In my previous post, I wrote about meditation generally being unsuitable for traumatised people. There was quite a reaction to this, it was shared on facebook, but on my page you can see some of the comments.
As a yoga teacher, what can you do about trauma? You don't know when someone comes to your class what their background is. Unless, of course, they let you know, and I'm quite sure that most will not let the teacher know. After all, yoga was not originally about healing, it was about the internal journey to enlightenment. And the guidelines for personal and society behaviour and attitudes to get there. But now, so many want yoga to be a panacea to cure everything.
These days, I am quite clear about my role in any class that I take. I teach deeply spiritual yoga, and am quite uncompromising about it. For a 'yoga therapy' situation, these days, I do privates. I have 'done my time', in the past, for many years, teaching yoga 'for back backs'; natal yoga; yoga 'for stress relief''; yoga after dramatic operations; yoga 'for mental health' - and this was always done working in co-operation with the appropriate organisations.
And I have so much respect for people who have taken their yoga knowledge into 'difficult' areas, such as the new style of teaching yoga for traumatised people. I personally have not used this style, so I can't comment on it properly, just yet.
In New Zealand, Yoga Education In Prisons Trust has done groundbreaking work, their facebook site is here. I had stopped doing community work with yoga, and so chose not to work in the prisons, as I do community work in a Maori Healing clinic Te Maurea instead. (One can only do so much!!) However, I do know some of the people who did donate their time, and I also know and respect the person who wrote an amazing book on how to teach yoga in prisons. After all, different situations need different methods and solutions.
Personally, I have 'cried me a river' over the years with the breakthroughs that came for individuals in teaching in the severe mental health domain. And I'm sure that many others have too! I know that yoga recommends detachment, or as we say in the Maori healing, 'being in a neutral place', with the Higher Consciousness, Heart, and also our gut feelings, being aligned. Such a tall order!! Yoga, I found, lead me to care even more deeply about people. Even as I write this, a tears are falling as I remember some of the people whom I taught in the mental health arena. I am so privileged to have done that sort of teaching.
It is so important as a yoga teacher to 'give back' to society. It stops us from thinking that we are so great and special. This type of thinking is one of the biggest traps in spirituality.
In the early 1970s, I was so lucky to learn Yoga for the Relief of Breathing Problems by Dr Swami Gitananda. His style of yoga is now known as Gitananda Yoga and his successor Dr Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, who is is son, has carried on the work of Gitananda Yoga, and is involved with much Yoga and research, particularly in the medical field, and as a therapeutic mode. In fact, Ananda Ashram, where he lives, teaches a Yoga Chikitsa (yoga therapy) course. I can honestly say that what I learnt from Swami Gitananda, has stayed with me since I first learnt it. And this is the organisation that I personally vouch for.
So, what are some easy suggestions for dealing with trauma in a yoga student?
Encourage them first and foremost to get some form of therapy such as counselling. In New Zealand, we are lucky that many can get this free. Unless trained in counselling, a yoga teacher is not a counsellor!!!! I am appalled at the number of teachers who 'treat' people with yoga, rather than saying that they will teach yoga.. but...that the client must go elsewhere for some form of therapy, as well.
Eyes open as much as possible in a class!! A person can even do body awareness and listening to outside sounds, with the eyes open. Body awareness, being aware of the sensations of the body, helps a person reconnect to the body. In trauma, there is often disassociation between head and body, between heart and body, between heart and heart, between gut and head. This reconnection is an important part of any healing. With trauma, a person's body can be quite numb. As can emotions which generally have accompanying physical sensations. It is quite difficult to reconnect with these physical manifestations of emotions, but learning, bit by bit, about how one's own body feels, is an important aspect in yoga for those who have had trauma.
Listening to outside sounds builds up the nervous system. Trauma can frazzle our nervous systems, from being on hyper-alert due to trauma. Building up the nervous system by listening to outside sounds (as opposed to the sounds in our head, chitter chatter), makes a person less jumpy and less irritable.
Ask people to do the poses. Get out of the telling people what to do, habit. It will help the teacher's own ego stay in a good place, and is less threatening to the client.
Do the poses alongside your clients. Never in front of them. A friend says to all be in a circle, practising together. I like this.
Focus on one's body rather than do the yoga-moving-with-the-breath thing.
No matter what the mental and/or emotional state of your client, treat them with respect! This is so important. Treat them as though they are perfectly fine. Because, with some of the trauma that some people have lived through, they are bloody legends for just being the way that they are.
Don't go holding poses if it causes panic. Panic can manifest has being distressed, overheating... a myriad of ways.
Pranayama can be a tricky area. I found, personally (meaning me) that no pranayama in the world helped me in my darkest days. But that's just me. Sometimes the dark energy engulfs a person and we each need to find out what serves us best. For me, it has been the Maori healing, another modality from the mists of time. Personally I have seen bhastrika being just too much for the odd person who only has 1st world problems, so imagine how it is for someone dealing with trauma! I would focus on just doing poses first, then focus on the body in the movements, then at the appropriate time, if ever it happens that way, add the breath. Pranayama and trauma is almost a book in itself. I would rely on cat poses as the pranayama first (thank you, Dr Swami Gitananda)
Learn to watch people. Not for the criticism aspect, but just by watching you will see problems, and you will see people progressing, just by the way they walk, what they wear, their smiles.
Believe in the impossible. I recall a former ballet dancer, some years ago, who came to a yoga class each week. Everyone in that class was heavily sedated, and was in the mental health system. This lady could not do anything and didn't want to (which I was okay with). She appeared to be 'numb.' Eventually she started to smile at me. One day she forgot to bring her medications and somehow between us both, she managed to stay calm whilst I took the class. I didn't see her again for a few months. Then she turned up one day to say hello. She had a new hairdo, some make-up, was dressed nicely and was glowing. She was not the same lady who had been in that class, she had changed. It was worth doing that very difficult class each week, just for seeing this lovely lady progress, even if she had just sat there, and at times walked around.
Let your own heart flow. The radiations from our heart affect others, so positively. I can assure you that just writing this post, my heart feels so full!!