What’s “trauma-informed yoga” — and how can it help in*your* Saturday morning class?

There’s been lots of interest in trauma-informed yoga from subscribers to my newsletter, TalkStory, and as promised, below is the long version of my interview with advocate Zabie Yamasaki. I’ll occasionally be posting longer TalkStory interviews here on Medium. But to make sure you don’t miss hearing from a single one of the powerful women I talk to, subscribe.

Yoga changed Zabie Yamasaki’s life in the years after she was sexually assaulted while attending UC Irvine. She went on to grad school, but ended up back at Irvine, working with vulnerable women. Eventually, Yamasaki created a yoga program for survivors of sexual assault. She runs the program at UCLA, and colleges around California are now using her curriculum. You can get all the deets in this story, and learn more about Zabie below.

You’ve developed your own yoga classes that draw upon a trauma-informed curriculum. Given that specialization, what’s appreciably different for you in a “regular” class when you’re there as a student?

I truly believe that being trauma-informed is a best practice for all yoga teachers. We never know the experiences our students may be coming to class with and the more we can do to create safety, provide options, and create an empowering experience for students to explore their bodies on their own terms, the better! That being said, there are definitely aspects of regular yoga classes that feel distinctly different for me:

  • I always notice when a teacher does or does not ask about comfort level with physical assists and giving students the option to opt in or out. Whenever a teacher does not ask students to raise their hand if they do not prefer physical assists or does not provide another non-verbal way to communicate for students to communicate their boundaries such as permission stones, consent cards, or yoga flip chip, I feel my anxiety building. It is harder for me to relax because I don’t have control as to when the teacher may come into my space, especially if on that particular day in class, touch is unwelcomed.
  • I notice when teachers use commanding language as opposed to inviting students to explore the postures at their own space. On the flip side, I also notice when teachers are very invitational with the language they use and flexible with their plans for class. Not every body is the same and what feels good for one person will not feel good for another. The best experience I have in class is when I can decide what feels best for me and my body.
  • I notice when teachers single people out or even shame students for not keeping up in class. There is such a fine line here -- I think teachers want to be encouraging and empowering but sometimes the extra attention on a particular student is unwanted. I also notice when a teacher continues to give praise to certain students in class when they are in challenging postures, which can suggest to a survivor that they are not good enough or not doing it right. It may take a survivor of sexual assault a lot of courage to take that first step to venture out to a yoga studio. Experiences in class that add to those feelings of being self-conscious and intimated, can make it challenging for a survivor to want to return.
  • I notice when a teacher is contradictory in their language. They may say “take it at your layer” or “listen to what feels comfortable in your body” at the beginning of class but they may come over and try to get me to sit deeper in chair pose when I am perfectly comfortable where I am.
  • I notice when teachers don’t provide options for experiences in class that may be triggering survivors such as being told to close the eyes, presenting very specific and strict breathing exercises, saying at the beginning of class to plan to not leave the room and stay the entire time, and not providing multiple ways to rest in savasana.
  • I notice when students are not provided with options for using props. Sometimes you check in at the front desk of a yoga studio and the teacher will say you need 2 blocks and a strap. For survivors whose trauma involved being bound or tied down in some way- seeing a strap can be very triggering.
  • I always notice the support and presence a teacher provides. The initial interaction you have with a yoga teacher and that exchange of energy is so important in helping you feel safe and confident that they will hold space for you.
  • I always notice how safe I feel in the physical space. Are there mats stacked one right next to the next? Is there room to move around? How does the lighting feel? Can I see the door and exit easily if I feel overwhelmed? Feelings of safety are crucial for survivors.

Is there a particular student’s story that illustrates how trauma-informed yoga can help re-build a victim’s capacity for trust?

This is a really great question. There are so many stories from the survivors I have worked with that inspire me every single day. So many survivors throughout every series have shared that the practice helped them trust themselves as well as build trust in their relationships. There is one student who participated in my yoga as healing series years ago and has gone on to follow her dreams and create the most beautiful life. She shared this note with me: “I’m learning to feel safe inside my own body. Breathing and making conscious decisions has helped me take my power back. I can choose to stay in a comfortable place or I can choose to stretch myself as far as I choose to…the most important thing here is that I have a choice. I have choices. I am no longer trapped or tied down by my past. Thank you Zabie for being light in my life and for choosing light. It is now a daily choice to lift my head and keep going and continue on this path of might. I may fall off track for a moment but lately it has been easier to remember that I am still on the path of goodness. I no longer say, ‘I am here but I’m a survivor.’ I say, ‘I am a survivor and I am here.’”

I can’t think of anything more beautiful than survivors trusting in the choices they have with their own bodies, finding feelings of safety within, and knowing that their trauma does not define them.

What has been most challenging about launching this organization?

It takes a lot of time to cultivate a dream and launching my organization Transcending Sexual Trauma through Yoga has been no easy task. It started with trusting in taking small steps every day to cultivate a healing modality that I fiercely believe in. Some of the challenges in the very beginning were helping universities and organizations recognize the critical need to incorporate body-based modalities in trauma treatment. I had to have evidenced-based research to prove how effective yoga for survivors is, be incredibly organized, develop a seamless curriculum, help universities navigate survivor intake processes, assessment, and liability forms, write a comprehensive trauma-informed yoga resource manual, and work through a number of additional logistics to get things up and running!

Some people have asked me “it’s just yoga, how hard can it be?” But when you are helping rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and colleges/universities infuse trauma-informed yoga into their current support services for survivors, it takes thoughtful planning and intentionality to customize the program and practice. Additionally, each trauma-informed yoga class is customized to the symptoms that the survivors in that particular series are experiencing. I work with teachers to help them identify the type of postures they may want to incorporate to aid in reducing symptomatology for their students. Developing the framework for this program and writing the curriculum has been one of the most overwhelmingly, amazing experiences of my life. When I read the survivor testimonials at the end of each series, my heart is so full. I realize that this is just the beginning of dramatically changing the way our world responds to trauma and provides support to survivors at various stages in their healing. What has helped me overcome the challenges is that I realized that we were losing too many survivors because they were not accessing traditional modes of healing such as therapy and groups because it didn’t feel comfortable for them. By providing this avenue of accessing support through trauma-informed yoga, hundreds and hundreds of students are coming forward to seek support when they never before would have stepped foot into our offices. It is also empowering them to seek additional resources after processing the impact of the trauma in their body. Seeing the incredible impact of the program on so many survivors is what keeps me going and gives me the strength to overcome challenges.