an adjustment each time BEFORE placing hands on them. As a general rule of thumb, avoid adjustments all together. Instead, choose to use verbal adjustments addressing the entire class and not the individual student. Even in this scenario, verbal adjustments should also be used sparingly. We can take this a step further with lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many students are already anxious about practicing yoga in person. Hands-on adjustments require that a teacher be in close proximity to a student and the student gets touched to be adjusted. The pandemic has taught us that many are uncomfortable with closeness and touch since both could not only traumatize more, but also make a person physically sick.
Establish consistency in your classes.
Emerson emphasizes keeping the format of classes similar since our duty as teachers is to “cultivate a safe, stable, predictable environment in which our students can have their own experience and then to do our best to support that.”
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.