Why hands-on assists aren’t right for trauma-informed yoga

A yoga teacher uses her hands to guide a woman's hips into position in a lunge posture.

Touch can be relational, connecting, healing, and necessary for well-being. But Yoga Outreach (YO) classes are touch-free zones for several important reasons. 

First, no-touch zones make classes feel safer for some survivors of trauma. 

Not all of YO’s students are trauma survivors. But a high proportion of people in prisons, addiction recovery centres, and domestic violence Transition Houses where YO offers programs do come from abusive backgrounds. Common adjustments such as guiding hips backward in Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), or turning shoulders to face forward in Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana 1) can trigger frightening memories.

“Having someone in a position of power administer touch while the student is in a practice that makes them feel quite vulnerable can  be a real violation,” explains Nicole Marcia, Director of Teacher Training and Mentorship for Yoga Outreach. Outside of training teachers, Marcia is also a certified yoga therapist, specializing in helping trauma survivors heal through embodiment practices.

Even though a teacher’s intention is to support healing, she explains, a simple touch can trigger a memory of harm. Suddenly the student is dysregulated, and yoga becomes a scary activity. Definitely not the impact the teacher was hoping to have.

Asking for consent is not enough to mitigate harm, says Marcia.  

“Some YO students have grown up in situations where it would have been unsafe to say no to touch, so they’ll say yes even when it’s not OK.”

In the context of social service facilities, teachers need to know that students’ ability to give informed, enthusiastic consent is impeded by their history. Thus, Marcia advises YO teachers not to offer hands-on assists at all, so there is no reason to ask for consent. 


Second, hands-on assists emphasize alignment over sensation.

In social-service settings, the goal of the class is not mastering asana, but “learning to use one’s body as a resource for self-regulation,” explains Marcia. In other contexts, such as studios or community centres, she believes teachers should be clear with students and themselves about objectives.  

“Is the focus of the practice alignment and getting deeper into poses with the assistance of the teacher?” says Marcia. “Or is the focus on having an experience of feeling safe in your body? Of understanding that one has choice and agency in having an embodied experience?” 

When the focus is on noticing sensation, becoming comfortable in one’s body, and growing confidence in making decisions, it doesn’t make sense to spend time correcting positions. Adjustments only distract the student from noticing their own comfort or discomfort in a particular shape. 

“It depends what kind of space you want to hold as a teacher,” says Marcia. “At YO, we’re really clear about what space our teachers hold.” 


Third, adjustments reinforce a power dynamic.

A lot of overcoming trauma is reclaiming power – over one’s body and over one’s life. It’s the reason trauma-informed teachers use invitational language instead of being more direct in their instructions. Students should always feel like participating (or not) is their choice.

If a teacher invites students to stretch their arms out to the sides, but then dashes over to lower a student’s shoulders, they are sending mixed messages. If you choose to add arms, you need to do it in a specific way – my way. 

Marcia says, “We send the message that we’re in a position of power and we know better than the student how their body should look in this shape.”

Some students will react by complying outwardly, but internally feel resentful or defensive.

Other students will feel self-conscious about their physical abilities. When a teacher fusses with their posture, it may confirm fears about not doing it “right.”

Neither of these reactions are ideal for a class supporting survivors of trauma.

Offering a particular kind of space

There’s no doubt that therapeutic touch can be incredibly beneficial in certain situations. Some yoga practitioners even choose classes based on the teacher’s skill at delivering hands-on assists. But adjustments don’t make sense in the context of a weekly volunteer-run class in a social service setting.

“One of the ways that we express caring for people is through touch. There’s really nothing wrong with it,” says Marcia. “It’s an important part of our health and wellbeing, and it’s also a very important part of healing from traumatic experience.”

She continues, “But we also need places where we can go and explore embodiment and know that we don’t have to contend with touch. YO provides that particular kind of space.”

Author: Wendy Goldsmith

Other posts in our series about The Foundations of Trauma-Informed Yoga:
Invitational Language

For more in-depth training in trauma-informed principles, consider the Yoga Outreach Certification™ program: a 200 hour immersion.


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