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Trauma Sensitive Yoga is not just giving options! (5 min. read)

May 14, 2024

Trauma-sensitive yoga is often associated with invitational language & with avoiding “triggers”. We give the students options for each pose so that they do not feel reminded of past traumas. This is not wrong, but now that trauma-sensitive yoga is more popular, some of the “why” behind the reasoning seems to be missing. 

The main point is to help the student come into the present moment, to connect to their own experience, their bodies & breath - rather than us guiding them into a certain shape or to change their breath in a certain way. 

The student chooses not just the shape of the pose, but they also get to make decisions around the whole practice. This means there is a re-balance of the power dynamic. A re-balance of the power dynamic between the student and the teacher, the power dynamic between the student and the practice, and also the power dynamic between the students collectively. 

Why? Because the experience of trauma is being disempowered, to the extent that there is often a disconnect from one’s own experience. To help the students reconnect to themselves, we need to prioritise their relationship with themselves over them listening to us! Their relationship to the body, to this moment & to the self has to come first - before any worries over misalignment, or the group moving in sync, or breathing in a certain way. Our work as facilitators is to clear the obstacles to the present-moment experience & the sense of self. This means we have to get ourselves out of the way! 

This sort of teaching is distinct from some of the “trauma light” invitational-language teaching that has become more popular. In order to hold the space for those who are experiencing PTSD, we have to also sacrifice some of the other popular elements of yoga. Giving a chance for students to genuinely identify their needs takes time - sometimes a lot of time. Those with trauma may have a disconnect from the experience of their own body. Or a learnt fear of really communicating their needs or feelings.  Uncovering this doesn’t just slot easily into a yoga “flow”. Accommodating for traumatic stress or complex PTSD  may require a 1-2-1 setting, or small group setting, alongside the student’s psychological support team.

However, we can benefit from an understanding of the trauma-sensitive yoga principles. In fact, the reason yoga is so effective at supporting those who have experienced trauma is that the teachings of yoga seem uncanny to tally with the healing of trauma. Nowadays the presence of some sort of trauma is known to be relatively ubiquitous - few of us have gone through life totally unscathed by adverse experiences. 

Trauma is sometimes described as the experience of “too much, too fast, too soon” or as one of my fantastic trainees commented on the anxiety & trauma-sensitive yoga training - “not enough” in the case of absence of affection or food for example. We could say “not enough, not often enough, not soon enough”. 

Trauma might be having one’s sense of self violated by physical assault, or the inability to develop a sense of self by neglect in early life for example. These are both examples of trans-personal trauma, ie trauma that occurs in relation to another person. As opposed to, for example, intergenerational trauma, which is conveyed through generations e.g. the disruption of family relationships in those who were subjected to colonialism or slavery in the past. Or the future children of this current generation of Gazans. 

To come back to the present and how this plays out in class. When we teach in a trauma-sensitive way, the central question is often: is it ok for the student to do this their way? Does it have an impact on the group? Does it impact on our sense of our role as a teacher and are we going to manage?! How do we provide the space for the student to embody their independence and their healing? Can we manage to hold the boundaries for everyone to feel safe and make steps towards their own individuation and expressing their own true self?

For example, if they don't want to take their shoes off- does it hurt anyone else? Usually no! So fine - they can keep their shoes on. Why? As far as possible we give the opportunity for each student to make their own decisions & to act on their own decisions. 

As soon as the teacher tries to assert their own power or control on the situation we LOSE the opportunity for the student to re-establish their connection to themselves as an empowered being. A being whose thoughts and feelings come first and who gets to affect their reality. In this situation it can feel safer to disconnect, to withdraw.

Below is a brief summary of trauma-sensitive principles and some ways in which they can be adapted for general yoga classes. 


Some of the Trauma Sensitive Principles according to Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) developed by David Emerson & Elizabeth Hopper & Bessel van der Kolk

When teaching yoga, we can be more inclusive by reflecting on the role that we play as a teacher and how we can empower all our students by reinforcing that there is much they are already doing right. That they are the experts in their own bodies. That if they are alive they are breathing just fine - whatever breath practice we are introducing. These reassurances can fit easefully into any class & help those who are struggling with anxiety or to feel confident and validated. None of this will interrupt too much with the “flow” of a class.

Present moment experience 

  • Helps us notice sensations in the body, breath, and mind as they are occurring
  • Instead of telling the student what to feel, ask them. Use "enquiry cues" (my term) to support interoception:
  • What do you notice?/ Where do you feel this?/ How would it feel to?


  • Invitational language- give a couple of posture options & offer or anything else you need. 
  • If we vocalise options for a pose- it has to be meaningful. It has to be based on what the student is already choosing or what they can actually achieve, or what they really 
  • want to do. One way is to see what the student seems to be favouring as we move through class. Another is to give a couple of options and then to offer “or anything else you need right now”.


If you're interested in learning more about trauma-sensitive teaching and how best to support your students who may have experienced trauma, my 300 hour training & Intensive covers  'Teaching Yoga for Anxiety & Trauma Sensitve Yoga Intensive' that runs in-person over a long weekend, with online content. Limited places. 

Or, if you'd prefer something completely online, I also offer an online course equivalent called 'Teaching Yoga for Anxiety & Trauma

The online course on 'Vagus Nerve, Breath & Bandhas' shares an approach to breathwork & bandhas that complement this trauma / anxiety aware work & offers a portal into a much deeper personal experience of yoga. The 2024 Intake for this opens very soon with limited places. 

Do get in touch if you'd like to discuss any of the above courses, either in-person or online, and I'd be more than happy to answer any questions.

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