Nicole Marcia’s self-esteem tanked after she was assaulted by a neighbour more than two decades ago. She shut up the negative voices in her head with drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. In her early 20s at the time, she didn’t connect her behaviour with the assault. Essentially, she just thought she sucked.
One day she heard a celebrity talking about yoga on TV, and thought, ‘Huh! I should try that.” A few classes turned into a regular yoga practice, and after a while her mood started to lift as well. But it wasn’t her mastery of backbends, or attaining Madonna’s yoga body. Rather, the shift seemed to have something to do with the instructor.
“I thought I was shit,” says Marcia. “But the teacher saw me as a valued student with a lot of potential. My relationship with her shifted how I thought about myself.”
The interactions they shared in that limited teacher/student relationship lifted Marcia one significant step out of her depression. It was also the first step in Marcia’s career path from yoga practitioner to her current position as Director of Training and Mentorship for Yoga Outreach, specializing in trauma-informed yoga training.
Watch Nicole Marcia lead a trauma-informed practice for anxiety.
Healing occurs in relationship, not isolation.
With the benefit of hindsight and a Master of Arts Degree with a specialization in Yoga Therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, Marcia understands now how that connection played a role in her recovery.
“Every relationship that we have in our lives has the potential to reinforce or worsen, or heal past traumatic experience,” she explains, referring to the work of author, Judith Herman, who writes about how trauma and abuse affects people long after it ends.
“In her renewed connection with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological facilities that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic operations of trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy.”
In Herman’s view, there’s no such thing as just a yoga teacher (or doctor, or lawyer, or bus driver). Each relationship is an opportunity for individuals to give and receive respect, gratitude, support, or knowledge.
The relationship with a trauma-informed yoga teacher has one additional benefit over interactions with lawyers and shopkeepers: the teacher understands co-regulation.
Co-regulation is part of a process called neuroception, where we instinctively scan people around us for signs of safety. Do their facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language indicate that they are safe to be around? If yes, then we breathe more calmly, and relax our posture. However, if a teacher arrives flustered, reacts with frustrations to mats in the “wrong” place, or responds to questions defensively, students may feel more guarded.
Marcia adds, “The trauma-informed yoga teacher understands that their regulation is intrinsically linked to the regulation of their students. They would say, ‘I have to be grounded and regulated to hold space for my students to be in safe relationship with me.”
The teacher understanding the value of relationship is the most important aspect of a trauma-informed yoga class, adds Marcia. A teacher who gets it will be on the lookout for ways to disrupt traditional teacher-student power dynamics.
“It can’t be a top-down relationship,” explains Marcia, “because that’s what occurs in situations of abuse. The abuser is in a position of power, and says I’m going to tell you what to do with your body and how you should feel.”
Thus, trauma-informed yoga teachers invite, rather than tell, students to take a particular form. For example: ‘The invitation here is to move your arms along with your breath. Stillness is another option if that feels right for you today’.
Another power disruptor is encouraging students to evaluate their own experience of the forms, and make choices around that assessment. For instance, if a student asks if they are doing it right, a trauma-informed yoga teacher might respond by asking how it feels, and encourage the student to judge it’s “rightness” based on their own assessment. ‘What kind of sensations are you noticing? How does it feel when you shorten your stance, or bend your knee a little less?”
Sharing authentic experience
Rather than cue-ing forms verbally while walking amongst students, the trauma-informed yoga teacher participates fully on their own mat. They stretch, breathe, and balance together with the class.
While this contrasts with some people’s idea about holding the seat of a teacher, there are some great reasons for participating along with your students. First, is that while participating, you’re not watching anyone, or “bringing your evaluative gaze to the class”, as Marcia says. For some people coming from a background of abuse, being observed may feel eerily similar to their relationship with their abuser.
Participating along with the class can also encourage a sense of community and camaraderie. We’re all practicing balancing. It’s okay to treat ourselves and our friends kindly when we wobble.
“Teachers might even share what the experience is like in their bodies,” explains Marcia. “They could say, for example, “I notice that when I raise my arm over my head it supports a stretch in my side. Because I’ve been spending a lot of time at my computer lately, it feels really great. You can notice what it’s like for you.”
Trauma-informed yoga training encourages teachers to focus on relationship and engagement, over a superb sequence of pranayama (mindful breathing) and asana. Thus, teachers often make time for check ins, where students and teacher can choose to share a little about what’s going on with their emotions or energy levels that day. Students in trauma-informed yoga classes will often banter with the teacher and each other throughout. Everyone’s observations about a form or exercise are as important as the teacher’s.
Through welcoming check-ins, sharing their personal connection to yoga aloud, and by breathing and wobbling through forms with their students, teachers cultivate a collaborative experience. While it can be daunting for some to give up the safer seat of the unchallenged expert, teachers who truly want to participate in another’s healing find that devoting time to relationship is ultimately more satisfying.
By Wendy Goldsmith