The language of yoga Triggers, trauma and teaching

Too many of us have had painful experiences in some aspects of our lives that manifest in others in all sorts of ways, both expected and as a complete surprise. In the case of yoga, sometimes the verbal instructions teachers give in class with the best of intentions can make some students feel uncomfortable, because they can act as triggers. Touching for a well-intentioned hands on adjustment can activate a trauma flashback for a survivor, particularly if they are approached from behind.

I have been lucky in that while I have never been triggered in a class. I generally do my best to mind my language and be aware of students’ needs and things that may make them uncomfortable. While it was a little unnerving, it was really interesting to feel my own bodily reaction to reading this article. I sincerely hope that I have not triggered anyone in my classes. I do my very best to create a safe, welcoming, inclusive space for people to explore themselves. This is also why I ask my students how they are feeling on that specific that day. No two days are alike, so why should our needs on those days be unchanged? Triggers, sad events, memories and trauma are all very much a part of how and where we are day to day. So as a teacher I need to meet my students where they are, rather than where I think they should be or what my planned routine is. But how well I do this also means that need some help from my students.

I encourage you as a student, and my own students reading this, to communicate not only with your teacher, but also to communicate with yourself. And no, you don’t have to talk to yourself out loud! But if something doesn’t feel physically right or comfortable in a posture, or if you feel uncomfortable around a teacher, you are well within your rights to stop a pose, make your feelings known. There are times I’ve felt a tad guilty because I worry I’ve pushed my students in class to go beyond a threshold of discomfort and reach for a space of physical and mental growth. But if someone tells me they are uncomfortable for any reason, I will never ever ignore it.

I had a regular student one of my recent classes who had come back after a two month break. She was generally quite strong, but now she seemed to be struggling in a twist, “marychasana.” She really wanted to come out of the posture, her body was very tense and I could tell that she was very distressed. I reminded her to breath and settle in the pose. Isn’t it funny that when we are distressed for any reason, we forget something as simple, yet vital and restorative as breathing? Once she regained control of her breath, her body immediately relaxed and she even seemed calmer. After they class, she admitted she had forgotten to breathe! With calm breath and a little reassurance, she was even able to sit in the pose for a few more moments before gently releasing it. I can’t comment on whether there were triggers beyond the challenge of reminding the body what practice feels like, but it does make a simple point. No matter what is happening in your mind, body, heart, spirit, just begin with breathing and do your best to not be drawn into the spiral. Speak up and talk to your teacher - it’s your practice, your right.

Remember to breathe. Calm things down. Be aware of what you are feeling, observe it but try to avoid participating in it. Trust yourself, because you are the very best teacher you’ll ever have.