A Safe Place to Heal
By Tiffany Shaddock
Trauma, which takes on many different guises, changes EVERYTHING. The body no longer feels like a safe place to be. We’d give ANYTHING to crawl out from our own skin and escape. Words, smells, sounds -- the smallest things may catapult us into a state of hypersensitivity and fear. Where there was HOME, there's just a permanent state of helplessness.
“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin” ― Danielle Bernock
I cannot speak for all trauma survivors; but I can share with you my own experience, and, most importantly, the freedom and healing I’ve found on the mat.
Like a massive earthquake, trauma generates aftershocks. What’s different about trauma, however, is that these aftershocks never seem to go away…never dissipate. The inner scream will not be silenced. It’s a heartbreakingly lonely and terrifying existence. You cannot breathe…cannot eat…cannot connect with your self or anybody else. Drunken blackouts, cutting, suicide attempts, and any other way to escape the pain, are the result.
See, the thing with trauma survivors -- especially those of us who have survived sexual trauma, is that we have found ways to escape being present in our bodies as a means of survival. Being “here” isn’t safe -- no place is. With sexual trauma, the only way to “get through it” was to utterly dissociate and go somewhere far, far away in the mind, while our bodies seemingly betrayed us as unspeakable acts were forced upon them.
Thankfully I found my way into the heart of yoga … or maybe yoga found me. Either way, it profoundly changed my life.
Yoga offers a space to become reacquainted with ourselves. It begins there. The gentle coming to the mat, and drinking in whatever moments of Presence the nervous system can stand before either shutting down or ramping up.
This is why every yoga teacher would do a GREAT service for our community by learning trauma sensitive/informed methods of teaching. We don’t know which of our students is a survivor. Not all of us exhibit “behaviors” that give it away; in fact, most of us will do ANYTHING to hide our trauma because of the shame we carry along with it (ah, but that’s an entirely different subject, an article for another time).
When I first really started practicing yoga, I was far too afraid to go to any classes. People scared me. The idea of moving my body in this way, and allowing others to see, caused me to feel physically ill.
Sitting on my mat at home, the idea of breathing actually gave me anxiety. Coming into my own body would cause actual panic attacks. I felt utterly hopeless. Not even yoga could “fix” me.
After a suicide attempt, I was forced into therapy -- which just so happened to be a mindfulness based program (as I said, yoga found me). In this setting, with a professional therapist; I gradually learned how to regulate my symptoms of PTSD, and was encouraged to dive into my yoga practice, which now felt much safer for me.
Going to a class with other humans was terrifying. I cried all the way to that first session, anxiety coursing through my veins. I turned around to go home, then turned back toward class. I sat in my car, unable to move.
Eventually, I made it. I got on my mat with a group of strangers. Here’s where teachers, and other students, can make a huge difference.
I wasn’t expecting touch, so when, while trying desperately to “relax,” I felt a hand on my back, I fell apart inside. Years of training in the art of hiding throughout my childhood allowed – no, forced -- me to keep it together on the outside, but I swore I’d never go to another class.
Thankfully, I had an amazing therapist who encouraged me to try again, and so I did -- eventually finding a very safe space on my mat, in my classes and in my body. I still suffer from PTSD symptoms, but not all day, every day. I can breathe. I can regulate. I WANT to live IN THIS BODY and take care of it. I’ve forgiven myself for the crime I never committed. Yoga gave me this gift, but it took time and it took teachers skilled in trauma- informed ways of teaching.
So, what can you do to offer your students a safe space? Here are some ideas:
- NEVER touch a student without their permission. Note: Many sexual trauma survivors feel obligated to consent -- we don’t actually feel as though we have rights to our own bodies. This is where things like “flip-chips” are especially supportive -- we don’t have to SAY anything.
- Don’t single us out. Rather than making a big deal about adjustments, simply say something along the lines of, “If, for any reason, you don’t feel like being touched today please indicate that by…” and give a SUBTLE option for opting out. With all eyes closed, students can flip palms up or flip their chip depending on their needs. Keep it casual so no body feels forced to comply because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
- Keep the focus off of anything sexual or body image related. If you’re going to discuss the root chakra, keep the emphasis of feeling safe and grounded, not sexual. This can be EXTREMELY damaging to a survivor. Avoid phrases like “bikini body”, etc, as many of us also deal with eating disorders or may simply feel objectified. In fact, this phrase is usually directed toward females and DOES objectify us, so avoid it.
- Always give “options”, not “modifications”, for students to feel safe. Maybe we don’t feel comfortable rolling our hips around or doing cat/cow. Give us something that doesn’t require sensual movement as an option. It’s also important to note that many of us experienced sexual trauma while laying on our backs, so traditional Savasana can be a big trigger (I’ve had MANY episodes of flashbacks during Savasana). Offer other options without singling anybody out. Perhaps fetal position, legs up the wall, sitting against a wall on laying on the belly would be more comfortable for some students.
As teachers, it’s imperative that we provide a safe, nurturing place for our students to heal, while finding the balance in offering challenge to promote growth and build strength. Use your intuition and become informed. Talk to any trauma survivors you know who are ready and willing to share their stories and LISTEN.
As students, it’s also important to honor the space and boundaries of those who practice with us. We do not know each other’s histories and may be very surprised if we did.
- Ultimately, practice loving kindness and compassion. Honor boundaries and personal space. As we get to know our students, we will learn what allows them to feel safe. During this process of becoming well acquainted, I urge you to offer trauma-informed safe space practices with all students.
Yoga is a great liberating tool, when students are given space to find their own way in this beautiful journey. Our job is to simply turn on the light so that they can find their own way through the darkness.
A member of Yoga Alliance International, Tiffany studied under Dharma Shakti and completed her 200 hour RYS teacher training at Yogalution Movement in Southern California. Following in the tradition of Dharma Shakti and Govind Das of Bhakti Yoga Shala (her other "Home Studio"), Tiffany keeps her offerings donation-based whenever possible. In line with the Bhakti tradition of Love in Action, Tiffany teaches many styles of yoga, including Vinyasa, Restorative and Yin, with an emphasis on Pranayama (breath), Visualization, Mantra, Spiritual Anecdotes, and Meditation. She offers modifications for various levels and needs, along with verbal/visual cues and physical adjustments as permitted by students.
Group photo: Sarah Lim