I Tried Trauma-Sensitive Yoga
By Amanda Kippert
I’m one of about 20 million Americans who turns to yoga on a regular basis as both a workout and a stress-reliever. I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for almost two decades. You’d think I would have mastered flying pigeon by now, but alas, I’m still more comfortable in the tree pose-arena.
I’ve tried lots of different variations of yoga over the years—vinyasa, yin, Bikram, hatha, ashtanga, aerial. Yes, I’ve done yoga upside down while being suspended in a long, silky piece of fabric. To be honest, it’s one of my favorites. But until lately, I’d never heard of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga being offered alongside the more traditional types (it has found its way into shelters though). Recently, I noticed this type of yoga class was gaining momentum—perhaps the word is finally getting out, after 5,000 years of its existence, that yoga does more for your body than make you bendy.
Trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga classes are especially designed for people who have experienced all different types of trauma and who want to try and work some of that out on the mat. Yoga, known as a mind/body practice, not only strengthens our muscles but asks us to observe our breathing and be mindful of our intentions. It’s the whole package.
However, some parts of yoga can be triggering for survivors—like when instructors try to adjust participants through touch—taking away that whole “relaxing” thing yoga is known for. To see what difference a trauma-informed mindset makes, I decided to try out a trauma-sensitive yoga class by All Bodies Rise Yoga in Tucson, Ariz.
When I walk into my first class I see the other students—all ages, body types, but also, all women (of note, the class is open to any gender)—who had obviously done this before, or at least gotten the memo beforehand that we should extend our mats from the wall around the edge of the room. From past experience, I knew this was typical of practicing handstands, which I thought was kind of advanced for what was touted as an all-levels class. I later learned it was so we could practice a “Legs Up the Wall” pose, a restorative posture that requires little flexibility and lots of stress-relieving benefits.
There’s plenty of space between everyone so no one feels like their personal space is being invaded, something I can appreciate from having taken overcrowded classes in the past and literally bumping into people as we stretched. I also note the class made up solely of women, though all gender identities are welcome. Women are typically the patrons of this practice—a 2017 survey by Yoga in America found women made up 82 percent of those who practice yoga.
Right off the bat, the class instructor and All Bodies Rise founder Jeniffer Zimmerman, 48, introduces herself and gives us preferred pronouns—”she” and “her.” “We’re talking about a lot of intersections when we’re talking about trauma,” she tells me later.
There’s a disclaimer about leaving class at any time—you’re allowed to, without question. Don’t worry about anyone looking at you funny, says Zimmerman. The same goes for the flow itself—she makes sure to let us know we can do any variation of the poses that’s comfortable for us. There’s no pressure to look like an Instagram yoga model in this class.
Speaking of no pressure, I notice the studio is devoid of it’s typical mirrors up front. Zimmerman says she wants the focus to be internal. I don’t mind not seeing myself for a while.
I zone out to the low-key playlist as we begin to bend and breathe. The poses are familiar and not difficult. Zimmerman mostly stays at the front of class instead of walking around observing how we’re doing. This is another intentional choice, she says later. “You don’t have that feeling here of someone walking around looking at you.” She also doesn’t give us the option for adjustments, which is when the instructor will help students to get the pose correct by moving a shoulder down or an arm to the left. It involves touching, something that could trigger a survivor even if they consent to it.
Zimmerman’s cues on how we should move are carefully curated, but I don’t notice this until she mentions it later. Instead of saying, “Move the left leg up to meet the right,” she says “Move yourleft leg up to meet yourright.” It’s a subtle difference, but it’s for a reason, she says.
“I think it’s really important not to talk about your body parts like they’re objects. It’s this process of reowning ourselves.”
Yoga Without Pretense
Back in 2010, Zimmerman says she was living a pretty typical life compared to her friends of the same age, but she just wasn’t happy. She didn’t like her job, the relationship she was in or her body. Then she found yoga and says there was something about flowing in and out of poses that made her feel connected to herself in a way she hadn’t felt since she was young. It was perfect, except for one thing.
“I was finding some of the same problems in the yoga culture that I was experiencing outside of yoga,” she says. Appearance, status, influence and wealth were taking priority in yoga, and Zimmerman wasn’t having it. She started All Bodies Rise as a place where, well, all bodies were welcome.
“Westernized yoga has been focusing on wealth. I want my students to come in as they are, in any way they feel comfortable, not necessarily in $100 pants,” she says.
The class I took was a $7 “donation” which Zimmerman says All Bodies Rise funnels to anti-oppression causes locally, nationally and internationally. If a student has a personal cause they’re passionate about, say domestic violence, Zimmerman might route that class’ profits toward a domestic violence nonprofit.
“It isn’t just about trauma. It’s about social justice, mental wellness and body liberation,” she says. Mentorships for incoming teachers include a timeline assignment of the relationship they’ve had with their body over the span of their life. What messages have they received about their body, their race, size, ability, gender, sexuality? Zimmerman says it’s eye-opening.
“If I’m not aware of the biases that I carry, that I’ve inherited from family and society, they’re going to translate into my teaching unintentionally. I think a lot of people in the fitness and wellness industry are fat-phobic for example, and if we don’t do our own inquiry into ourselves and heal that, our classes aren’t going to be inclusive.”
Conclusion: Healing and Invigorating
After class ended with my hands-down favorite part, Savasana (that’s basically the nap pose), I leave feeling lighter, clearer-headed and oddly energized for 8:30 at night after a long day (some poses are thought to unblock energy along the spine, and awaken the nervous system, leaving you feel invigorated). Over time, I could see how classes like this, in conjunction with other healing modalities like therapy, support groups, journaling or meditation, could start to unravel what trauma worked to tightly wind up in the body.
To find a trauma-sensitive or trauma-informed yoga teacher near you, visit Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga website. Namaste.