PThere are countless types of yoga out there. From traditional yoga styles as Ashtanga, Hatha or Vinyasa yoga, to Goat Yoga, Wine Yoga, and even Naked Yoga—teachers create their own styles to attract new students to their classes.
There’s a new style of yoga that is rapidly rising—trauma-informed yoga. I have seen a rise in teachers seeking to sell their trauma-informed methods and represent themselves as “trauma-informed yoga therapists.” As a yoga student and teacher, and someone who’s been through severe trauma, I have attended some of these classes, trainings, and read relevant literature to expand my knowledge. This combined my interest in psychology with my love of yoga. I have been looking more closely at what is ongoing in the West in regards to trauma-informed yoga and yoga therapy—and I am concerned.
What is Trauma-Informed Yoga?
What happens when we experience trauma
Trauma-informed yoga is important, as our body carries our past with it and stores in on a cellular level, sometimes activating trauma response without us even realizing it. Studies indicate that one in every two people has experienced trauma directly, with the other 50% of the population likely to have experienced it indirectly. When our bodies experience trauma, the sympathetic nervous system, the part of our body run by the amygdala and what generates our flight or flight response (sometimes referred to as our “lizard brain”), fires away, stimulating an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, increased muscle strength, increased capacity for breath, increased energy and decreased digestion and urination.
Ideally, once the threat is over, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and slows our heart rate, restores digestion, reduces blood pressure, and returns breathing to normal. When constantly triggered, the body continues to function primarily from the sympathetic instead of parasympathetic nervous system. This leads to a whole host of health issues, including things like immune suppression, muscle and bone mass loss, loss of insulin sensitivity, elevated blood lipids, heart disease, gastro-intestinal issues and even memory loss.
How trauma-informed yoga classes work
Trauma-informed yoga classes are designed to allow participants to regain control and choice as they are led through a gentle practice that assists them in syncing breath with movement. Trained teachers offer modifications for poses and guide students in a practice meant to create and hold space for each individual without expectation, judgment, or focus on precise alignment. If taught correctly by a trained and experienced instructor, it has tremendous benefits.
My life experiences led me through counseling, psycho- and hypnotherapy and educational psychology, I have taught yoga for about 6 years now. The more I learn and the more I teach, the more I recognize that I have much more to learn and there’s always room for improvements to make. In the world of yoga, there’s no such thing as graduating, as we do at university. It’s a never-ending learning process. That is why I am so concerned with the rapidity at which the trauma-informed movement is taking off and the rise of what seems to be new and inexperienced teachers delving into sometimes precarious territory, calling themselves “yoga therapists,” sometimes even without proper training.
The truth is that the trauma-informed yoga movement can be downright dangerous for both instructors and students who are not properly trained or lack adequate life experiences to enter into this type of work. With the explosion of yoga in the West, there seems to be yoga teacher training on every street corner, creating an influx of yoga instructors who want to share their love of yoga with others. Although their intentions are often noble, many are beginning to engage in practices they are not prepared to venture into.
For example, IAYT offers yoga therapy certifications; on its website, they list “8 Steps to Becoming a Certified Yoga Therapist.” The only formal training one must have to enroll in a certified yoga therapy program is a 200-hour or 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher Training program. (Side note: You can complete a 200-hour teacher training in three weeks, even online.) While the requirement makes the training accessible to those who may not have a psychological background from an accredited university or college, it opens up the field to those who may be under-qualified and unprepared to take on such heavy work.
Why I find the trauma-informed yoga movement potentially dangerous:
Lack of Education and Training
Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists spend many years in graduate and/or medical school learning about the human brain and the techniques required to work with people who experienced trauma. The brain and the way it works is complex. When people are suffering from complex trauma they are vulnerable, and teachers can unintentionally trigger an adverse reaction in a student. An unqualified and under-educated teacher can do more harm than good. Licensed counselors are trained in specific techniques and methods in order to help and not harm.
If you take a look at it from this perspective: if a 200-hour RYT began to advertise herself as a physical therapist, there would be legal and professional consequences, so why is playing with someone’s mental state different? We wouldn’t look kindly upon someone trespassing on the title of “Certified Physical Therapist,” yet it seems like no problem when it comes to the title of “Yoga Therapist,” without having any formal training.
Little to No Regulation
Yoga Alliance does not allow teachers to include their 500-hour Yoga Therapy Training on their website, and the reason for that is liability. They do understand that unqualified teachers causing harm could have serious ramifications. Yoga Alliance works in a honor system with any teacher or yoga school registering with them. There is currently no definitive accountability measure put in place to grade their registered schools or their teachers, and Yoga Alliance’s purpose has even come under fire by the Western yoga community as a money-making organization. Teachers self-report hours to earn E-RYT (Experienced-Registered Yoga Teacher) status, and there is no measure in place to ensure honesty in this endeavor. I know of teachers who have falsely reported hours simply to earn E-RYT status so they could lead 200-hour RYT training schools.
Not all yoga schools or yoga trainers are created equally. Some are better than others, and that also applies to yoga therapy training schools and their trainers. Some programs are simply out to make money with little regard for the quality of training offered. While the IAYT has worked to set standards for yoga therapy training schools, there is still no definitive regulation for calling oneself a yoga therapist.
Trauma-informed yoga and yoga therapy are partly about offering yoga as a tool to help alleviate the suffering of others, to share a technique to empower them. In our study of yoga, we delve into the path of Raja yoga. The key concepts behind trauma-informed yoga are karuna, or compassion for those who are suffering, and karma, selfless service without attachment to the outcome. As instructors, we should constantly assess our intention of our classes. If our intentions are coming from a place of ego, for example reaching some level of recognition, we need to pull back and take a break. Likewise, if someone “experimenting” with trauma-based yoga, teaching certain types before we are ready for them, or simply to add to our resume, then we may not be serving ourselves or others the best way we can.
I do believe that yoga instructors can benefit from the self-taught study of trauma-informed yoga and other specialized trainings to enhance their general practice. We never know who comes to our class, but as a teacher it is our responsibility to to cultivate the skill set that we need in order to serve others the best we can to ensure that we do not inflict harm when we are seeking to empower.
“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?’ Once you start approaching your body with curiosity, rather than with fear, everything shifts.” ~ Bessel van der Kolk
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