Can’t touch this

What to know when work­ing with stu­dents who’ve ex­pe­ri­enced trauma.

Yoga Journal - - Home Practice -

TOUCH CAN BE PAR­TIC­U­LARLY CHAL­LENG­ING. In fact, it can be so trig­ger­ing that most ex­perts rec­om­mend yoga teach­ers as­sume all of their stu­dents have ex­pe­ri­enced trauma—to avoid set­ting off un­pleas­ant mem­o­ries, feel­ings, and more.

“Some­times you can rec­og­nize signs of trauma, like if a stu­dent looks shaky or dis­ori­ented, but in most cases it’s not go­ing to be ob­vi­ous,” says Hala Khouri, co­founder of Off the Mat, Into the World and a leader in trauma-in­formed yoga teacher train­ings. Plus, trauma is so com­pli­cated that what works for one trauma sur­vivor doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily work for an­other, says Alexis Mar­bach, a yoga teacher and a mem­ber of the Breathe Net­work, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that con­nects sur­vivors of sex­ual vi­o­lence with trauma-in­formed, holis­tic heal­ing-arts prac­ti­tion­ers. “It would be so much eas­ier to say al­ways do this or al­ways do that, but we have to be more nim­ble in the way we ap­proach rec­om­men­da­tions for work­ing with trauma sur­vivors.”

So what can you do as a teacher?

“It’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the teacher and stu­dio owner to create a safe and open space and em­power stu­dents to opt out of touch dur­ing a class,” says Khouri. It can of­ten be dif­fi­cult for a stu­dent, par­tic­u­larly one with trauma, to tell a teacher they don’t want to be touched, she ex­plains. “They may worry about hurt­ing the teacher’s feel­ings. Or they may feel they need to share per­sonal de­tails about their trauma.” And new stu­dents of­ten don’t know that they don’t have to be touched, and so they al­low the teacher to touch them, think­ing that’s just the way yoga is, adds Khouri. “If we say to stu­dents ‘Just tell me if you don’t want to be as­sisted’ and then peo­ple strug­gle to speak up for any rea­son and then feel trig­gered, up­set, or get a bad as­sist, the re­sponse from the teacher is usu­ally ‘You should have said no,’” says Mar­bach. “Which is one of the clas­sic re­sponses that sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors hear from ments, we can’t per­pet­u­ate the cy­cle of vic­tim blam­ing or re­in­force the mes­sage that the vic­tim is re­spon­si­ble.”

A po­ten­tial so­lu­tion: “Stu­dios should have signs on the door to re­mind stu­dents that they don’t have to be touched, sim­i­lar to how there are signs re­mind­ing stu­dents not to in­ter­rupt Savasana,” says Khouri. In ad­di­tion, “the teacher should make it clear that there is no obli­ga­tion to ex­plain why you don’t want touch in class.”

Be­ing nim­ble in your ap­proach, so that you can ad­just to the needs of in­di­vid­ual stu­dents, also in­cludes re­flect­ing on your as­sist­ing ap­proach, adds Mar­bach. Ask your­self: Why do I as­sist? What do I gain from it? What does the stu­dent gain from it? How do I make de­ci­sions about when to as­sist? How do I know if a stu­dent has ben­e­fited from an as­sist? She gen­er­ally ad­vo­cates for a hands-off ap­proach, for sev­eral rea­sons. “By cre­at­ing a class with­out phys­i­cal as­sists, we model for stu­dents that there is no one way, no one path for be­friend­ing and mov­ing the body,” she says. “Many teach­ers feel the need to ‘fix’ their stu­dents with as­sists, but when we re­lease at­tach­ment to the need or de­sire to phys­i­cally cor­rect and ad­just, we are able to stay in the present mo­ment with the whole class, not just the one stu­dent we are touch­ing. We are able to let go of our ego and how it col­ors our view of our role in the class. We are there to pro­vide a heal­ing frame­work, not to im­pose a stan­dard of what an asana prac­tice should look like.”

Mar­bach adds: “Yoga is a way for us to get back into our­selves, to lis­ten in and not only ac­knowl­edge, but re­spond to the needs of the phys­i­cal and emo­tional bod­ies. Phys­i­cal as­sists can send a sig­nal that we need an ex­ter­nal per­son to help us fig­ure out our own bod­ies. There are al­ready too many mes­sages that we need to go out­side to find our way in.”

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