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How Trauma-Informed Yoga Practices Changed My Perspective on Teaching

Written by guest blogger, Leah K. Scott, Owner of m3 Yoga

This blog post comes from guest blogger, Leah K. Scott, yoga teacher and owner of m3 Yoga in Southampton, Bermuda. It is an excerpt from a reflection paper submitted for the Challenge to Change Trauma-Informed Yoga Practices to Promote Student Resiliency continuing education course.

After completing my first 200-hundred hour teacher training, and then signing up for a 300-hour Yoga Teacher Training, I knew that I wanted more knowledge about the application of yoga and mindfulness.

But I didn’t just want to teach traditional yoga. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I began researching yogic philosophies and how it can be applied to lives – beyond the pose.

I decided to take the Challenge to Change continuing education course, Trauma-Informed Yoga Practices to Promote Student Resiliency to help me with my prison yoga project. It was exactly what I was looking for...

You see, I am the mother of a freedom-challenged young man. I am also a woman of color in a high-level legal job. I began practicing yoga due to the stress I was experiencing from my job and my personal life.

My adrenal glands could not support the stress and trauma I was trying to manage, and I had to do something to bring myself into balance. I moved to the Seychelles in 2010 and when I arrived, I felt awful.

So, I went to a Chinese healer, who diagnosed me with adrenal gland fatigue, and told me I needed to start practicing yoga.

Seeking solace for my own trauma, I discovered the transformative power of yoga and began to gently unravel the knots of my past experiences...

Back then, trauma was not considered a “thing”. However, without yoga, I would not have been able to survive over the years. Having a child “in the system” is a challenge every day.

In 2018, I became interested in being certified as a yoga teacher, because I wanted to share the self-care that I learned with others. My teacher training journey opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many ways that yoga can address and heal the issues in my life and the lives of others.

Although I am not a traditional ‘classroom’ teacher, I am a yoga teacher and my classroom is wherever I teach yoga. What I enjoyed about the class was the way that the program was laid out. It was done in a way that was easy to understand and allowed for good group discussions.

I think that when we hear the word trauma, we believe that it must be a major catastrophic event to have a lasting impact on our lives, and it doesn’t. The way that trauma was broken down in class was by using the 3 Rs – realize, resilience and respond. We do not realize that while we think that we have mentally “sailed through a traumatic event”, it’s the body that keeps the score, as seen in Bessel van der Kolk‘s book of the same title.

I believe it’s important to understand how my traumas, privilege, and assumptions impact the way that I show up in my classroom or learning community and the role those play in the environment that I set up for my students. This is not something that I ever thought about before.

I am a “doer”. I feel like I must do things to make people feel better, even if it is at a cost to me. I now “realize” I am not the healer of someone else’s trauma. My role is to create an environment of safety and hope, facilitating a space where folks can work through their own traumas.

As teachers and educators, we play a role in setting up an environment that may be more conducive to healing and building resilience.

The 2nd “R”, resilience, taught me how our life experiences affect the development of our brain - the brain’s ability to maintain good functioning even in adversity. But toxic stress does have a negative effect on the brain and the body.

The impact of adverse childhood experiences and positive childhood experiences also has an impact on our brain, and how we see ourselves and the world. Each of us has a window of tolerance, and this concept helped me to understand what it means to be either hyper-aroused, or hypo-aroused, the consequences, and why we experience strong emotions in some situations.

The best description of trauma was demonstrated in Bessel Van der Kolk’s description in the video we had to watch. Van der Kolk said that trauma is about heartbreaking, gut wrenching feelings. It’s not about thoughts. It’s really about your body getting stuck in a state of sensations that are basically intolerable. I felt like this in 2012 when my son was incarcerated and in 2021 when my former partner ghosted me and then my mom died. And as Van der Kolk says, the need to reclaim your body is central to overcoming trauma.

It was fascinating to learn how the immune system is affected by trauma and how the body starts attacking itself. Van der Kolk says that yoga is important in helping to overcome trauma. Yoga helps people to safely experience their bodies, which makes it possible to feel things that they may be afraid to feel.

Trauma creates the desire to hide from what you feel and know, but yoga allows you to safely explore your body because you know that everything is going to come to an end. You just have to try it for a few breaths. Yoga allows a person to safely experience themselves. Yoga provides us with the courage to begin to face the sensations that trauma has created in our bodies.

Finally, we come to the third “R”, which is respond. How we respond to those who have suffered trauma is critical. Responding with compassion and kindness is key.

I learned that when teaching a class, whether in a schoolroom or in a studio, it’s important to be mindful of our students and the environment we create.

It’s important have a mindful approach to language, poses, music, and adjustments. One should always be cognizant of the fact that things that do not affect us can be a trigger for someone else, such as certain:

  • Words, such as “Relax. It’s okay.”

  • Types of music

  • Yoga positions:

    • Happy Baby

    • Downward Dog

    • Bridge

    • Prayer Hands

    • Hands Behind Back

There are other helpful ways to move that are not necessarily yoga. Dancing, walking, or stretching can all be incredibly healing. Our course instructor, Emily, did an exercise with us on orienting, grounding, and centering which I found it to be extremely useful. It’s amazing how much you can miss by not taking in your surroundings and what is going on around you.

Types of Breath Techniques

Breath exercises stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, help to lower stress levels, slow down the heart rate, and lower or stabilize blood pressure.

Accordingly, breath exercises are a useful tool to help people to manage their thoughts, moods, and experiences.

There are four categories of breath. This was something that I did not know!

  • Calming: these practices are intended to calm the mind and body

  • Concentration: in addition to calming the body, these practices also increase the concentration powers of the brain

  • Energizing: these practices awaken the body and the brain in ways that are safe and healthy

  • Partner Practices: Specifically designed to allow two people to connect and team-build in a calm and meaningful manner

Learning how to connect to the breath is key. Creating a safe environment while teaching with compassion and kindness helps to avoid re-traumatization.

It is important to note that while we may implement or teach different breath practices to achieve a specific energy outcome, we must allow our students to reach that conclusion on their own. We can invite them to pay attention to what’s happening in their bodies. It’s important to allow our students to feel and identify what they feel in their own bodies.

When guiding folks who have undergone trauma through meditation practice, I always offer options and make invitations – not instructions. Closing eyes is optional; lying down is optional; eye masks are optional. A safe environment is one that takes into consideration the students and allows them to be free and feel safe.

~ Leah K. Scott

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