I had an experience in a yin yoga class recently that has me reflecting on the power I have as the teacher in a yoga class or the practitioner in a yoga therapy session. In this class, the well intended teacher, set us up for a wonderful hip opening session. She encouraged us to find our breath, even counting the inhalation and exhalation, and then she told us to settle in and find stillness. Notice I said told, not asked. This was a command. Be still. Her follow up language was something along the lines of “ I know you will be tempted to move as the pose gets hard, but remain still, find your breath, return to counting if that helps you, stay still.” I have probably used that cuing at some point in my teaching. It is what we are sometimes taught to say. The intention is to guide the student but what is the outcome?
In my experience that day, I felt as though every tiny adjustment I made was being watched, and often times after I made small adjustments, she would remind the entire class to resist the urge to move and to remain still in the pose. Movement, however tiny or exaggerated, can be a self-regulation technique. This teacher was completely unaware that I was on the verge of a panic attack feeling quite literally like her words were hands holding me face down on my mat. This may sound like a gross exaggeration but it was my experience. I couldn’t stay with any thought other than the need to move and feeling that I must not.
As a teacher I know I am personally in charge of my practice, my body, my mat experience, yet in that moment, my head knowledge did nothing to protect me from the triggering language so often used in by an abuser. Be still, stay silent, don’t move. These were not her words, but it was the message I received. Ultimately I survived the class, but the intention of relaxation and restoration was completely overridden by my fight or flight response.
So what are we as teachers to do? It is very unlikely that we will know what may trigger a student on any given day. Yet we can become aware that our language and position in the room creates a power dynamic. We can respect the authority we carry. We can learn how to use invitational language with our students and clients. This gives them choices. The choice to show up and really be in child’s pose or savasana the entire class. We can examine if we are really o.k. with the options we present. If we are not o.k. with a student taking a break mid vinyasa, and we feel the need to constantly push them through it, why would that be an option presented? The reason we present the option is because we want them to listen to their body. so they can connect with what they are personally needing in that moment. It may be the only time they ever check in with their own need, be it physical or emotional.
This is a new skill set and one that is covered in many trauma informed training programs. I would love to see all 200 yoga teacher training’s include a module on trauma informed strategies. While we as teachers will never be able to eliminate triggers in a yoga classroom setting we can minimize them. We can also trust that our students know what is best for them, even if it isn’t what is best according to our sequence plan on any given day. This is why in every URW’s 200 YTT there is a module on trauma informed awareness. It is so healing to hold space for a student to reclaim their power and watch as they test the waters and soon become their own advocate. We can trust that every single thing a student does in our classes, they do for good reason. They may not even be aware of the reason. Doing our own work and self reflecting around why some student behaviors are triggers that we react out of is a great place to start.
Have you given any thought to command language vs. invitational language? Have you ever had an experience where you felt forced into doing something your body, mind, or soul did not want to do in a class? I am continuing to bring mindfulness into my teaching language as I become more aware of the nature of trauma and how movement can be a way for a survivor of trauma to reclaim their personal power. The biggest distinction I have come to discover is we are all walking around with varying degrees of trauma. Living in a fallen world guarantees we will experience trauma. How do we create safe spaces for healing in the community using the modality of yoga? I would love to hear your feedback and experiences both as a teacher and student.
*** Shared with permission from CYA Master Trainer & CEP and Contributing writer, Jamie Cuffia. She is also the owner of [Uprooted] Replanted Wellness Studio and School. You can follow Jamie and more of her musings HERE