"Trauma is all around me - I’d love to know how to better support my students, without taking on their grief."
I hear you.
Maybe there is an increased awareness of trauma in the yoga world, or maybe there is more trauma, or maybe there is some expert marketing and advertising out there, but people come to me with this sort of query many times a week.
WHAT KIND OF TRAINING DO YOU REALLY NEED?
My answer depends on the person asking, but I’ll give you the more universal parts.
First, I recommend reading a couple of books. Not youtube videos or podcasts, but actual, legitimate books written by people with the sorts of training and experience you’d like to learn from. There are occasionally video or audio recordings that are appropriate, but in my experience, these are the sound bites that are out of context and often unrefined. So start with books.
Here are some great ones:
In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté
Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine
The Body Keeps Score, Bessel van der Kolk
Second, if you are a 200 RYT or a 500 RYT and possess no clinical credentials, look for trainings aimed at your professional expertise (aka trainings for yoga teachers). Don’t jump feet-first into a training for counselors, therapists, or other clinicians, as you don’t have the appropriate background training and might start to swim outside of your lane, causing damage to you and your students. Practicing medicine without a license is a felony, and more importantly, it’s psychologically dangerous. You can google these, and see who is guiding the training and who the training is aimed towards.
Third, talk to the trainers. Do not register for a multi-day training without having an actual voice conversation with the people offering the training or their representatives. Ask to speak to someone who graduated from the training. Legitimate programs that offer excellent training are more than happy to make this effort to connect you with a successful alumn of their program.
UNDERSTAND YOUR MOTIVATION
Every (single) thing we do is selfishly motivated. Yep. Even serving in a self-less way is still selfish, so get clear about what is motivating you become familiar with people who have experienced trauma.
Perhaps you are on a healing path from trauma, grief, or loss. You were victimized, abusive, or neglectful to others, and under the guidance and with the full support of your therapist and/or sponsor, you’d like to offer a living amends.
Perhaps there has been an expressed need in the community (the local treatment facility is in search of additional teachers for their existing yoga program), and you have entered a chapter of your life where you have some extra time on your hands, and are interested in giving back in a meaningful way.
Perhaps you are on a healing path from trauma, grief, or loss and would like to better understand the multifaceted ways in which trauma expresses itself, and instead of working one-on-one towards your healing, you are compelled to heal others.
Perhaps you have seen a need in the community (how is it that the local treatment center doesn’t even offer yoga??), and you have a tiny bit of time that you could probably carve out to offer them something better than what they have, which is currently nothing.
Perhaps you are unaware that you have some trauma, grief, or loss, and are trying to distract yourself from the personal work and would instead prefer to focus on absolutely anything else.
Perhaps you have noticed that there is a group of people who spend a lot of time living on the street, and you imagine that if they could just find the same transcendent peace experience you have by sun saluting or meditating, or sitting on a mat or cushion, that it would likely spontaneously rehabilitate and rejoin the work force.
Tongue in cheek, I know.
(you get that the top two answers are the GREEN LIGHT answers, right?)
But seriously ask yourself this. Working with trauma is like fighting a wildfire. It is tricky, unpredictable, and requires specific training and gear.
It takes casualties.
I would love for all yoga teachers to receive some cursory training on trauma-informed practices, so that if someone in their gym, studio, or private classes has an experience, they know how to best support them (think of this like learning to use a fire extinguisher, call 911, stop, drop, and roll).
I would love for really aware, well-resourced, and abundantly available people to become skilled at joining trauma care teams.
I would love for more people to have access to better teachers, who understand what to do. How to refer and resource. How to best support until help arrives.
Gabor Maté says, “Trauma isn’t what happened to us, it’s what happens inside of us,” which resonates with me so well. It isn’t always gun violence, war, or natural disaster. Sometimes it is intimate partner abuse, coercive and insidious and absent of physical violence. Often it is psychological or emotional, and can be triggered by sirens or yoga music, loud bangs or palo santo. For this reason, I think it is more important to understand the process of trauma rather than memorizing a list of poses or “thou shalt and thou shalt nots” as it refers to trauma. Because it depends.
There is an unhelpful idea I’ve heard: once you start teaching yoga, you’re a yoga teacher forever.
I believe this is both true and false.
It’s true in the sense that if you have ever been perceived as a yoga teacher, you will always be a teacher to that student.
Don’t believe me?
Imagine you’re at a burlesque show, and the cast includes someone who used to be your postal worker, someone who used to serve coffee at the corner coffee shop, and the person who was your kid’s kindergarten teacher four years ago.
The teacher feels weirder, right?
If you taught yoga for one class, and someone was moved, you are always a teacher to them.
Once a teacher, always a teacher.
But it doesn’t mean you have to teach, or you will always teach, or that you must make money teaching.
You can take a break.
In fact, I think you’ll need to.
It may be true in other fields as well, but it starts with exuberance - you extoll the benefits of stretching, ujjayi, lycra, and proper blanket folding. It’s adorable, how you become passionate about Nidra or creative block usages, or tell people what Guru really means, and how their guru could be a cat or a cold sore.
Then… at a point… complacency. You catch yourself thinking you “have to go to work” on the way to teach a class, the way you used to feel at your old job when you were surrounded by TPS reports or 31 flavors. You throw shade at the teacher with the same tired playlist, who taught the same jazz last week, and you play hooky from yoga.
Resentment. Resignation. Dark times.
You hear yourself say that yoga isn’t what it used to be, or that a certain lineage is a cult, or another is a veritable vending machine for teachers, or worse. “Oh gosh!” you think, “I’m starting to lose it.”
You become destructive. Practicing more and more until you believe it again, fast, run, or feast because you feel so tremendously out of sorts with the practice. Didn’t you used to like this? Wouldn’t working at McDonald’s make more sense? Then at least you’d have a reliable paycheck and possibility for advancement.
This is normal. Typical. It happens, and rather than trying to avoid it, I’ll encourage you to try to embrace it.
(and take appropriate action)
Teaching has seasons, like life, and it is incumbent upon you to notice when the leaves start to change and you head into the darkness of a yoga winter.
Also, it would be helpful if we could agree to be honest about this experience, rather than trying to hide or stuff our yoga winter and march right on through it.
Have you tried to plant seeds in the snow?
I have gotten so tired, frustrated, disenchanted, resentful, and perturbed that I’ve done and said some unseemly things. Thankfully, in my case, nothing criminal, but I have accidentally vomited unsolicited advice, said nasty things about other teachers and studios, and (possibly) shamed people both for being vegan and for not being vegan, essentially at the same time.
In these moments, I have had other teachers confide in me, as though we’re in an unseemly back alley:
“I’m burnt out.”
Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Spiritually bereft.
For some, it is because they have the notion that they must be of service to everyone, always. For others, it’s because they believe they must DO as many practices as they TEACH, so teaching 16 classes a week is a death-march. And for many more, it is because they think that working in this way should be a joy and there is something fundamentally wrong with them for needing a break.
May I suggest another option?
If and when you notice complacency, pause, and tell someone.
If you’re in resentment, stop, and tell someone.
If you notice a feeling of resignation, vindictiveness, or sabotage, tell someone.
Maybe what you need is a yoga winter?
Winter is a gorgeous time of darkness, silence, and rest. It is not a bad thing, it is a necessary thing, because creating and growing require energy. You are not a machine, and while you do have an infinite capacity to teach, to create, to support, this capacity requires rest.
I’d like to drop the shame, and let this be part of our wellness practice, when we talk with one another about how teaching is going for us. I’d like to invite studio owners and managers to incorporate this line of questioning into annual reviews, mentoring sessions, and check-ins.
How are you doing?
How is your teaching?
When was your last winter?
Let’s talk about it.
Getting out of a yoga winter is a one-step process:
You with me?
There’s a lot of questionable marketing in my newsfeed these days with tips for yoga teachers about how to make their students commit, stay, and make them filthy rich.
It’s tempting - the cotton candy of the internet - because we equate rich with happy, and committed students with abundant wealth, and again, by the magic of marketing, we believe we will need to do or change something in order to move in that direction. I get caught in this web, too, because it’s straight sugar and flavoring, and it melts in your mouth and leaves you with a moment of quiet.
This is adorable of us.
I once believed that having lots of students would make me popular, sold out classes and workshops would instill a sense of calm, but instead they fed both my ego and my insecurity. In my life these two are like the twins in The Shining - come play with us, Kari…
I started to worry, “What if they find out I don’t actually have all of my shit together?”
They will. They do. And there’s just a bigger audience when you tumble.
Because when we count people as numbers, or dollar signs, or steps on our road towards the elusive happiness we think we want, they know it. The connection they are seeking feels vaguely transactional, which makes them wary, skeptical, and grouchy.
The bigger, deeper calm, is the experience of having a student graduate. Having learned what they needed to learn from you and your teaching, they operate a little better, tailgate less, or spend seven fewer seconds in the wormhole of Orbitz escape fantasy land. Varsity level if they uncover their adorable addictive tendencies, or some deeply instilled patterning from their childhood, or discover a millisecond of quiet mind.
These cannot be your goals, just as they cannot be mine. Teaching & fixing are not the same thing.
You cannot fix another person, ever.
You can only address tendencies in yourself.
So you show up, and you teach something that feels authentic to you, that is also perhaps rooted in the deep philosophical wisdom of yoga? No need to reinvent the wheel and come up with something brilliant, darling, there are plenty of volumes. Your job is to interpret the lessons, to have a foot in each world - one in deep understanding and one in modern life experience so that you can say what “action in inaction” means without sounding like a parrot, or Dr. Seuss. Your job isn’t to look good or wise or tan, it’s to be a guide to the wellspring of deeper wisdom.
If you are compelled to teach, I believe it is because there are people who are compelled to learn from you.
If instead you’d rather rid yourself of students quickly, skip out on the deep teaching and irritate them right off the yogic path, here are six great ways to do that:
Lack of planning
If this list leaves you unclear, I will give you a few examples of yog-ish things I’ve seen (and done) inspired by the death twins and not my higher Self.
Patronize: this is usually tone of voice. The teacher assumes they hold more wisdom or better understanding than the student.
The antidote is curiosity - what are you asking me, and why?
Perform: demonstration is a wonderful teaching tool, performing is showing off.
The antidote is demonstrating the way in, not the whole enchilada.
Preach: trying to make someone believe a thing that you believe. There is a wanting, a convincing that exists with preaching that is absent from teaching.
The antidote is differentiating a statement of fact, or a direct quote, from your opinion or interpretation.
Lack of planning: I hear people brag about “winging it” or “letting the spirit move them,” which is great almost never. You needn’t teach what you had planned, but the act of planning is invaluable.
The antidote: plan!
Indignation: Ranting. Setting fire to a person or institution from your stump at the front of the room, ick.
The antidote: identify a safe person or people with whom you can vent and dump your emotional garbage. This is never a room full of students.
Ending late: This is stealing. You are not more important than whatever else your students needed or wanted to do that evening. People have parking meters, babysitters, medications to take, and nothing erodes trust more quickly than teaching beyond the end of your time constraints.
The antidote: End on time, or do not advertise an ending time.
I have no idea where happiness comes from, but I know how to set the stage for contentment as a teacher - it’s non-attachment to the outcomes of your actions, my friend. Gratitude for what you have, not stealing, and channeling your life force toward the greater good, rather than feeding in to a particular craving.
(There’s some yamas in there… pretty sure).
Prenatal Sun Salutations
Tracey Garcia and I had a lovely conversation about the differences between Yin Yoga & Restorative Yoga. This video interview includes lots of quick nuggets you can use to clearly explain the differences.
Learn more about Restorative Yoga, or visit my Learn to Teach Yin Yoga page for details about Yin.
I am thrilled beyond measure to see the vast range of offerings in the world of yoga - I’m (personally) most excited when the offerings are backed by science, music, or help anyone be less of a wanker and more invested in the greater good.
So trauma-informed trainings rank high on my list, as sometimes they are backed by science, and their intention is to help yoga teachers be more aware of how to navigate the complex expressions of trauma. In all the reading and study I’ve done trying to better understand my bizarre and blossoming trauma responses, I have found I most resonate with the opinion of Dr. Gabor Mate who says, “Trauma is not what happens to us, it’s what happens inside of us.”
From the outside - as in - as someone who doesn’t consciously identify as managing their own trauma response - I think this perspective is quite helpful. What it says to me, is that it does not matter if you were attacked by a shark or a shitzu, if you were physically maimed or startled, or a survivor of willful or neglectful abuse. Your response is not necessarily relative to the original incident, therefore, it’s unhelpful and unnecessary to rank people into “worse” and “better” or line them up according to their level of trauma, because it’s a fool’s errand.
This is an innate human need, to understand where we fit in the scheme of things. To normalize our experience, and it is the first paradox we must overcome if we intend to serve this population. Just as we might suffer more grief for the loss of a pet than a parent, we might experience more trauma after a paper cut than a car accident. Resist the urge to qualify yourself as having experienced “sufficient” trauma to empathize, or to attempt to prove how traumatized you were to earn credibility.
You are enough exactly as you are - no explanation or qualification necessary.
The second paradox I see in people after a training about trauma-informed yoga, is that they are now hyper afraid of triggering everyone, always. Triggers are varied, and we have a tendency to assume what someone’s triggers might be. One training teaches to use soft music, another touts that music can be triggering. What to do? While it’s a common practice to allow individuals to opt into and out of physical touch, some trainings teach that it is triggering for a student to see the instructor touch another student. Touch no one? Succinct communication suggests starting with the “command” form of a verb, while another training might invite you to pepper your communication with softeners in order to avoid sounding commanding.
As teachers leave these trainings, they contact me, often in tears, recounting the number of times they have instructed their students to close their eyes in a yoga practice, and how they didn’t realize how damaging that could be. Wondering how to succinctly teach a vinyasa class by saying “if it feels ok… move into downward facing dog” while cuing one breath, one movement.
If I may, I’d like to invite a few ideas that might liberate you from the teaching paralysis that sets in post trauma-informed anything:
Forgive yourself for what you did before, unless you were truly heinous (just kidding, forgive yourself regardless, and commit that you will not be willfully heinous in the future).
Take every direction and suggestion with an enormous grain of discernment. Who are you teaching? How can you be supportive? How can this training be more freeing and less constricting in your role as a yoga teacher?
Remember that this world does not operate with absolutes - they are a human construct, and they aren’t often helpful. It is not inherently wrong to use music, or to use hands-on support, or the command forms of verbs. You can invite people to close their eyes rather than commanding them, but if you forget, it is also ok.
Please do NOT allow a training to sideline you as a teacher. You cannot predict everything that might trigger someone, because trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside of us. People have preferences, and triggers, and quite often they cannot effectively name either. You cannot protect your students from what is inside of them, but you can offer them tools to understand, unpack, and diffuse their experience.
This is the yoga.
Be informed. Take trainings. Reflect. Integrate.
(Be less heinous whenever possible.)
For the past month I’ve been diligently working away at curriculum for an advanced yoga teacher training, which has inspired me to read and re-read a dozen books, hundreds of blogs, and listen to TED and podcasts ad nauseam.
Simultaneously, I’ve had some teaching “firsts,” like a private client come to a session with me in tears because she needed to cancel, and then paying me double for the inconvenience.
A rocky conversation about age that I could not skillfully wrangle.
I felt the imposter syndrome creeping in… who am I to be offering advanced training? I’m still having new experiences.
I still get angry.
(I still forget that it isn’t the point).
In my defense, one of my dearest friends and fellow teachers suggested that “…if someone tells me I’m not a teacher, that I can punch them in the face, which is not terribly yogic.”
And that got me thinking.
There is a stark difference between yoga and American hippy culture or “Yippee” (yuppie + hippie) culture, and even with the years and the reading, I still find myself slipping into the melting pot of two things that pair well, but are not the same.
I think I understand some of the reasons.
Many (many) American yoga teacher training programs offer precious little of the deep yogic philosophy, as it would normally take at least 20 years of intensive study to master it, and we’re trying to pack it in to 200 hours. If they do use a classical text, it is often the yoga sutras, which is a little bit like the Four Agreements version of yoga - a nice deck of wisdom nuggets that should suffice if you’re planning to try to live a good life and do more good than harm.
In the sutras, we find the word ahimsa, which can be translated as non-violence. Generally speaking, I believe that being less violent to self and others to be pretty good advice.
There is more to the story.
Some trainings touch on the Bhagavad Gita, which is a story that takes place on a battlefield in which (spoiler) Krishna tells Arjuna, the leader of the underdogs, to get off his sad sack of self-pity “I don’t WANNA be at war” and do his friggin’ duty. Ya wanna be at home reading? Bummer, dude. Life doesn’t always go the way you wanted it to. But here we are, and you’ve gotta suck it up and make it through this.
(I’m paraphrasing - there is a lot more to the story).
I find the Gita to be a better guide for the reality in which I often find myself: life rarely goes as I have planned it, and while I haven’t found myself in a legit battlefield, I can certainly relate to feeling like an underdog faced with a task I’m not thrilled about.
I can relate to sulking.
Finally, we think about the devotional yogis - those who like to chant, pray, do fire ceremonies, and seek to know themselves through the emotional sense of - and confuse them with the Woodstock-ish ecstatic dancing, ayahuasca sampling modern yippies and conveniently forget that there are six emotional states in the practice of Bhakti Yoga.
The sixth, is hatred.
Hatred is the highest form of devotion, as it is all-consuming. It is single-pointed.
It is not pretty.
So while I completely agree with my friend, that punching someone in the face for making me have a feeling is unnecessarily violent, feeling anger is not.
Yogis feel anger, discontent, melancholy, self-pity, and hatred.
The point is not to bypass the feelings or to ignore them.
The point is to build up your toolbox - your resilience, your network - so that you can assess the situation and act skillfully. As teachers, we are here to impart and share teachings to help our students (and ourselves) navigate the messiness of life, not disregard or shame it.
It is perfectly yogic to be angry.
(and do your duty anyway)
The Goal of Yoga
I believe that "the goal" of a yoga teacher is not to offer transformation, acceptance, or a transcendent experience. The goal of YOGA TEACHERS as a collective, is to bring people back to the mat. To meet them where they are and provide a space where they can meet, acknowledge, love, slay (or whatever) their own darlings and demons. There is NOTHING WRONG with crossfit-meets-yoga. Maybe it isn't your yoga today, but to someone else, it is letting in a sliver of light - it is providing a space on a mat for someone who needs that kind of yoga right now, today. If the teacher is popular, great. She is meeting students where they are. And if they later choose a different class because her class no longer serves them, than better for all of us to have open arms and say YES. WELCOME to my class. Here is what I have to offer you today. I'm glad you have returned to the mat.
Right now, a particular quote - a particular teaching - resonates with you. Perhaps in the crossfit class, someone else had a transcendent realization.
Who is to say which yoga is right?
It is an important lesson for us as teachers to embrace ALL teachers, styles, formats so that we as a collective can support one another and shine and share our light (and our shadow and darkness, as needed).
I often joke that I received two invitations on the same day - one to a beautiful prenatal yoga teacher training, with hands on bellies and peaceful music, and one for Booty Yoga - which was basically strip dancing on yoga mats in some poses that I could almost recognize as yoga poses. I don't think that's safe - at all! I'm personally concerned about their poor bodies the same way I'm personally concerned about other peoples' questionable moles - but neither has anything to do with me. I used to make fun of this style of yoga, until I met a few students who told me that was how they found yoga - someone told them it would make their butts look better. Maybe it did? But they also got injured, learned lessons, wrangled demons, and found a different style of yoga.
I'm trying - gently - to offer you something that I have seen in myself - a judgement of someone else calling themselves a yoga teacher doing something I'm categorically opposed to. Someone whose ego is showing, who is maybe a bit rajasic. Someone who highlights in me my own questions of worth - am I a worthy yoga teacher?
What I am saying is yes - I am a worthy yoga teacher. And so are you. And so is she. Even if you don't like it. Even if I don't like it.
When someone says to me, "That's not yoga!" I think of my dad shouting, "That's not music!"
Because it isn't, to you.
But it is to someone.
There’s a dirty promise lurking in the world of Instagram. It says if you practice yoga in your underwear in your kitchen, drink green smoothies from glass jars, and have a mala to match each phase of the moon, you will have “made it.”
Your life will be perfect.
If you become a teacher, sponsored by a yoga apparel company, adored by followers, you will find peace.
Your anxiety will roll over and die.
While you might know that these things are not true, you might still hope they are. You might play along, “just to see” if it does actually work out.
That’s actually ok.
It’s ok to want everything to work out, and while apparel sponsorship might get you the equanimity you desire, I find I feel just the same amount of wonderment or disdain whether I was paid to wear the pants or not.
I have always had anxiety. I have always practiced yoga.
My anxiety is incredibly productive. She can juggle insurmountable tasks, and when left unsupervised, will create more chaos and work than she could ever accomplish, out of self preservation.
Is there anything else in the house that could be alphabetized?
ARE YOU SURE???
If I don’t practice yoga, she starts to get the upper hand. And she’s pernicious.
I lose track of this sometimes, as a teacher. Sometimes I forget that teaching yoga is not practicing yoga, and if I teach and teach and teach at the expense of my practice, I find myself overcome by tears at a rest stop, starting a meditation timer to try again.
And so I’m writing to tell you that this is the game. I still sometimes wake to the strong-willed toddler of my own inner neurosis, and by sometimes, I mean often.
But I know what to do, and I’m better at remembering earlier. I have more tools, more friends, more guides. It used to take me until 3pm to remember that eating helps, or that phoning a friend is better than mining Facebook for real connection.
Go to class. Start the meditation timer. Find a cushion. Lie down. Repeat.
Lately I feel like a wet and wandered dog stumbling into a class. The teacher thinks I’m there to evaluate them, or believes because I have taught for a long time that I’m there to judge.
“I just need to practice,” I have whispered.
Because I don’t care if it’s a “brilliant” sequence, or a “great” soundtrack, or “stellar” adjustments. I am just trying to surrender to my human-ness.
Yoga classes are like 12 Step meetings and chocolate chip cookies: even a not-so-great one is still pretty good.
Almost always worth it.
Because life continues to unfold after you get the letters, the gold stars, the sponsorship deals, the writing advance, or whatever it is you’ve told yourself will be the line of demarkation beyond which you will have made it.
Life will not get easier.
You will just get better at it.
Yoga teachers teach, they don't TREAT.
Jen with Anatomy for Yogis and I have been saying this for years - your yoga teacher's 200 hour or 300 hour or 500 hour training does NOT train them to diagnose or treat any conditions - so please don't ask. It is so tempting to want to step over that line and offer you something, except it could be the wrong thing, and we're just as trained to know as your accountant.
Here is a quick primer on our scope - if yoga is HURTING you, as in, "wow, my shoulder really hurts in side plank" we are trained to help you do side plank in a way that does NOT hurt you. Or we can recommend alternate poses.
We can understand the anatomy and physiology of various functions and dysfunctions, and we can help explain them to you. We can teach around a challenging area, or help you breathe through difficult moments, diagnoses. We can teach you how to need less pain medication by using meditation, but we can't tell you to adjust your dose.
We can even ease your discomfort as you die.
More importantly, we can be on your team. Whether you're seeing someone for your depression or your dislocation, we can welcome you to our classes and tell you what fits into your treatment plan. We can remind you or teach you how the body functions, we can explain your treatment provider's treatment, and we can even suggest a second opinion. But if you've taken a training with me you know that my philosophy (from David Swenson) is that YOGA is a HAMMER. It is a tool with equal capacity to heal and break, it is not a magic wand.
We do not have pixie dust.
We are here to remind you that you're perfect, you belong, your illusion of separation is simply an illusion. Maybe for you that comes via 75 sun salutations or licking your own ankle, and we're trained to teach you that.
We are also trained to help you shift your perspective.
I always say - a good yoga teacher gets you to touch your toes, and a great teacher gets you to release the want.
And the best teacher doesn't cross that line - because as tempting as it is to our sweet little egos to do it just this once - just for you - just so we can cure what ails you, all it takes is one teacher wielding her ego like a hammer to destroy the reputation of yoga teachers and close off the path to yoga. Our shared goal as teachers is to bring you back to the mat - to remind you that the tools in the lexicon of yoga are always available to you, no matter what, whether it is my class or someone else's, my studio or your home studio.
We are here to help you see your injury, your diagnosis, your treatment as a teacher. If we take it away, what will you learn?
That is the real gift of yoga.
Om bolo satguru bhagavan ki.
(originally posted 1/25/2017)
PROGRAMS for Yoga Teachers: