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so what does trauma-informed mean, anyway?

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

In my last post, I mentioned that trauma was a particularly tricky word to define. According to the US Veteran’s Administration, 7-8% of people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD, however, operates with a very limited definition, and does not include other common experiences such as developmental trauma, complex-PTSD, or racialized trauma (just to name a few). Trauma often goes undiagnosed, as other symptoms are addressed. If were were to go by the ACES study alone, 1 in 6 adults experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences (these include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems). 60% of adults reported having at least one of these. And that’s just childhood– not accounting for other types of traumatic experience that can occur to us as adults.

So, making our wellness culture more trauma-informed is a really positive step– why wouldn’t we want to make gyms, personal training, dance classes, yoga sessions, more accessible to folks who really need these services? In the past few years, I’ve observed a dramatic increase in the number of practitioners who are interested in being able to better serve their clients in this way. But “trauma-informed” isn’t a certification that’s governed by any entity, and there are no over-arching principles that we can point to to guide us. In the absence of any regulation or guidance, each practitioner can take a two-hour online course and feel like they've done what they need to do to be "trauma-informed." The deeper work of holding space for trauma is much more than can easily be taught in even a weekend class, however.

First, we should ask--does everybody need a trauma-informed yoga class, or training session, or gym? Probably not. I do think that everyone can benefit from one. The brilliant Hala Khouri says, “Trauma informed yoga is people informed yoga,” and that feels just right to me. Trauma-informed movement isn’t super-serious, devoid of joy, or boring. I don’t always advertise myself as being trauma-informed, but if you’ve taken a class with me over the past three years, then you’ve taken a trauma-informed class.

We all deserve to be treated with respect. My definition of trauma-informed starts there. Let’s not forget that even someone is not working through traumatic stress, they’re probably dealing with the plain old overwhelming stress of living/working/relating to other humans. Keeping all of that in mind, it just makes sense to me to treat people in a way that respects their bodies, minds, and nervous systems.

Respecting People’s Bodies

Respecting people’s bodies means making all bodies feel welcome. This is more than just saying, “Everyone is welcome!”– it includes not only marketing, but the accessibility of the practice space (physically and financially), and the accessibility of the practice itself. It means using language that welcomes all physical experiences, by normalizing body diversity and by never suggesting that one type of body or physical outcome is superior to another. It means teaching or coaching in a way that expects variations (not calling them “modifications”), because diversity is the norm. It means offering cues that are explorational rather than directive; avoiding nocebic language, and giving space/time to stop and rest in a neutral shape.

It also means that we literally respect bodies by not touching them without permission; by being mindful of how we approach (being visible/audible, not surprising anyone unexpectedly from behind); making restrooms accessible; by allowing folks to care for their bodies in whatever ways they need to, even if it seems unusual.

Respecting People’s Minds

Respecting people’s minds means that we can be open to a wide variety of behavior and reactions. Some clients/students will need to learn visually and will need to see the teacher clearly. Others won’t be comfortable in certain yoga poses (including Savasana), so they may need to excuse themselves, or be invited to choose a different experience.

Respecting minds also means that each person can learn in their own way and on their own timeline; so, there’s no urgency or agenda, and there’s no expectation about what that learning will look like.

It also means that we don’t make assumptions about how something should feel in another person’s body– we respect the experience that they’re having, and we believe what they tell us about their experience.

Respecting People’s Nervous Systems

Respecting people’s nervous systems means that we do what we can to create a space that is safe(r) for them– knowing that for some bodies, safety may not be a possibility. For example, I always explain that the door is locked, but that they can open it to leave any time they need to; that it’s fine to use the restroom or step out of the room at any time; that it’s okay to say no or make a different choice about a pose or movement (although they may have to actually see that in action in order to believe it). Offering options that are clear and free of judgment (for example, “you can close your eyes, or keep them open; see what feels better to you right now”) are important. Suggesting that people simply “do what feels good” is not the most effective way to offer options, since many people aren’t able to access that kind of information in their body.

Respecting People’s complex histories, and valuing those differences

Finally, it is absolutely critical that a "trauma-informed" practitioner-- especially one who enjoys privilege, as I do-- engage in ongoing work to understand how systems of oppression affect us all. Historically underestimated populations, such as Black, indigenous, people of color, queer, trans, neurodivergent folks, those living with disabilities, those in bigger bodies, just to name a few-- these are people that will have had a greater lived experience of trauma than those who do not fall into these categories.

In order to make practices, services, and spaces that truly feel welcoming and accessible, we have to learn, respect, and value the histories and differences that each of us may be carrying in our bodies. This means that, as practitioners, we need to engage in our own work to decolonize (or "unsettle," as white people) our bodies and our services. This is a lifetime of work.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list– these are just a few of the ways that a class or space might be “trauma-informed,” "trauma-responsible," or “trauma-sensitive,” but most importantly (to me), trauma-informed means setting aside bias and judgment, and being open to seeing another human as they are. It means dropping expectations about how “good” yoga students or coaching clients look/behave, and understanding that the folks who have a hard time paying attention, or who talk when other people are quiet, or who may not want to engage with others at all, are likely to be operating in ways to protect and keep themselves safe.

Every individual deserves respect, dignity and a safer space to engage in self-care and wellness. While we don’t have a universal definition for trauma-informed movement, I think it’s a really good thing that more people are thinking, talking, and reading (thank you!) about why it matters.

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