Anna Ferguson Robas: Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery
Discovering her mission to educate people with the most effective techniques and information to recover from trauma through yoga.
With a focus on restoring and promoting balance and well-being, Anna Ferguson teaches the profound practices of meditation, asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), yoga nidra (deep relaxation), and philosophy.
Anna has completed several yoga instructor training certifications that qualify her as an E-RYT 500, which means she has completed more than 2,100 hours of instruction. She is also a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). She also completed training in the Community Resiliency Model, created by the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, Massachusetts.
While continually researching the latest discoveries in neuroscience and yoga to create optimal practices for holistic healing, Anna teaches private sessions, small groups, and larger public classes.
This is a lengthy interview, and we covered a lot of profound subjects. For ease of navigation, I’ve divided it into the following parts.
- Building Her Yoga Foundation
- Discovering Her Mission
- Advice for Yoga Teachers
- Personal Practice & Study
Part I: Building Her Yoga Foundation
How did you get into yoga?
I was living in Boulder, Colorado, finishing my last year of college at around age twenty-two. I had an active lifestyle and was into swimming and fitness in general.
I’d heard of yoga, and it had become the hip thing to do in Boulder. But, instead of doing the typical thing and enrolling at a trendy studio, I went to the local community center and paid for a class series. An Indian man of small stature led the class, and all we did was Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations). I thought, “Why are we doing the same thing over and over?”
As a college student, I was stressed out and suffered from chronic migraines. I don’t think I’d ever inverted my head below my heart before going into that class. I walked out with what now I know was an endorphin high. I was a master swimmer and was familiar with highs from training, but this was something entirely different.
My neck stopped hurting, and my migraines started to diminish. I felt calm, relaxed, and realized I’d found something special. I knew I needed to pursue it further. And so I went to that class regularly. Over time, my neck felt better, and I was more limber while swimming.
It wasn’t a pretty yoga studio that you’d see in magazines with gorgeous wood flooring and designer yoga mats. We were in a utilitarian training room set up for wrestling, and the floor was covered with a thick, squishy material. This experience taught me that we don’t need a fancy studio, the latest gear, and specialized accessories to get the benefits of yoga. We just have to go and practice.
What happened after you graduated from college?
Yoga wove in and out of my life for a while. As I got into my practice, it would start to show me things. For many reasons, I’d then back away from the practice. Later I’d restart, go forward, and the cycle would repeat. This went on for the first few years of my practice.
I lived in a place called Sunset Island where we could do yoga on the docks and watch the dolphins swim around. There were lots of mosquitoes, so it was a bit of a trade-off, but worth it!
What was your first yoga teacher training course like?
In 2007, I moved up to Asheville, North Carolina, still working for Outward Bound, and knowing I had some internal work to do. As soon as I arrived there, I felt like this would be a good place for it.
At first, I lived at the base camp. Later, when I began working in the office, I started to attend classes. It wasn’t long before I signed up for a 200-hour yoga teacher training course at Asheville Yoga Center.
I got pretty sick around that time and had various other issues to deal with. I had to stop my training and later restart with a new group. It was challenging, but by that point, yoga had become my lifeline. It helped me make sense of the world and gave me a community to belong to.
What teacher has most strongly influenced you?
While my first 200-hours of training were terrific, I knew it wasn’t enough. I eventually enrolled in a 500-hour course taught by Kristine Kaoverii Weber of Subtle Yoga.
It’s no exaggeration to say that her system of breath, meditation, and mindful movement altered the shape of my life. It opened my eyes to a whole other side of yoga that I hadn’t experienced. Of course, I had been to classes that were slower, and more therapeutic but I wasn’t ready to get into it at that time. The program taught me a lot about not only myself but that there’s another quieter but extremely powerful approach to yoga.
I used to be into active and sweaty practices such as Ashtanga, and I still love them. All yoga is good yoga as long as you practice it while being mindful of your safety. However, I had an attitude of always having to be in motion and actively doing something. I asked myself, “What is balance? How do I balance myself?”
Kristine’s program was fifteen months long. For the first eight months, this slower and quieter approach to practice was very challenging for me, and I resisted it. I later realized that the discomfort I felt was caused by the process of integrating my mind, body, and emotions. It taught me a lot about the things I was really dealing with. That’s when yoga started my true healing.
A lot of healing can happen when we approach yoga in this slow, gentle, compassionate, caring, and methodical way. Yoga is in everything: even how we wash the dishes. It’s the experience of life. This perspective opened me up to the psychological, spiritual, and energetic aspects of yoga.
Part II: Discovering Her Mission
What inspired you to focus on teaching yoga for trauma?
I realized that I’d suffered enough physical and emotional trauma that it was almost like a message telling me that it was my purpose to study how yoga can help in the healing process.
I was trying to make meaning out of my own suffering. At the same time, I realized a lot of people could benefit from this knowledge, and I set about finding ways to bring it to people who would be open to receiving it.
By the time I started my own business, I’d been reading the market for a while and knew that there was a significant number of people who really needed this kind of offering. My family is entrepreneurial. My dad, sister, and brother have their own businesses. In fact, my father has started eleven different ventures over the years. So I wasn’t afraid to jump in and say this is something I need to offer.
Over the years, therapy and counseling had been extremely beneficial for me. I realized that I needed someone formally trained in those fields to back me up because I don’t know everything. I also knew I wasn’t at a point in my own healing where I could hold that space by myself.
At the right time, I met Becca Odom, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), an E-RYT 200, and shared my passion. We co-founded Sacred Roots Wellness, LLC and ever since have worked hard to bring quality experiences and information to those who need them.
What role does shame play in the stress people feel?
Often, when people go to yoga, they feel shame about their body, level of expertise, or the challenges they have. They worry about whether or not they can do a particular pose or complete X-number of sun salutations every day. They impose arbitrary rules such as, “I should do this.” Or, “I should go to this class.”
People need better coping mechanisms to deal with the craziness going on in the world today. They need a perspective that empowers them. It’s essential to value truth, living in reality, and not giving into cultural negativity, hate, or shame. We can literally shame ourselves to death.
Over time, I realized that a big part of my job as a yoga teacher is to help people let go of the “should’s” and guide people to ask themselves, “How can I foster feeling fully in the present moment and noticing what’s happening?”
How did you come to educate other professionals in trauma-informed teaching?
Most yoga teachers are not trained in the emotional aspect in the way therapists and counselors are. As a result, often the way we as yoga instructors teach is not trauma-sensitive.
If teachers knew the fundamentals of trauma-sensitive yoga and how it can help people be more resilient then we would serve a huge amount of the population that are turned off or intimidated by standard classes.
Of course, we can’t insulate people from life. But there are some basic concepts that, when brought into a classroom, allow for the broadest range of experience to happen in the safest possible way. Knowledge brings safety, safety brings openness, and then openness brings healing and growth.
After teaching trauma-sensitive classes for a while, Becca and I realized that to make it sustainable for us and reach as many people as possible was to offer training for professionals. If every yoga teacher who went through a 200-hour training course had a bit of trauma education, then we would elevate the profession. Instructors would better understand themselves and be better equipped to serve their students.
However, we didn’t only want to reach yoga teachers, but all professionals involved in wellness. By connecting with these stakeholders in the community, we could positively affect hundreds of people. And, by educating these professionals, it would eventually reach more vulnerable people such as those living on Medicaid or Medicare, refugees, veterans, and the homeless. We weren’t aware of anyone else offering this, so we worked to put together the information we had in a way that is easily digestible.
Part III: Advice for Yoga Teachers
What advice would you have for yoga teachers who want to become more trauma-aware?
Often people are drawn to this field after having experienced trauma themselves. They want to learn how it works and help more people.
Trauma awareness is becoming increasingly prevalent in yoga teacher training these days, but more so in advanced courses rather than foundational 200-hour ones. We’re definitely working on products to help people with that and make it more accessible.
It’s much easier now to get a basic informational understanding of what trauma is and how it can be treated. There are a growing number of excellent books and online resources available. Researching things like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and somatic experiencing can be helpful.
Then, beyond doing self-study, people can approach those professionals in their local communities who work with trauma and asking them for advice. One of the most educational things I did was to try a bunch of therapies. Once I experienced them, I had a sense of how they work.
This is something that we emphasize in our training. We shouldn’t offer therapies until we’ve felt them work in our own body. It’s essential to take the time to practice and experience what it feels like. This helps us have empathy and compassion for people when it doesn’t quite click, they’re not quite ready, or they don’t quite understand.
After yoga instructors have done some fundamental self-study and research, we’re here to offer more in-depth training specific to teaching yoga.
Do you have any advice for teachers who want to help their students recognize what’s going on?
As teachers, we can’t make someone ready to face a part of themselves. Everyone is unique, and so we must respect that the healing timeline is also different for everyone. We often find ourselves asking, “How can I help this person right now?” However, the answer may be that they’re not ready to be helped and instead, they need space.
Creating an atmosphere of permission and invitation is vital. Sometimes we have to do it to the point where it might feel awkward to an observer. I’ve been known to say over and over in my classes, “You can do what I say or not.” Some people would think, “Why are you saying that so much?” But I remember specific moments where I gave myself permission to not do something or to do something different, or in a different way. It was powerful for me. Getting that choice is one of the antidotes to trauma.
What happens with trauma is we get into “I must do what someone else tells me to do.” That feeling of not having choices is so prevalent that we forget that we often do have options. We need a balance between respecting our individuality and also being part of a group because we’re hardwired for connection.
The teacher needs to model that openness. For example, they can say, “Here’s what I have in mind. But I invite you to think about what you might want to do.” And to not rush through that part. I give several modifications so they can explore and find what works for them.
Also, emphasizing the lack of pain is essential. Yoga should not be stressful and should never hurt! In our training courses, we teach a check-in system. Zero is no pain, no stress. Ten is the most stress you’ve ever experienced. We aim for students’ yoga to be around a two.
We want to give the mind and body just a little stimulation — to be gently pushing forward. But if we force things, the ego is going to clamp down, and the body will resist, and we want to avoid that.
As a teacher serving people who have suffered trauma, I must give up my agenda and ego. I have to respect my students’ timeline. Then overemphasizing choice in a way that is methodical, respectful, and reminds them what invitation is.
Are there any specific teaching techniques that you can tell us about?
One of my favorite tools is to give a five or ten-minute portion within a class that is free practice time. Anything is OK as long as you respect yourself and the other people in the room. If you’re pushing yourself, are you respecting yourself? If you’re moaning or falling over on people, is that respecting others?
I ask, “What is your body calling you to do?” There are always people who sit there and give me a look that says, “Oh no, what am I supposed to do now?” But after people experience that just a couple of times they’ll go back to the pose that makes them feel most comfortable. Or, maybe they’ll push themselves a little bit that day. In any case, it’s obviously their own choice.
Everybody does something different during those ten minutes, which reveals just how unique yoga is to each person. It reminds me to be humble and realize that I’m leading people through this practice based on the experiences I’ve had and that they might not apply to everyone.
As teachers, we have to foster self-knowledge and remember that everyone has their own stuff going on. We can’t possibly be aware of other people’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual issues.
How do you approach pacing your classes?
It’s essential to slow down, and sometimes to pause, to let everyone sink into who they are. This has to be balanced with our need and want for the healing to happen right now. It’s definitely a challenge because we go in with a helping spirit, but we must respect that the healing and the help will come when they’re ready.
To come to healing, people need community, loving relationships, safety, knowledge, and understanding. It’s our job as yoga teachers to provide a space for people to just be who they are — no matter what that looks like that day.
For example, if you gave them Table Pose, Downward-facing Dog, and Child’s Pose, it might take a minute or so for everybody go through all three. Then you should pause and ask, “Which one felt the best for you today? Which one worked?” If they’re not sinking into their own thought processes, it’s likely because it’s been uncomfortable at some point. Or they’ve never been taught how to do it.
How do you avoid burnout as a yoga teacher?
First of all, I have a fantastic husband who reminds me when I forget to take care of myself. Also, if I’m feeling too worn out or stressed to be present for my family and friends, then I’m doing too much. That’s my first bellwether saying that I’ve got to back up a little bit.
I look at service as a balance. Respecting who you are and what your energetic needs have to come before work. This means it should be helpful to me as well as to others. This helps me figure out how I can spread out to fulfill the needs that I see. Part of not burning yourself out is saying no to some opportunities.
As a yoga teacher, you eventually learn to feel the energy of the room when you walk in. It’s a skill that comes from teaching thousands of classes. One way of visualizing it is that all the people on their mats are linked together, like computer chips, forming one supercomputer, and processing emotions in parallel. This helps me discern which is my energy and what belongs to others.
It’s also vital that we come into these experiences rested. Of course, it’s not always possible. Life happens. You can’t always come to class fifteen minutes early feeling perfectly rested and do all the things that you think you should be able to do. And that’s okay. What we have to offer that day might be different, but we do our best.
How important is a yoga teacher’s daily practice in this process?
We all run into people that trigger us more than others. We all run into situations and dynamics that are more difficult for us. That speaks to our unique trauma history, how we were raised, the perspective we had at the time, and the perspective we have now.
It’s crucial to have a daily practice so that you can learn who you are and be honest about what your abilities are. My daily practice lets me experience all aspects of myself, both the dark and the light.
This means that when I walk into a class, I have a better sense of which energies are mine and which aren’t. Then, when I deal with other people who have negative energy, I can be compassionate towards their suffering. Their energy might pass through me, and I can empathize, but I don’t have to take it on.
Are there some teachers who shouldn’t be offering trauma-sensitive classes?
It’s essential to know that there’s always something happening beneath the surface for people. I don’t know of any human who’s been through life without some kind of suffering. So when people come into a class labeled as “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga,” parts of their brain are activated, and the energy is different. They’re there to deal with their stuff.
If you, the teacher, are sensitive and easily triggered, it can feel heavy, sticky, intrusive, or even downright dangerous. When we’re just open, we can’t tell what energy is ours and what belongs to others. We just absorb it all, and that can be detrimental. Teachers like this aren’t ready to be labeling their class as “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga.” Instead, they should just teach in a trauma-sensitive way.
This means teaching a gentle class that offers invitation, choice, and a slower pace. Also, focusing on gratitude allows for the dark in a way that is tolerable for a lot of people. Always being told to look on the bright side can be detrimental because someone may be really feeling the dark side. But fostering gratitude is more tolerable because it’s real. For example, I’m grateful for when the sun shines — it’s something tangible.
It’s still doing good work. Then, as they strengthen through daily practice, self-care, and better understanding their boundaries, they can deal with some of the heavier stuff without taking it on.
How can yoga help us to let go of relationships that are no longer a good fit for us?
As we practice yoga, we gradually become more integrated, whole, and present. There’s a vibrational shift to understanding something more deeply, and we choose to start living our lives differently. Naturally, some relationships change and others fade away.
It’s painful to have people we love and care for that aren’t on this journey of self-inquiry. It often brings up things that people may not be comfortable talking about themselves. Or they don’t have the coping skills for.
We’re hardwired for connection, so anytime we break a connection that’s been meaningful to us, it’s difficult. I’ve experienced it myself. There are people who were with me on my journey who didn’t step through that next door. Maybe they weren’t ready at the time, or perhaps they never will be. This can bring up feelings of anger, frustration, and even unworthiness.
Sometimes, the only solution is to try to hold the other person in love and compassion because they’re doing their best, but we’re just not matching up at this point. The people that will change are usually those who are on this journey of self-discovery, open to personal feedback, or open to the fact that you need something different.
Not everyone wants to be on the journey that I’m on. Part of me fights that a bit because I know that if they just had the coping mechanisms, they would choose to go with me. But that’s the mysterious and uncontrollable part. I can’t make choices for other people. I can only be the best person that I can be and to continue to align myself with the things that I know work like honesty and being honest with myself.
By living according to these principles, we bring less suffering into our lives. That’s where the ethical guidelines outlined in yogic philosophy work really well.They are the Yamas (rules for “right living”) and the Niyamas (observances). They provide a template for asking questions such as, “Am I being content (Santosha)?” Or, “Am I being compassionate towards myself and others (Ahimsa)?”
They help me remember that just because someone’s choosing to go down another path, it doesn’t mean that I always have to chase after and rescue them. It’s hard because I want to help everybody. As we get older, we realize that not every relationship is right for us at this time.
Of course, there has to be a balance. There’s obviously lines that can be crossed. I’m not saying to accept all things from all people. However, we need to know our own stuff so that we don’t terminate friendships just because someone did or said something that bruised our ego.
How can we let go when somebody hurts us?
The practice of compassion has helped me get through more difficult times than anything else. Compassion for yourself and the other person, even though it’s hard, will get you through so many things. Wishing somebody peace, happiness, and safety helps unravel some of the resentment that might occur from someone doing something hurtful.
Doing a compassion practice before stuff happens is helpful. Giving compassion to yourself and the other person and realizing that everyone is trying the best they can. Sometimes we do the things that what will hurt people because we’re acting out of our survival instinct or ego.
Of course, there are people out there who intend to hurt other people. I don’t want to discount that. But most of the time, people are doing things without consciously thinking about how it’s affecting others. They’re trying to keep themselves safe emotionally, physically, or mentally. The constructions of the ego are deep and complex.
If I don’t understand my ego and what it’s driving me to do at any one time, it’s a fair bet that I’m going to hurt someone. This is why self-study is essential. I need to know myself and what I’m going through. While I can’t ever know everyone else’s stuff, I can understand that everyone else definitely has at least something they are dealing with. This helps in drawing healthy boundaries. I can be aware of another person’s suffering, have compassion, but not get sucked into it.
Part IV: Personal Practice & Study
What books would you recommend for yoga teachers curious to learn more?
Yoga is a vast field that has been around for thousands of years. So, I always ask myself, “OK, what can I learn about today?” Books continue to illuminate the experiences that I’ve had practicing yoga.
I enjoy reading books like The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. It’s regarded as one of the core texts for anyone who works in the field of trauma. He brings together breakthroughs in neuroscience, psychology, and body-centered therapies.
I recently read The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele. She talks about ethics found in yogic philosophy and how they can be applied in our yoga practice and daily life. I’m fascinated by how this wisdom can inform our physical experience here as humans. I’m amazed at how many levels of healing can be provided.
Another great read was Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown. She explains what shame resilience is and how it physically affects us. This connected a lot of dots for me.
What does your personal practice look like these days?
I’ve been to most of the studios in Asheville, where I’m based, on and off over the years. I’ve also taught at a lot of them. But my current daily practice is mostly at home. In addition to meditation and asana, I devote time to journaling. Writing is one of the ways that integration happens for me.
Nowadays, my practice is geared towards maintaining a sense of integration and clarity. This was a significant change from back when I started. Then it was about how hard I could work out. I still like that stuff, but over the years my mind and body have naturally oriented towards softer practices.
Everything that I teach comes from my personal practice. My meditations, writing, and reading give me a holistic view of how things fit into the picture. Through resilience training, I’ve learned that perception is key. So I’m always trying to work on understanding all levels of my own practice.
It’s going to sound cliche, but my yoga has evolved from a focus on ‘me’ to ‘we.’ The human element is what connects all of us in yoga. I am continually seeking to know how that is expressed in asana, meditation, and pranayama. My personal practice helps me understand how I can help others to experience and understand these things.