Supportive Teaching for People with Developmental Trauma in the Yoga Class
This article is adapted from The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes, which will be published by Singing Dragon in January 2019.
Developmental trauma (also known as complex trauma) is more common than is generally assumed and often undisclosed at yoga classes, even where it’s asked about on student intake forms. Most often, you will gradually become aware of the signs of developmental trauma through observing how your student is (or isn’t) in their body, the kinds of connection they are able to make and sustain with you as teacher, and how they relate to the group at large.
Developmental trauma generally begins very early in life, sometimes before birth and often prior to the development of language and cognitive thought, and is a response to childhood experiences such as neglect, abandonment, and/or physical or sexual abuse. The severity of the consequent trauma response depends to a large extent upon whether any trustworthy and caring adult – teacher, grandparent, older sibling, foster-parent – was available to the child. Recovery is generally much harder for those with whom no one formed a genuine, altruistic and nurturing bond.
Successfully resolving developmental trauma is a slow and challenging process, but it is possible, given appropriate forms of therapy (these are different from the types of therapy useful for working with PTSD or one-off trauma). Without therapeutic intervention, the effects of developmental trauma usually persevere into adulthood, profoundly affecting the person’s physical and mental well-being, cognition, capacity for meaningful relationship, and ability to live in and from their present-moment embodied experience.
Developmental trauma is always happening in the present and in the person’s body (not their mind), even when the traumatic events ceased decades ago and the person appears to be responding out of disordered thinking. For this reason, somatic practices such as yoga can be helpful and supportive – but there are some things you need to be aware of in order to make your teaching safe and accessible to your traumatised student, while also safeguarding the well-being of your other students and of yourself.
‘I have a difficult student’
A significant proportion of the students we perceive as ‘difficult’ in our yoga classes will be the survivors of developmental trauma. When trauma has been early and thorough-going, it has profound effects on the person’s neurology and their capacity to formulate an effective sense of self. A person who has not experienced unconditional love, a safe environment or secure boundaries as a child will have immense difficulty in understanding, believing in and identifying these things as an adult. The force of the trauma often causes them to reconstitute the traumatic events around them again and again – so if you are teaching a person with a traumatic history, you may find yourself cast in a series of roles that seem to have little to do with who you actually are and how you are relating to the student. These may include abuser, idealised mother, and even victim (with the person believing that they have done something awful to harm you).
One of my Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy colleagues offered this experience:
Tom was one of my Phoenix Rising clients, so I already knew he had a history of profound trauma when he joined a group yoga class. Before he left each class, he would always tell me, usually more than once, what a brilliant, inspiring teacher and wonderful, nurturing person I was. These affirmations were uninvited and inaccurate, and I felt that they were thrust upon me. Any disavowal of them, however, was to Tom just proof of how modest and self-deprecating I was.
Tom continued attending the class for a few weeks, never failing to praise me disproportionately at the end. Then he stopped coming. A few weeks later, I received an email from Tom, asking if he could carry over classes he hadn’t used in his block-booking. It was stated in the terms and conditions that block-booked classes weren’t transferable, so I explained to Tom that unfortunately this wasn’t possible. (Because Tom had developmental trauma, I was aware of the need to uphold particularly clear boundaries with him.)
Tom replied that he felt hurt and disillusioned. ‘I thought you were such a kind person, but now I see it’s all about money for you.’ I responded that in order for our work to be effective, we needed to be clear about the exchange we were making and the boundaries we were setting around it, and that Tom was very welcome to come back to the class at any time. A week passed. I then received another email from Tom: ‘I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. I really didn’t intend to. I don’t know why I was so horrible to you. You’re such a lovely person. I’ve been really mean. I’m so sorry.’
When a profoundly traumatised student is in your class, you may have a sense that they are not in their body. Traumatised people have often learnt to make this separation in order to protect themselves from physical, emotional or psychological pain. Sexual abuse survivors, for example, may describe how they floated out of their body and watched the abuse from the ceiling as if it was happening to someone else. Traumatised people may not be able to feel basic sensations or to follow simple body-related cues. They may breathe in a stilted way and be unable to relax. They may appear like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen and unable to run. One student with developmental trauma describes it like this:
My muscles are constantly tight, and I can’t relax them. It’s as if I have to be always ready – whether there’s any actual threat present or not. This means that I suffer constant pain. Because I sometimes stop myself from breathing, I suffer panic attacks. Paying attention to my body is terrifying, because memories of abuse come up. I am really shy within a group and scared to give my opinion.
Hold clear, strong boundaries
Traumatised people have often had little or no experience of appropriate boundaries. By definition, their own most basic personal boundaries have been violated repeatedly. Typically, traumatised students will test every boundary you set – often by what feels like covert means – and will become upset, angry or ashamed if you try to point out to them what they are doing. This is because on a volitional level, they did not set out to transgress. Remember that trauma is operating on a neurobiological level. The tugging and pulling at the limits is happening outside their conscious awareness and control. As a result of their dysphoria around boundaries, these students have often ended up in abusive adult relationships with teachers and therapists. You will best serve traumatised students, yourself and your other students by kindly and clearly stating, and simply insisting on basic boundaries. Don’t be tempted to make any exceptions. For any reason.
Be a safe person for the student in class
A traumatised person may have a pronounced startle reflex and may appear very jumpy. Don’t approach them suddenly. Let them see you coming and give them time to acclimatise to your presence. Be mindful about physical adjustments – but don’t assume that a student with trauma won’t want them either. This is a place for sensitive dialogue. Be aware that some traumatised people cannot give meaningful consent because they have been conditioned to consent to everything and feel that they have no choice. Be slow and gradual with any agreed touch, and use your intuitive and animal senses to feel into whether the person really wants it, regardless of what they are saying. Re-check with them often and encourage them to give you verbal feedback on how they are experiencing the adjustment – in a way that acknowledges their power to change it: ‘Is this too strong, just about right or not strong enough?’ ‘Would you like me to stop?’ ‘Would you prefer not to be adjusted at the moment?’
Don’t take it personally
A traumatised person is, to a greater or lesser degree, a captive of their past experience and is continually replaying the past in the present. This may blinker them to what you are actually saying and doing. Their tendency will be to fit you into a limited repertoire of known roles from their past. When they can no longer square the circle of who you are with the role in which they’ve cast you, they may catapult you into a different one. This dynamic is happening on a neurological and somatic level, and this is where resolution needs to happen. The person cannot change their beliefs or behaviour by thinking about them and rationalising, or by trying. The most helpful way to be with this is to remain completely neutral, letting the student’s projections slide off you like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. This is, of course, quite difficult! Subconsciously, the traumatised student is constantly trying to hook you into their story, and they will be very good at this. Expect to feel alternately protective, incensed, afraid, compassionate, confused and more when you are interacting with a student with trauma. Know that this is not about you, or about the student, but is about the way that trauma impacts upon a human being and how they relate with others.
If you are out of your depth, it’s ethical to tell the student that you feel you are not the appropriate person to teach them. Make yourself aware of trauma yoga teachers offering classes in your area, and of somatic therapists, yoga therapists and body-based psychotherapists with a specialism in working with developmental trauma, so that you can have some referral suggestions ready. Ideally, rather than feeling ditched, the student should have a sense that you are concerned about their welfare and guiding them to a place where it can be looked after more effectively. Trauma yoga teachers teach yoga to traumatised people in an appropriate way, but they do not work therapeutically, so you may need to refer the student to a teacher for their yoga practice and to a therapist for deeper, more thorough-going work.
It goes without saying, but let me say it anyway… Your job as a yoga teacher is to teach yoga. Never attempt to address the person’s trauma in (or outside) a yoga class. And even if you are trained to work with trauma, do not attempt to do this in a class environment. A class is not a safe or appropriate container for a therapeutic intervention.
Don’t be attached
Davina was new to yoga when she joined a restorative yin yoga class, where she was receiving help from an assistant teacher as well as from me. She didn’t declare trauma on her client history form, but it was quickly obvious that she was traumatised. She appeared terrified, breathed shallowly, had difficulty identifying simple sensations, and seemed to be floating several inches above her body. She was unnaturally ‘co-operative’, and it was difficult for us to find out what she was actually experiencing in different physical positions and therefore to know if/how to help her to modify them.
Davina found it difficult to organise props and place herself in a comfortable position, but we kept working slowly and steadily, and she kept coming back to the class. One day, I spent some time helping her to place a bolster and blanket in a supported back bend. I left her with the assistant teacher and when I next turned around was startled to see Davina rushing out of the room with tears in her eyes as the assistant teacher looked on stunned.
When I went out to find out what was happening, Davina said:
You’ve been unnecessarily harsh with me. I just don’t need this. I came here to learn yoga, not to be told off. I think you’re being really strict and it isn’t nice.
I hadn’t told Davina off; I had been trying to find out where was comfortable for her and what support she needed. But Davina wasn’t experiencing me or my interventions; she was re-living an event from the past (her child-like language and the theme of bad behavior and punishment were a clue to this) and re-construing the meaning it had had for her then around what was happening now.
It’s easy to believe that you can be the one to turn things around for a traumatised student – especially when (as often happens at the beginning of the relationship) the student is idealising you and constantly telling you how beneficial they are finding your teaching to be. Yoga and other body-based practices can indeed be very helpful to traumatised people, but trauma is deep-seated, and change usually happens gradually, over a long period of time. It’s common for traumatised students to disappear suddenly and unexpectedly. Their lives are often internally and externally turbulent. Their window of tolerance is quite narrow, so they quickly hit the limit of how much they can integrate. Embodiment can be fraught for a person whose only experience of body is rape, violence or humiliation, and even simple and apparently unthreatening embodied practices, such as noticing a sensation or feeling their breath, can trigger traumatic memories for them. Know this, and allow the person to disappear without notice or explanation when they need to, and leave the door open for them to return if and when they’re ready.
Be prepared for things to go ‘wrong’. It happens – regularly – even to those of us who are experienced at working with trauma. As my own trauma therapy supervisor reminded me, the real work of trauma recovery happens through relationship, and the ordinary trials and tribulations of relating are essential to this process. Know that, as the space-holder, you did your best, and take what may feel like failure in your stride.
1. Do you ask students about PTSD/developmental trauma/history of physical or sexual abuse in your client history form?
2. Do you have students who have divulged developmental trauma? Or students who you suspect have experienced developmental trauma? How does the trauma show up in the way they are in your class and how they relate to you?
3. Have you experienced any difficulties in working with these students? Notice any physical sensations or strong emotions that arise as you recollect what was difficult. Do these belong to you, or might they be an individual student’s experiences?
4. Are there ways that you might want to change how you work with these students?
Lawrence Heller, Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-regulation, Self-image and the Capacity for Relationship, North Atlantic Books, 2012.
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books, 2015.
Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Penguin, 2015.
The Yoga Teacher Mentor
A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes
By considering how teachers can maintain appropriate boundaries with students, create truly inclusive classes, and deal with common obstacles and ethical issues, this guide explores the reality of teaching yoga day-to-day and helps teachers avoid burnout. With reflective and experiential exercises throughout, the book will help even experienced teachers to amplify their understanding of what it means to hold rich and meaningful classes by creating different lenses through which they can view distinct situations.