Culturally-Inclusive, Trauma-Sensitive Yoga


At this time of transition (Solstice, New Year, presidential turnover, etc.), it’s a good time to let go of what no longer serves us and make room for hope and deep connection with others. This takes some self-reflection and what better place to start than in the yoga studio? In the new year, how about taking some time to look around your yoga classes: Who is in the room? Who is missing? And why? What might we be doing or not doing to insure our yoga spaces are inclusive to all? Are we as instructors doing all we can to make these sacred spaces inclusive? Are we as students challenging exclusionary behavior when we see it (preferably after class)? Most exclusionary behavior (aka microaggressions) are unintentional and are simply based on a lack of knowledge. What can we do to make room for culturally inclusive, trauma-sensitive spaces that encourage deeper understanding, authentic connection, and empowered yoga students and instructors?

In many yoga studios, many microaggressions are occurring. When they go unchecked and unchallenged, they perpetuate an environment of exclusion. The key to microaggressions is that they are unintentional, and thus, in order to challenge them, we must be aware of them. That takes some education, reflection, and a willingness to learn what we don’t know we don’t know.

From my personal experience over the years as a yoga instructor, yoga student, social justice educator and activist, and childhood trauma-survivor, some of my insight comes from knowing what worked for me and what didn’t when I was recovering from my own trauma. Keep in mind that statistically-speaking, every single yoga class, bar none, has at least one trauma survivor in it, and most likely, several. The following are a few Do’s and Don’ts to get you started on creating a more culturally-inclusive, trauma-sensitive yoga studio. Pay special attention if you are a yoga instructor, and if you are not, consider making these suggestions at the studio you frequently attend.

1. Many people (especially trauma survivors) have difficulty closing their eyes in public spaces, therefore: Don’t: Tell students to close their eyes; Do: Give them the option of closing their eyes or gazing down.

2. Gender-specific language can feel exclusionary to many people Don’t: Talk about the level of bra-straps when you are suggesting where to place hands for cobra pose or chaturanga Do: Say “Place hands underneath shoulders…” Don’t: Say  “you guys” to the class (many yoga classes are filled with women) Do: Say “you all” or “my friends” or “yogis” or another gender-neutral option Don’t: Say “point your toes like Barbie” Do: Say “flex feet and press balls of feet down away from face” (also known as flointing (flex and pointing)

3. Consider the assumptions we make about bodies Don’t: make generalizations about what “we” can or can’t do, or for example, assume everyone has 10 toes (“press all 10 toes into the mat”) Do: pay attention to/be sensitive to student’s needs, offer accommodations, and say “tops of toes press into the mat”

4. Giving unwanted adjustments can be re-traumatizing (not just from abuse but from surgeries or other medical conditions) Don’t: touch a single student without their expressed permission, every single adjustment Do: when students are in a posture where they can’t see each other (such as child’s pose), ask who would like adjustments (opting in, rather than opting out, puts the onus for responding on those who are feeling empowered to do so on any given day); proceed to check in with them before each adjustment (many adjustments can be explained without any touch at all)

5. Honoring the eastern traditions from where yoga came can build cultural inclusiveness Don’t: butcher the Sanskrit language or assume we Westerners know or are experts in this ancient, sacred tradition Do: learn correct pronunciations, practice cultural humility, and always, always, continue to learn more

These are a few of many suggestions. A decent resource if you want to learn more is: “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body” by David Emerson, Elizabeth Hopper, Bessel van der Kolk, and Peter A. Levine.