Yoga Instructors Learn Techniques To Empower Survivors Of Trauma

Sep 21, 2018


On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a group of yoga instructors gathered at BYS Yoga’s third-floor studio, with big windows overlooking Carson Street. These yogis were the students, and they were there to learn a non-coercive instruction style, called trauma-informed yoga.


Many people turn to yoga to improve their mind-body connection; research shows the practice can also reduce depression, anxiety and help people recover from eating disorders. But for survivors of physical trauma, typical yoga studio practices might be triggering. The BYS workshop was for teachers that want to learn how to better care for these students.


Attendee Lindsay Schooler teachers yoga in Wheeling, W. Va. at the Florence Crittenton Institute, which houses girls who have been removed from their homes.


"They may have transitioned into the Crittenton home after they've gotten out of juvenile detention," she said, adding that many have been sexually abused in the past.

Schooler said she wants to learn tools to help students build healthy relationships with their bodies.


“To discover what they like, what they don’t like. What they want, what they need,” she said. “To tune back into their body, since they’ve had to become so disconnected for survival.”


While yoga is seen as calming and meditative, it can sometimes be the opposite. Instructors tell students when and how to pose, it’s also common for them to touch students’ bodies, without asking, to correct their form.  

Psychotherapist Elizabeth Haberer incorporates yoga into her therapy practice.
Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA News

“In a lot of yoga teacher training programs we’re taught how to place our hands on someone, but mabye not so much how to be sensitive about, ‘Well does this person want to be touched,’” said workshop instructor Elizabeth Haberer. “How do we incorporate consent?”

Haberer, a yoga instructor and licensed psychotherapist, developed a trauma informed yoga curriculum, called Thrive, which includes no touching. It incorporates aspects of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which teaches mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation and assertive communication.


"[It is] a practice where we can really connect and feel our bodies ... to develope an ability to relate to ourselves ... and our patterns of behaviors in a different way."

With Thrive, Haberer avoids poses that might make students feel vulnerable, especially those where the pelvis or stomach is exposed. And instead of telling students how to move, Haberer uses what she calls “invitational language.” Instructions are suggestions, which Haberer said helps students feel ownership of their bodies.


“On your exhale, maybe bring your hands to heart center,” said Haberer, demonstrating invitional language for the class. “And then you decide your own rhythm based on how long you want your inhales and exhales to be."


Haberer recommended that studios hold regular trauma-informed yoga classes designed specifically for survivors of sexual violence.  The 2017 “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey” found that one in three women and nearly one in six men in the U.S. experience some sort of contact – or physical – sexual violence in their lifetimes.  


For this reason, workshop attendee Helen Howell of the Mon Valley wants to incorporate what she’s learned into her routine teaching practices.


“I teach mostly for companies [and] I never realized a particular student in your class may have trauma issues," Howell said. "It’s been enlightening for me.”


In addition to classes and trainings, Haberer also does one-on-one trauma-informed yoga therapy at her Houston, Texas studio.


Family law attorney Eronn Putman is a survivor of domestic violence and recently had her first session with Haberer on the advice of her regular therapist.


Putman said her emotional pain often manifests as physical tension.


“There’s a lot to hold in,” she said. “There’s a lot of shame that goes with being a victim of domestic abuse, or sexual abuse or anything like that.”


The physical abuse precipitated a period of heavy drinking for her, so one of the appealing aspects of trauma-informed yoga is that it’s a combination of counseling and health physical activity. She described it as more relaxed than other types of mental health treatment.


“Elizabeth had on yoga clothes, I had on yoga clothes,” said Putman. “It’s almost like two friends sitting down, discussing something, except one of them is a licensed professional.”


90.5 WESA receives support from BYS Yoga.