Creating a safe environment built on compassion will benefit everyone in the room, especially those who have suffered trauma.
Most of us get into teaching to help people and share with them the great benefits of exercise that we’ve enjoyed. What keeps us here is the mind body experience (be it cardio, strength training or yoga), the ability to clear our mind, be present and feel connected to our bodies. This is what we hope to inspire in our students. As fitness professionals, we are taught to focus on the physical, ensuring that what we teach is safe. This is important of course, but of equal importance is the sense of connection and our participants’ sense of safety, so they will want to come back.
For those who have suffered trauma or been diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), the need to feel safe and in control on all levels is paramount. Though we will often never know the stories our students carry, creating a safe environment built on compassion will be of benefit to everyone in the room. Yoga in particular will help bring our nervous system back into equilibrium between our sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems.
Neuroscientist Dr Stephen Porges has also outlined a third system called our social nervous system, which is what allows us to feel safe in social settings. He describes ‘immobilisation without fear’, as opposed to trauma in which we are immobilised due to fear. When we are balanced between sympathetic and parasympathetic, we will also be balanced in our social system. By nurturing this dynamic in our classes, our students will feel happy and engaged (safe and connected).
Following these simple steps is a great starting point for facilitating trauma-informed classes.
1. Provide a safe space
Face your class towards the door and keep the doors unlocked. Be cognizant of windows or exterior noise, play soothing music, if possible use essential oils and lay props out ahead of time if you plan to use them in class (ideally avoiding straps). Also make sure to explain their use at the beginning of class.
2. Use inclusive and positive language
YogaFit’s transformational language also includes cues that are awareness oriented, action oriented and process oriented. Watch tone of voice when giving corrective cues, and make suggestions rather than give orders.
3. Include a long warm up
While physically we want to exercise with warm muscles, a warm up also helps orient the mind to the present. Additionally, it provides more time for our students to feel comfortable in the room, with the instructor and with the movements themselves.
4. Bring focus to the breath
Three-part breathing can be done at any time by filling up the belly, rib cage then chest, followed by a slow exhale. Try this breath at the beginning of your classes or PT sessions to find a deeper sense of presence and calm. We can also teach students this breath so they can practice it outside of class.
5. Focus on poses to open the psoas
The psoas muscle holds much of our chronic tension in the body. Simple lunges where we flow in and out of a psoas stretch will be more impactful than pushing in to a stretch and holding. Think about nurturing this stretch, finding ease and encouraging more space by using the breath.
Lisa Greenbaum holds her E-RYT 500 in yoga and is the Program Development Manager for YogaFit Australia and Director of YogaFit Canada.
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