Simple Ways to Teach Ashtanga Yoga with a Trauma-Informed Lens

There are many reasons you may choose to teach Ashtanga from a trauma-informed lens. The stories of sexual assault regarding the father of Ashtanga Yoga, Pattabhi Jois, has left many in the Ashtanga community confused, angry, sad, and questioning the safety of continuing to practice within the Ashtanga community. While some are still asking for the lineage to be reshaped by the Jois family, the process of healing has largely been in the hands of individual teachers, students and communities.   

For all those who have experienced the power of Ashtanga to help with addiction and trauma, bring health to the body, release suffering and awaken the spirit,  Ashtanga is worth saving.  Ashtanga can be reconnected to the roots of yoga where non-harming is the key component of an 8 limbed system that leads to freedom.  Trauma-informed teaching can help the community heal and prevent some of the problematic behaviors that create environments where abhorrent behaviors thrive. Diversity and inclusivity is another reason to teach Ashtanga from a trauma-informed lens. The yoga community has been grappling with how to diversify practice spaces as they have realized that most yoga classes are filled with skinny, White, affluent women. 

Often when people of color are asked about why they don’t attend class, the answer is, “I don’t feel comfortable.” Some of this discomfort can be linked to trauma. From a young age, many Black people were taught that, if they are to survive, they have to act differently around White people. Even now, when unarmed Black people like Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake are murdered by cops, many White people ask, “What did they do wrong?”   However, when Dylann Roof, a White armed male, kills 9 Black people worshiping at church, the cops bring him in alive and take him to Burger King. People want to know about his troubled past because surely he has a good reason for killing innocent people. As a Black woman,  this society taught me that I had to constantly fight to show that I am one of the “good” Black people who can comply and fit into a society that centered White as inherently good and Black as inherently bad.

This dynamic doesn’t just stop when a Black person steps into a yoga class. A class full of White people tends to inherently be White centered. The languaging, the music, the jokes, the locations, the pose choices, the culture of the studio will continue to center White people.  For a POC, this can be triggering and continue the trauma that they deal with on a day to day basis. A trauma-informed framework, along with diversifying the space, being anti-racist, and taking a deep look at systemic oppression and its effects on POC, may help. The last reason, I will mention in this post, is that, as teachers, we are not involved in a student’s day to day life. We may or may not be aware of traumatizing events from the past or even from that morning. Operating from a trauma-informed framework acknowledges the shared human experience of pain and suffering. The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali says “suffering, that has not yet come, should be avoided.” The journey to healing belongs to the student. However, as the teacher, you can help mitigate, at least in our yoga space,  the suffering that has not yet come. 

A trauma-informed framework acknowledges that harm has been done and that the community and/or student is actively embarking on the process of recovery.  The teacher, through a relationship with their students and the community, learns the signs that a student may have been triggered or that community harm has happened and they respond immediately.  The teacher actively works against re-traumatizing the student or the community. 

Before we continue, let us define trauma. Trauma is a disturbing event that is so overwhelming that the person cannot cope with or integrate the feelings and emotions from the experience. It is important to understand that something can be fine for you but completely traumatic for someone else.  It is also important to understand that trauma is not limited to “big” experiences like war, sexual assault, or childhood abuse. It can happen in day to day interactions such as someone constantly hearing comments about their weight, a gay man being sneered at when he walks down the street, a Black person experiencing systemic racism, and off-color remarks about a woman’s body at the office water cooler.  It is not about how you would have felt in that situation, it is about how that person felt and how it affected them.

When someone tells you something traumatized them, it is not your job as the teacher to judge them. It is your job to help create an environment that is not re-traumatizing and allows them to comfortably practice yoga.  Lastly, have compassion for yourself. You will get it wrong sometimes. Acknowledge it, make amends, and come up with new and creative ways to work with students in the future. The list below is not exhaustive and only a starting point for creating a trauma-informed Ashtanga space for your students. 

Establish clear and transparent practices, policies, boundaries and procedures

When students know what to expect and what is expected from them and the reasoning behind the process, policies, and procedures, they feel safer.  Policies and procedures around reporting abuse, injury, racism, sexism, ageism, etc lets students know that you take these issues seriously which makes them feel safer and gives them a clear way of reporting violations and communicating when they feel harm has been done. This also prevents the culture of silence that happens when students, who are not the victim, protect the perpetrator and invalidate the victims. They are more likely to speak up, help, and support the members of the community that have been harmed. Gone are the days of Gurus playing mind games with students. Practices like withholding poses to “teach a lesson”  or leaving students guessing about why you did or didn’t give them a certain series is re-traumatizing.  

Give the student a voice through the offering of choice

Traumatic events usually involve a loss of agency.  The teacher can be a part of the process of helping a student find their voice and rediscovering trust in themselves and the world. The practice must be put in the hands of the student. This does not mean that the student does whatever they want with disregard for their own safety and the efficacy of the method.  Practice becomes a collaborative process where the student can slowly move towards elements that are effective at a speed and pace they are comfortable with. For example, for some students, closing their eyes makes them feel unsafe. It takes away their agency to see what is going on around them and to act accordingly. Instead of insisting that the student closes their eyes the first class, the teacher can, over time,  help the student feel comfortable and invite them to close their eyes as they feel safe.

Another example would be a pose that a student is visibly uncomfortable with. Say you ask a student, in a Mysore one-on-one setting, to do chaturanga and you can see their eyes start to dart around the room looking for an exit, their breath speeds up, they start wiping their sweaty palms on their shirt, and their speech patterns change. These are all signs that the student is being triggered. From a trauma-informed lens, the teacher may pause instruction and have an open, clear, and transparent conversation on what is coming up for the student and how they can help. They then give the student the choice of doing chaturanga or other options that will help them build the strength for chaturanga. As trust is built, the student may choose to give chaturanga a try.  In a guided class, the teacher can give some other options and discuss it with the student later.  

Another way to give choice is to announce, at the beginning of class, that students should feel free to make the adjustments they need. Talking with students before giving them the next pose or the next Ashtanga sequence, getting them involved in the process, and asking before adjusting or touching a student also gives them agency.

Avoid loud noises, a loud voice or tempo changes

The melodic, even tempo of a guided Ashtanga class is perfect for calming the nervous system. Avoid yelling at students from across the room.

Power with not power over

There is no teacher without a student and there is no student without a teacher. The teacher/student relationship is a shared nurturing experience. Yes, the teacher has more knowledge and experience with the subject but they are initiating the student into that same lineage of wisdom with the intent of giving them the same amount of power and agency. For example, if you stop at a gas station and ask the attendant for directions, you stop, listen and learn, not because they are better than you, but because they have the information you need. On a soul level, you are equals. The same is true for yoga. The student respects the process of transmission and that the teacher knows more than them on this one subject, but on a soul level, you are equals. 

The same is true with student-to-student relationships.  Teachers should avoid creating hierarchies within the classroom.  This one is tricky and requires some vigilance. It can show up as teachers spending more time with  “advanced students”, lots of fanfare when students accomplish something that a teacher considers “advanced” or using “advanced” students as models for what the poses should look like. It can also happen in reverse, spending lots of time with students because the teacher views them as less advanced and needing more help. Instead, a teacher might consider identifying the unique places where each and every student needs help and being attentive to the students when they arrive at that point in the practice. The students understand that the teacher is looking out for every student and helping them where they need it. It is clear and transparent. Also, helping a student in the same spot every day creates a consistency that trust can be built on. 

Another way to share power is through the placement of the teacher in the room. If the teacher is on a stage or standing over a student giving an assist or instruction, there is this sense of power over.  Even if a teacher is using the stage to be able to see everyone in the room, they should have times in the class where the students are invited to share space at the same level as the teacher. This could be walking up and down aisles or spending time with students at eye level before and after class.  If a teacher is having a conversation with a student in a floor pose, if possible, they should come to the floor or squat down and get close to the same level as the student. 

Stay in your lane

Unless you are a mental health professional, it is not your place to diagnose or provide treatment for trauma.  This seems intuitive but it can be tricky. Trying to treat trauma can show up in saying things like, “let it go”, “we are all one” “suck it up” and “do it anyway”. As teachers, our job is to help create an environment conducive to the process of yoga and healing. It is the students’ job to heal as they get ready and in a way that is right for them.  Be okay with the fact that some students are outside of your wheelhouse and you may not be the teacher for them.

Help Shanna Small raise money to help those in recovery from addiction, trauma, and systemic oppression. Please donate or purchase a t-shirt from her non-profit, Yoga For Recovery Foundation.

By Shanna Small

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Shanna Small is a writer and Yoga teacher who speaks to the intersectionality of Yoga and social justice.  She has practiced Ashtanga Yoga and studied the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois.  Shanna’s finds joy in making the Ashtanga practice accessible for all.  She studied with Amber Karnes and Dianne Bondy and is Yoga For All certified. She is a regular contributor for Yoga International, Omstars and the Ashtanga Dispatch.    She teaches diversity and inclusivity as well as accessibility trainings and workshops. She is a founding member of Yoga For Recovery Foundation, a non-profit that helps those recovering from addiction, trauma and systemic oppression.  For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.  Photo Credit: Wanda Koch Photography