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How Trauma Informed Language Cued Vulnerability Within Me

Photos by Marguerite

words by Zahrie Ernst

It was simply movement of the body. There were no props today, nor any of those “fancy” poses you might see on social media by Insta-gurus. I sat on my mat moving my arms in circles as Sangeeta Vallabhan cued us by inviting any variations of arm circles; bigger, smaller, slower, faster, during a Trauma Informed Yoga Class at Yoga Vida as part of her 25-hour Solemarch Training.

Invitational language was one of many concepts Sangeeta demonstrated for teaching a trauma informed yoga class. “Offering” instead of “telling” a student what to do can be quite confusing, especially for those of us trained in Vinyasa. We are often taught that being able to command a room is part of being a good teacher.

For this reason and others, I strongly disliked the very first trauma informed yoga class I took years ago. As an “experienced” student of almost 8 years and an instructor of 4 years, I judged this lack of authority and monotonous language harshly. Where were the alignment cues? Why wasn’t the instructor cueing the breath? I felt so much resistance in my body I immediately began to blame the instructor for my experience. Yet, halfway through the class, a light bulb went off in my head.

The resistance I felt was the leftover emotional discomfort of trauma I had experienced. My body was letting me in on a secret that it hadn’t felt comfortable enough to share: we are in pain, and we want you to know it.

I felt a tightness in my ribcage, throat, and jaw. Instead of forcing myself to relax, I let the tightness sit within me. It was a scary thing to try. As a hyper-vigilant human in general, I am acutely aware of how my body shows anxiety and fear, and am quick to move away from it and into a relaxed state. It never occurred to me that it would be healing to sit with whatever bubbled up in the practice. 

From there, I offered gentleness and compassion. The discomfort had a reason and right to be there. Just as the teacher using trauma informed practices was holding space for me, I began to do the same.

After that class, I began to see how the language used in trauma informed yoga is intentional. There is an absence of metaphors and what Sangeeta called “flowery” language. There is an absence of what is “right” or “aligned.” There was purposeful free time to move in a way that peaked my curiosity of feeling, as opposed to going through the motions in a power Vinyasa class.  I wasn’t distracted by what the teacher was saying or how physically aligned I was. 

My emotional and physical reaction to this class was a surprise to me as I had done all the therapy and was living a very healthy life. But, as I know now, The Body Keeps The Score, not me. There were – and still are – remnants of what I endured throughout my life held within my body. Author and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk shares this concept from his research in the aforementioned book (and also very clever phrase). 

When you step into a trauma informed class, you might be surprised by what you do not know about yourself. Whatever mechanisms, thought patterns or samskaras you hold within you do a wonderful job to protect you (Anodea Judith refers to this as “body armor”). The invitational language reminds your brain of exactly that – it is an invitation to step into the body exactly as it is, without these protections. 

As a teacher and student, I have such a deep respect and admiration for the vulnerability people embrace when they step onto the mat, whether in a trauma informed class or not. The concepts I learned in Sangeeta’s training speaks to the vulnerability that may not come so easily to those who have survived trauma.

As instructors, we must guide with compassion, leave space open for exploration and thoughtfully consider how our language may impact our students’ ability to step into a vulnerable place.

Zahrie (she/her) is a 200hr RYT in NYC. She recently completed Sangeeta Vallabhan’s Solemarch Training in Trauma Informed Yoga in July 2019. She is a student of Love Yoga Shala, Dharma Yoga Center and Integral Yoga.