Call out for submisions: Zine on yoga, healing trauma and emotional justice.

ImageCommunity Yoga Vancouver is searching for submissions for our 2nd zine. This zine will focus on the path to teaching; healing trauma through yoga. We are looking for writing, poetry, blog pieces, stories, drawings, collages or whatever you can think of that fits in a zine!

We are looking to teachers and students for submissions that discuss:

– yoga as a path to healing trauma
– yoga as a tool for personal growth
– your path to teaching
– trauma as related to experiences of oppression (racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism and cissexism etc.)
– yoga as a tool for resistance, liberation and emotional justice

These can be personal experiences or experiences you have played a role in.

*We are using the term yoga in the broad sense. Meaning, not just asana but all facets of this practice.

All submissions will be read and considered by CYV teachers and several other people.

The final product will be licensed under creative commons and copies of the zine will be made available to all contributors for personal publishing and/or sale (preferably by-donation).

Feel free to write us with questions, comments or suggestions.

Due date: April 15, 2013

Submit to: communityyogavancouver@gmail.com with subject line “zine”

With Best Intentions: Yoga, Gentrification and Solidarity in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

One thing I’ve noticed about yoga teachers is that almost all of us are in some way driven to help people. We want to create positive change in the world. We want to show others that healing is possible, just like others have shown us. Usually we’ve come from a place of suffering and when we found yoga we discovered safety, peace and serenity we didn’t have before. We discovered our breath, our bodies and even sometimes God – for lack of a better word. Eventually our paths as teachers and healers were revealed to us.  We excitedly make our way through our teacher trainings and when we finish we’re unleashed into the world – shiny eyed and well intentioned. We are a quickly growing league of big-hearted, makeshift missionaries. Despite the purity of our intentions, in our fumbling infancy we sometimes accidentally cause harm where we mean to be helpful.

Before I move on to the remainder of this piece I want to clarify a few things. I am a relatively new teacher. I don’t claim to know all the answers. I am merely hoping to ask questions and point out some problems I’ve noticed. I have respect for the teachers’ whose work I address in this piece and I hope to work with them in the future so we can discuss the questions raised here and more. I want to be a comrade and a friend – not an enemy or an outsider. I believe the work we do is deeply important, I just think we need to be more mindful of how we execute it so that we can better contribute to the change we hope to create. I also want to acknowledge that while I use one group as an example here I am by no means trying to target them – my intention is to spark conversation. This group is just one example of people doing this work and they happen to be doing it in my hometown, in a community I’m familiar with. There are many teachers, yoga studios and non-profits that should be thinking about gentrification, privilege and oppression – myself included. This is work we all need to be doing.

Recently I came across an article from Elephant Journal that was posted on the Karma Teacher’s website. It’s entitled “Karma Teachers: Showing the Huddled Masses How to Breathe for Free”. What I’d like to draw some attention to here is the language used to the describe the “huddled masses” Karma Teachers are “in service to”:

“We have walked around East Hastings several times, treading carefully around its edges as if not to wake a dragon. The sights are indeed lamentable: homeless, drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes stumble mindlessly from one side of the street to the other, some silent and lost in thought, others raging loudly against the world, some mumbling incoherently and some intimidating outside voyeurs with defiant looks.
This is where Karma Teachers have opened their new studio. They are on a mission: teaching yoga for free with an open door policy in this forgotten part of town (emphasis added).”

As far as I’m aware the person who wrote this article is not a member of Karma Teachers. They don’t live in Vancouver. Still, the article is posted on the Karma Teacher’s website which implies to me that they condone what it says and the portrayal it renders.

I find this article troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, how do you think potential students (or, you know, the “huddled masses”) would feel about this description? Do you think it would make them feel welcome and respected or looked down on and untouchable – just like they are made to feel every day by most of society? When we talk about accessibility, do we just mean prices, or are we actually attempting to create safer space where people can leave the judgments others have of them at the door? Our words have power and in this case they serve to illuminate a massive perceived separation between the people being served and the people doing the service.

Second, this piece is quite de-humanizing and degrading to the people being described. Yes, many of the people who live in the Downtown Eastside are homeless, suffering from addiction or involved in the sex trade, but they are people having these experience. They are not simply “homeless” or “drunks”. The tone of this piece reminds me of someone going to the zoo to cautiously view wild animals. It’s eerily similar to racist depictions of Indigenous people by European colonizers when they arrived in the “new world”. Emma Laroque explains:

“As an inherent part of the colonial project, Europeans categorized themselves as the “civilized” and Indigenous peoples as the “savages,” the underlying assumption being that as savages, “Indians” were at the bottom of human development. From this institutionalized bias a complex set of images, terminology, policies and legislation has set Aboriginal peoples apart, both geographically (on reserves and residential schools), and as inferior peoples. In the larger society such assumptions are perpetuated through the media and the marketplace, through Hollywood, comics, ads and tourist sites. Such racism is deeply institutionalized to the point that it is the norm in White North American society (emphasis added).”

Considering this historically established relationship of dominance, can you see why I would find the description East Hastings troubling? Reverence for this history is of particular import when we are offer yoga classes on un-ceded Coast Salish territory. Even more so when such a high proportion of indigenous people make up the demographics of East Hastings.

I think this situation offers us a crucial opportunity to think about our status as outsiders – both as settlers on indigenous territory, but also as teachers coming from outside the community of the Downtown Eastside. When you come from outside a community, especially when you assume they need your help, there is a tendency to impose solutions on the people you are trying to help – solutions they may not need or even be open to. This happened with Christian missionaries hundreds of years ago and it’s happening now as the Downtown Eastside is transformed through gentrification. Harsha Walia, an activist and organizer from the Downtown Eastside explains:

“Gentrification is the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development. Encouraged by municipal development policies, economic incentives for investors, and the mythical pull of the creative city, urban land is purchased and developed at low cost for middle-class buyers.”

Whenever newcomers set up shop in a neighbourhood that is experiencing gentrification, especially when we are trying to do good work, it is important that we are mindful of the realities of the neighbourhood which we now “call home”. In fact, it is all too common that predatory condo developers shroud their intentions in language similar to service – language like “renewal” and ”revitalization”. Harsha Walia explains:

“In cities like Vancouver that purport to be progressive, the violence of gentrification is masked behind [an] ideological discourse aimed at giving it an air of reasonableness. First is “urban renewal.” This presumes that the downtrodden ghetto will be uplifted and revitalized through social entrepreneurship and trickle-down investment… (emphasis added)”.

Gentrification is a vital part of this discussion because, I feel, it is the responsibility of groups like Karma Teachers to understand the lived realities of the communities they are hoping to serve. The Downtown Eastside is constantly swarmed by outsiders, who claim to have good intentions, but are usually much more predatory than they appear.  This neighborhood has a rich history of community organizing and resistance against predatory condo developers and the opportunist governments who work in partnership with them. Examples of this resistance and community organizing include the Woodwards squat, the Annual Downtown Eastside women’s housing march, the 2010 Olympic tent village and the campaign to save the Pantages Theatre– and this is just barely scratching the surface.

There is a big difference, I think, between for-profit condo developers displacing Downtown Eastside residents (and consistently failing to produce promised “affordable” housing) and the work Karma Teacher’s is doing. That being said, gentrification is an aspect of the political reality of the community they hope to serve. Considering this I think it’s crucially important that Karma Teachers be mindful of the language they use to describe where they work and who they work with. For example, note their intention, as quoted from their website:

“We make yoga accessible to those groups that might not otherwise have an opportunity to participate in yoga classes. In doing so, we are helping to revitalize Vancouver’s lower east side community (emphasis added).”

No one I have ever met who lives or works in the Downtown Eastside refers to it as the “lower east side”. “Lower east side” is not geographically accurate and it works to erase the rich history and vibrant, relentless resistance of this community.

“Revitalization” is a stated goal of many condo developers as well as Gregor Robertson’s administration, both of which have contested, antagonistic and predatory relationships to the Downtown Eastside. Who is this revitalization serving? Does it work to accomplish anything positive for the people who are living and surviving in the Downtown Eastside? Many community groups and residents would say no. Considering this, perhaps this rhetoric should be avoided in the intentions of anyone hoping to provide service to this community. I don’t think this intention was meant as alignment with condo-developers, but I think this language is indicative of an outsider’s relationship to the Downtown Eastside.

I realize that this may read like a very harsh criticism. I want to make clear that while I feel strongly that this language is a problem and indicative of a power and privilege imbalance that needs to be addressed, I am not saying that their isn’t an opportunity for good work to be done here. I think offering accessible yoga is valuable and sacred work. It’s work that I feel called to do, however imperfectly. I’m simply suggesting that we need to be mindful of what we are trying to accomplish when we set our intentions for this work – are we suggesting that the community we hope to serve is broken? Are we saying that they must change or be “revitalized”? Or are we meeting people exactly where they are at and doing our best to empower them?  I believe this work can be made manifest in a powerful and beneficial way when we see ourselves as allies – not as givers of charity or missionaries with all the answers.

This work is not easy – but that’s why we do it. We want to do more than just feel our breath inside our bodies – we want to help others discover theirs, no matter who they are or where they come from. We want people to connect with a higher purpose and be able to remember the dignity bestowed upon them simply by existing. This is a beautiful and pure intention. With this intention in our hearts we would do well to remember that all those we wish to serve have stories of struggle and resilience, just like us. Their stories are held in their bodies and woven through their communities. These stories were written long before we came to serve and they are endlessly complex. If we open our hearts their richness will teach us the meaning of true service: solidarity, connection, empowerment.

Yoga Studios: Open to everyone?

The first time I walked into a yoga studio I was terrified. I had just had three panic attacks in 2 days and spent my lunch break at work that day crying in the bathroom. My anxiety had become so bad I confessed to my mom what was going on and she suggested I go to a yoga class. I can honestly say (like many people who practice yoga) that that class changed my life. That night, for the first time in months, I fell asleep within minutes and slept through the whole night. When I woke up I felt like more of my body was sunk into the mattress than usual. I was letting go and relaxing in a way I wasn’t at all used to but I desperately needed.

Since then I’ve practiced yoga fairly regularly for almost 6 years. I’m now a yoga teacher and my friends make fun of me for wearing tights and yoga pants all the time, but I honestly just don’t feel comfortable in anything else. I need to be able to move in my clothes and jeans just don’t do it for me. But here’s the thing, even though I’m a yoga teacher I can see how the western yoga world is an un-safe and un-welcoming place for many people.

In many ways, I am the target demographic for yoga studios. I’m white, from a middle class back ground, thin, able-bodied and cis-gendered (that means I identify and am perceived as the gender I was assigned at birth). When you speak to people who work at yoga studios you will commonly hear them say things like “everyone is welcome here”. Many studios hold the intention to be welcoming, healing places for everyone, the reality is that yoga studios set some exclusive and damaging standards for who belongs and who doesn’t.

For example check out the websites from Semperviva and YYoga in Vancouver. Take a look at the people on their sites. They are all thin. Pretty much all of them are white or fair skinned. Based on their clothing and the prices they pay at these studios, you could guess most of them are financially comfortable. None of them appear to be trans* and many of the photographs show people who are unusually flexible. What do you think these photos teach people about who belongs in the yoga world? Can you see why many people would feel unwelcome? When you fit this mold it’s easy to feel like our spaces are welcoming: because they are welcoming, to you.

These photos are just the tip of the iceberg to this problem, but instead of listing more examples here are some steps yoga studios could take to move closer to truly “opening their doors to everyone”:

Offer by-donation classes
Lots of people can’t afford a $20 drop in or a $100 ten class pass (I know I can’t). If you want people to practice, give them opportunities to do so that they can afford. Consider asking new teachers to offer the classes. They’d probably love a chance to practice their new skills.

Make your studio an LGBTQ safe space
It’s one thing to say your studio is safe for queer, trans* or just generally non-gendernormative or non-heternormative people. You can easily do this with a sticker or a tag line on your pamphlets. But like I said before, what you say is not as important as what you do. For example do you assume your students’ genders or do you ask for and respect their preferred pronouns? Does your studio have gender-segregated bathrooms? Some people would feel safer and more welcome if they didn’t have to choose.

Multi-language posters/teachers
This one is pretty straight-forward. If all your marketing and classes are in English then only people who speak English will come. Non-english speaking teachers and classes allow immigrants (legal or otherwise), ESL students and people who speak other languages to practice yoga and build a community that they might not otherwise be able to do in English.

Celebrate fat bodies and body diversity
There are lots of healthy, happy fat people who kick butt at yoga and many fat people who are terrified of studios because they think they don’t belong. Make sure your teachers know how to offer adjustments and alternatives for fat bodies. Consider offering fat classes and avoid making judgmental comments about people’s weight or eating habits. You have no idea about the quality of someone’s health based on their weight and you’re not going to make them more physically active or healthy by shaming them.

Offer meditation classes
In the west, asana (all the poses you do in a yoga class) have been transformed into an en-vogue fitness trend, rather than a stepping stone towards meditation. Not only does this shift contribute to the consumer-capitalist cultural appropriation of yoga, it also demands that yoga practitioners be able to do physical asanas. Think about how many more people would come to yoga studios if they offered affordable meditation classes that could literally be useful to everyone.

Make your studio accessible to people with non-normative physical abilities
Can people in wheel chairs or who use walking aids make it into your studio? If not, could you do a simple renovation to fix this? More importantly, do you offer classes that can be taken by people who don’t have a “normal” range of movement. Think about offering classes in meditation or chair yoga and make sure to include accessibility info in your advertising (eg: do students need to go up stairs to enter your space? What are the size of your doorways?). It’s important though, not to assume that because someone has a non-normative body they can’t do asana. Talk to them before or after class and listen to what they know about their bodies. Try to make them feel comfortable asking questions and offer creative, non-patronizing adjustments if needed.

Offer trauma sensistive classes
If you practice yoga you know that your body holds stress, tension, bad memories, samskaras, you name it. Lots of people don’t want to do yoga because being in their body simply doesn’t feel safe. On top of that yoga studios can feel unsafe for people because they are filled with potential triggers (eg: aggressive teaching instructions, vulnerable poses, teachers touching them without asking, ropes hanging from the wall.. trust me, the list goes on). Do your best to learn about trauma sensitive yoga and offer classes that respect your student’s boundaries. You can help them feel safe, rather than scared and re-traumatized.

Don’t set up in a gentrified neighbourhood
I live in Vancouver so I understand that finding a space to teach can be expensive and that this can translate into high prices for students, but please don’t set up in a neighbourhood filled with people you don’t intend to teach to simply because the rent is low. We may feel that we are working to ”revitalize” a neighbourhood, but often our presence works in tandem with opportunistic and vicious property development companies to displace low-income people and racialized communities from the places they call home. I understand that many studios do intend to teach to the people whose communities they intruded on, but I’ve rarely seen this succeed when classes are filled with people wearing lululemon and class prices are unaffordable to residents.

Offer YTT scholarships
If your studio gives teacher trainings find ways to offer scholarships to people who otherwise could not afford to attend. Prioritize people who have greater barriers to overcome than others. Teacher trainings are expensive. By offering scholarships you will encourage a more diverse group of teachers and their future student bodies to blossom and feel welcome.

This is a long list. Many of the things I wrote about here are vastly more complicated than a couple of sentences could explain. I plan to write about many of these issues in more detail in the coming weeks, so check back if you’re interested or want more info. If you have any other ideas about increasing accessibility feel free to send them my way, or better yet, take steps to implement them in your studios. The only way we can make more people feel welcome is if we think critically about our behaviour, our privlege and the kind of spaces we want to create.

Actions speak louder than words people, so please, open your doors, your hearts and your studios. Everyone is welcome, right?

 

Kula Yoga in Toronto is an example of a studio taking concrete steps towards increasing accessibility.

WIth Your Permission: Yoga, Consent and Authentic Embodiment

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Community Yoga Vancouver’s consent cards. They have “yes” on one side and “no” on the other, to let the teacher’s know whether you’d like physical assists.

Yoga is my refuge. For most of my adult life I have turned to my mat, to my breath, when I needed solace, when I needed space. This has not always been an easy pursuit for me. To put it simply: it’s a balancing act. I have a busy mind and a constantly churning conscience. I am a yoga teacher sure, but I’m also a feminist and I care deeply about fighting injustice and untangling webs of oppression. Seeking stillness and peace isn’t always easy when you’re deeply immersed in resistance or facing a police barricade. As much as it can feel like my worlds are separate sometimes, yoga has taught me the value of being able to see the connection – the union – between my passions.

Over the past year I’ve learned a lot about trauma sensitive yoga. This approach is most commonly used when teachers offer classes in places like prisons or rehab facilities. TSY seeks to reacquaint students with their bodies in a safe and (as much as possible) non-triggering way. It acknowledges that people hold trauma in their bodies and offers yoga as a tool to address these deeply held experiences (or samskaras). Whenever I teach I try to offer trauma conscience classes and a concept I’ve found very useful to incorporate is consent.

Consent can be a surprisingly tricky concept, especially when put into practice, but understood simply it means to freely and willingly engage in something, without coercion or force. When you consent to something you have the autonomy to choose what you do with your body, or what someone else does to you. You also have the right to say no, or revoke consent, whenever you wish, even if you gave consent previously. Meaningful consent is about respect and active, honest communication. Rachel Kramer Bussel explains this well in her piece “Beyond Yes or No, Consent as Sexual Process”:

“The issue of “consent” encompasses the way we ask for sex, and the ways we don’t. It’s about more than the letter of the law, and, like all sexual issues, at its heart is communication. Without our speaking up and demanding that our lovers do, too, we don’t ever truly know what they are thinking, which impedes us from having the sex we could be having.”

As this quote illustrates, consent is most popularly discussed in reference to sex. Seeking consent when engaging each other’s bodies is meant to encourage conversation between partners, keep people safe and allow people to feel empowered, rather than fearful, guilty or lacking control (though it’s also possible to consent to situations that make you feel that way, if that’s what you’re into). When people seek consent from their partners they demonstrate respect for their boundaries and strive to share in a mutually pleasurable and healing connection.

I think they way we imagine consent, as something that exists only in reference to sex, means we are missing opportunities to meaningfully apply it to the rest of our lives. Yoga is a practice that relies on, often-unacknowledged, physical intimacy. I love getting a welcomed physical assist as much as the next yoga teacher, but I have often felt, scared or triggered when someone I don’t know has come up behind me and pressed my hips closer to the floor. Same thing goes for a teacher suggesting I take a pose that just doesn’t feel right for my body. When we practice yoga together we are delving into an intentionally corporeal experience; we are showing up together to hang out in our bodies. As such I think an effort should be made to articulate and respect our boundaries on the mat, just like we do with consensual sex in our beds (or wherever else we end up getting off). Learning more about consent and committing to obtaining it in bed, helped me see how useful it can be anytime I have access to another person’s body – including the bodies of my students. It’s from this place that I decided to start incorporating consent into my yoga classes.

Here’s what consent based yoga looks like for me:

Consent is explained at the beginning of the class
When I start my classes I sit in a circle with my students and tell them that my classes are based on consent.  I tell them that everything I’m teaching is an offering that they can accept or refuse as they deem appropriate and I put emphasis on their discernment, rather than my expertise. I offer them an intention like “I will listen to myself” or “I will hold space for everyone’s authentic movement”. I want them to know that I literally seek their consent for every pose I guide them into.

Invitational language is used
Incorporating invitational language reminds students that every pose is an opportunity, rather than a demand. Invitational language reduces pressure and encourages an inquisitive rather than striving attitude. Here are some examples:

“If you like …”

“When you’re ready…”

“If it feels right…”

Students are encouraged to ask questions and suggest poses
I encourage my students to ask questions when they’re confused. I also tell them they can ask for poses they like or shout out modifications for poses I’ve already offered. At the beginning of class I tell the students that I’m not the only person here who knows something about yoga and that I value their experience just as much as my own. I want people to feel comfortable and confident in sharing. For me, that’s part of building community in my classes.  I have never had a student call out something that I felt was inappropriate or put the other students at risk. If that ever came up I’d simply explain my concerns – it’s a conversation, not a monologue. So far their suggestions have only enhanced my teaching.

The teacher avoids touching students and only does so with non-coerced permission
I love physical assists. They have helped me get deeper into a pose and explore my body in a way I couldn’t on my own. That being said I have definitely felt uncomfortable when a teacher I just met has come up from behind me and touched me without asking for permission first. Like many of us, I store anger and anxiety in my hips and sadness in my back. When someone touches me without permission they could easily hurt me, trigger me or push me past a boundary I’m not ready to cross. Touch is a deeply personal energetic exchange and it’s important to recognize that when we offer assists.

As a teacher, consent based yoga has offered me lessons in humility and letting go of control. Sometimes my students barely move through the entire class. Sometimes they leave early or show up late. Sometimes they lay down on the grass and stare at the stars and it can seem like they aren’t listening or don’t care about what I’m offering – but that’s where the lesson is. I want my students to make use of our sacred space in whatever way they see fit. Sure I have something to offer, but maybe that’s not what they need right now. It’s an exercise in faith and demonstration of confidence in my students, to trust that when they aren’t following me they are listening to and prioritizing their body’s unique needs. I’d rather teach my students to listen to themselves and honestly evaluate their needs than teach them the “perfect” downward dog.

Teaching is a vulnerable act. You’re standing up in front of people and offering yourself up as an example. You’re trying to share something you care deeply about, sometimes with people you’ve never met before. When all the students do exactly what you do it can offer a sense of validation – a sense of control and respect that many of us long for. Sometimes though, our desire to be validated and listened to can lead to a sense of hierarchy in our classes. When the teacher is seen as the only expert our students can feel compelled to listen to us before their own bodies or compete with the people on the mats next to them. I feel that consent based yoga works to undermine this hierarchy because everyone in the room is listening to themselves, rather than the expert at the front of the room. I’ve noticed too, that when my students are encouraged to consent to all their movements – when one person is meditating and another is offering up instructions for their favourite pose – they are less likely to compete with each other. They are closing their eyes or looking at whoever is giving instruction, rather than sizing each other up, pushing themselves past safe or comfortable limits.

Most importantly to me though, consent based yoga offers my students (and me) a path toward empowered, authentic embodiment. So much of our lives are shaped by influences over which we have little control. We are constantly subject to forces of power that shape our sense of self worth and our ability to act in the world. These forces keep us apart – apart from each other, apart from our selves and apart from our spirits. When we come together to hold sacred space for healing movement, free from coercion and pressure, we learn to embody our truth and acknowledge and meet our needs. In this way we learn to liberate ourselves and help each other to do the same.

When we practice yoga based on consent we shape our safe space with solidarity and our movement is revolutionary. One breath and one pose at a time.

Here are some resources for Trauma Sensitive Yoga and consent:

Over Coming Trauma Through Yoga – Book
Learning Good Consent – Zine
Yes Means Yes – Anthology/Blog

Healing Trauma with Yoga: Yoga and Intersectionality

I presented this paper in April as part of the UBC Women and Gender Studies undergrad conference the F-Word.  I wrote it after having had reflected a great deal on my experience learning about trauma sensitive yoga. It is by no means a complete reflection of my views, which I feel are more animated and interesting to listen to in person. I would be more than happy to give presentations on the ideas presented in this paper to anyone who would be interested.

Healing Trauma with Yoga: Incorporating Intersectionality into Trauma Sensitive Yoga Classes

This past summer I took my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Since then I’ve taken two additional trainings in trauma sensitive yoga (TSY) and offered a yoga class at a low-barrier, young women’s social housing project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside[i]. I feel it’s important to acknowledge my privilege and social location as a white, able bodied, university student and yoga teacher. This privilege has granted me access to valuable teachings that I recognize are inaccessible to many people [ii]. Studio yoga classes are typically expensive and usually offered in spaces that are unsafe or unwelcoming to marginalized groups. I also wish to acknowledge how lucky I am to have a small studio in my home, where I can practice in peace and truly tune into the needs of my body. Finally I acknowledge that much of my practice has taken place on un-ceded Coast Salish territory.

This paper focuses on yoga as a tool for recovery from trauma. TSY is a valuable practice because it moves beyond conventional methods of talk therapy to incorporate the somatic, body-based impacts of trauma (Emerson, Yoga Outreach). Trauma is experienced in the body as well as the mind, making it important for healing practices to address both levels of experience (Emerson, Yoga Outreach, Street Yoga and Yellow Horse Brave Heart). Survivors of trauma often learn to disassociate from their bodies as a way of protecting themselves from painful memories or triggering sensations. TSY offers survivors an opportunity to return to their bodies in a safe and gentle way.

TSY is a valuable step forward from traditional talk-based therapy, but much of the literature on this topic  fails to consider the systemic circumstances impacting trauma survivors – factors that can lead to trauma occurring and re-occurring. It is my contention that TSY teachers could greatly improve the effectiveness and usefulness of our classes by utilizing an intersectional (Crenshaw) framework[iii]. Below are examples from TSY handbooks and manuals that would benefit from the additional understanding offered by intersectionality.

Trauma Sensitive Yoga

TSY classes are designed to reacquaint students to their bodies and to positive sensations that can come from slow, deep breathing and gentle movement. TSY classes are different from regular, Western yoga classes in several key ways. Poses are usually modified to avoid placing students in positions they might find triggering. For example rather than doing a standing forward fold, where student’s bums would be exposed to the air and anyone standing behind them, students in a trauma sensitive class might be offered this pose sitting on the floor. These changes makes the poses more accessible by shielding body parts that students might not wish to expose, as well as making the poses easier to achieve physically. Another common modification is to offer chair classes where students remain seated for the whole class. Seated classes can make it easier for students to bring focus to one body part at a time and they also allow students to practice for longer without getting tired. They are also useful for people in wheelchairs.  Also, students’ mats or chairs are usually arranged in a straight line so that no one is behind them while they practice, increasing their sense of privacy.

TSY teachers are encouraged to guide classes with language of inquiry rather than language of demand or instruction. While in a studio-based yoga class a teacher might list a sequence of poses, which students will then perform – in TSY a teacher will use language like, “if you like, bring your hand above your head and notice how it feels”. In this way TSY is focused on subtle sensations, rather than rhythmic movement requiring high levels of strength and stamina. Following this language of choice is a desire on the part of teachers to offer our students the opportunity to make empowered choices in their bodies. We want to create a space where our students feel respected.  A space where they can practice setting boundaries and making decisions that will help them feel good and learn to take care of themselves. It is also common for TSY teachers not to touch their students, which runs counter to the practices in many studio based classes.

Finally TSY is designed with accessibility in mind. Classes are offered on site: in prisons, group homes, schools, rehab programs and wherever they might be useful. Props are limited and the spaces we teach in often double as libraries, rec-rooms, basements and even sometimes hallways. It is our job as teachers to create sacred space for our classes, no matter how temporary or surrounded by chaos.

Example 1: Overcoming Trauma through Yoga

“Overcoming Trauma through Yoga” draws it’s lessons from a TSY program developed at the Trauma Center in Boston. The book offers many valuable lessons on making yoga more accessible and safe for trauma survivors such as modified poses, creating sacred/safe space and invitational language. Many of the ideas in this book are included in the training manuals I look at further in this paper, making it a foundational text.

The book’s strength is its explanation of yoga’s usefulness in helping trauma survivors because it relies on the body as an entry point to healing:

“Many types of traditional therapy rely upon a cognitive or “top down” approach to treatment, while yoga based interventions utilize a “bottom up” approach that draws on somatic experiences as an entry way into a person’s life… Body-oriented therapies such as yoga prioritize making a connection at the somatic level, and then moving from that entry point to addressing emotion and cognitions.” (23-24)

While it’s true that TSY offers something that traditional therapy cannot, the book’s approach leaves much unaddressed underneath the bottom they claim to work up from.

When teaching yoga to people who are healing from trauma it can be useful to understand the forces of power that shape their social location, which in turn may shape the trauma they are experiencing and healing from. Exposure to traumatic events is higher amongst oppressed groups due in part to their decreased access to resources. This can lead to relative instability, lack of safety and potential victimization, particularly for people whose identities line up with multiple axes of oppression – for example women of colour. An intersectional lens offers yoga teachers the opportunity to find a deeper understanding of their student’s unique subjectivity.

In the introduction to “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga” Bessel van der Kolk (a medical doctor and trauma expert) writes:

Most people I see in my practice have become experts in bracing against their inner sensations and in ignoring the inner world of their bodies. The lives of trauma survivors come to revolve around isolating and neutralizing unwanted sensory experiences… Many traumatized people learn that self injury such as cutting can make their sensations go away. Others race motorcycles or engage in other high risk activities like prostitution or gambling..” (xxi-xxii, emphasis added)

This passage homogenizes the experiences of trauma survivors because it doesn’t acknowledge the various circumstances under which someone might participate in any of these activities. Of particular concern is his inclusion of prostitution[iv] as a voluntary, high-risk, self-harming activity.  There is a difference between voluntary prostitution and survival sex work. This difference lies in whether or not the person has other means for economic survival – whether the person feels they have any other choice.

Using an intersectional approach, sex work (which van der Kolk acknowledges is practiced by many of our potential students) can be understood as practiced by various different people for a wide range of reasons. It is important to consider whether someone is practicing sex work as a means of survival because they are facing systemic barriers to other, safer forms of employment. For example these barriers could be due to race, gender, class, sexual-orientation or several of these factors, or many others, combined.  Keeping these factors in mind, the reasons why a person might engage in sex work become more complex and therefore resistant to the lense provided by van der Kolk, which pathologizes, individualizes and generalizes prostitution as a reaction to trauma.

Example 2: Street Yoga Training Manual

Street Yoga is an incredible program from the western United States. They provide TSY classes to youth living on the street and in various institutional settings such as rehab, group homes and correctional facilities.

Last fall I took Street Yoga’s 16 hour teacher training in Seattle. While I learned a lot from the training I felt the manual and the trainers could have done more to acknowledge the systemic, rather than personal, reasons why their students found themselves in these yoga classes and the institutions that host them. Compared to “Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga”, which never once mentions the word poverty throughout the entire book, Street Yoga’s manual takes steps to acknowledge poverty as a factor that impacts their students. They list several causes for youth homelessness under the headings of “family problems” (14), “economic problems”(15) and “residential instability” (15). The manual acknowledges broad issues such as lack of affordable housing and goes on to sensitively explain some of the consequences homeless youth live with such as survival sex, difficulty attending school and substance abuse (15, 16).

The considerations brought forward in the training are a valuable step toward understanding the students’ lives, but they neglect to go into depth by exploring the unique subjectivity of each student. Further on in the manual several examples of locations where classes might be offered are listed. These examples include a residential treatment facility, youth drop-in center, elementary school and a transitional home for youth mothers (23-26). All the examples include physical details of the setting as well as the students’ appearance and sometimes a reason why they are attending yoga class, or present at the facility in the first place. For example here is the part of the description for the residential treatment facility:

“ Today is your first class at a secure, lock down facility for teenage girls in foster care. The building is old and run down with fluorescent lighting. You enter the multi purpose room where seven girls and one staff member have gathered for class. All but one girl appear to be overweight and several of them are still wearing flannel pajama pants.” (24)

The example goes on to describe a conflict between two of the students. This description is useful in that it paints a picture of what yoga teachers can expect when we walk into the facility, but it offers us no information about the forces of power and the life experiences that have brought the students to this space. Spaces where attendance of yoga classes is sometimes mandatory.

We know from earlier that the students’ have likely experienced poverty and from the description that they are in foster care, but are the students racialized? Have they experienced adverse impacts to their safety due to their gender or sexual orientation? Certainly this might be the case since they are all women. Are all of these girls American citizens or are they struggling to stay in the country? Is English their first language? Is their family far away or close by? Did they come from a reservation or urban slum? How do these factors interact to bring them to our classes and how do they work in our student’s lives to prevent them from safety, independence and freedom? Most importantly, do these factors make our students prone to trauma or do they set up barriers to healing the trauma they have already experienced? All this information is left out of the Street Yoga manual.

It’s important for yoga teachers to be aware of this information so that we can understand how oppression works in our students’ lives, especially when you consider that oppression itself can be traumatic (Akili). Without this awareness we may view all groups we offer classes to as relatively the same, when our students are unique and have unique needs, triggers and life experiences. Further, not situating and socially locating our students may lead us to pathologize and individualize their struggles, rather than see them as systemic and requiring of our solidarity, compassion and presence as allies and not simply just as yoga teachers.

Example 3: Yoga Outreach Manual

My final example is from Yoga Outreach, another wonderful program that offers TSY to a wide variety of groups, right here in Vancouver. I took the Yoga Outreach training this past winter and was impressed by their trainers’ breadth of experience and awareness of anti-oppression – although it is only referentially mentioned in the manual as something to seek education about elsewhere (5). It was clear to me though, that many of the trainers were aware of the systemic forces (poverty, racism, colonialism, sexism etc) that shaped their students’ lives and ultimately brought them to their classes.

I highly enjoyed and learned a lot from the Yoga Outreach training which, like Street Yoga’s training, ask teachers to role play several examples of locations where we might end up offering classes. Rather than offer example locations in their manual Yoga Outreach list sets of populations with statistics and information teachers should be aware of. For example they list corrections and offer a profile of the groups that often find themselves incarcerated (24). They also give details for women who have experienced violence and abuse, even breaking women down into various sub-groups including sex workers and aboriginal women, to name a few[v]. It is valuable to offer yoga teachers profiles of these communities but it is also important to acknowledge how these communities can and frequently do intersect. For example a much higher percentage of survival sex workers are aboriginal and trans women than are reflected by the general population.

That being said the creators of the Yoga Outreach manual have clearly taken considerable steps to offer yoga teachers some insight into the unique lives of their students. One thing I would love to see in their manual that is currently missing though – and I would like to see this added to all the texts I’ve looked at so far – is an inclusion of the concept of historical trauma:

“Historical trauma (HT) is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.” (Yellow Horse Brave Heart, 7).

Historical trauma is a concept that can and should be utilized when teaching to populations who have experienced trauma, particularly to groups in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, where Yoga Outreach offers many classes. Considering that a high indigenous population makes up the Downtown East Side, historical trauma is a useful concept to understand for example, the cascading impacts of residential schools. So when we offer classes as teachers we can understand that even if our students are not or have never been in a residential school they have likely experienced trauma passed down from their family members and also simply from belonging to a group of people who are in a deep and continuous process of grieving over the profound losses brought on by colonialism. In this way we can deepen our sensitivity, expand our compassion and offer classes that work to acknowledge our students as whole beings, who are often still actively entrenched in the damaging forces of oppression.

Without this information we run the risk of ignoring all the different paths our students’ have taken to find themselves in our classes. It is important that we keep this information in mind and that we don’t simply learn to see ourselves as offering charity from the front of the room. We are there to hold sacred space, offer useful teachings and create a sense of peace, no matter how temporary. I feel we have an obligation to do this from a place of deep respect for our students as whole beings and people we can find solidarity with.

Conclusion

Activist and yoga teacher Yolo Akili recently wrote that “Oppression is trauma” in his article titled “The Immediate Need for Emotional Justice”. I agree with him and feel that it is my duty as a yoga teacher to deepen my understanding of power and oppression so that I might better understand the impacts forces of oppression have on my life and the lives of my students. I feel it is my responsibility to acknowledge the ways in which I am oppressed, but also the privileges that I hold, particularly as a healthy, able-bodied, white yoga teacher. Without this knowledge and awareness perhaps I would run the risk of offering teachings to my students that ignore and erase the knowledge they bring to the mat – knowledge I don’t hold, but seek to honour both as a teacher and as an ally. It is for this reason that I encourage all TSY teachers to use an intersectional framework to deepen their understanding, awaken their compassion and expand their hearts and minds.

Hopefully this knowledge will encourage us to work together to overcome the forces that keep us away from the “deep abiding center” (Emerson, xxiii) and connection to each other and the world around us that we all hope to cultivate, on and off the mat.

Works Cited

Akili, Yolo. “The Immediate Need for Emotional Justice.” Crunk Feminist Collective.             November 16 2011. Web.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and             Violence Against Women of Colour.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991). 1241-            1299. Accessed Online.

Emerson, David, and Elizabeth Hopper. Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga:             Reclaiming Your Body. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2011. Print

Lilly, Mark and Kate Arrants et al. Street Yoga: Teacher Training Manual. Street Yoga,             2011. Print

Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Maria. “The Historical Trauma Response Among Natives             and It’s Relationship with Substance Abuse: A Lakota Illustration.” Journal of             Psychoactive Drugs 35.1 (2003): 7-13. Accessed Online.

Yoga Outreach. Core Training Manual. Vancouver: Yoga Outreach, 2011. Print.

Notes


[i] The class has since been cancelled because of low attendance. There were too few students and too many programs being offered for such a small facility. All the potential students were in the midst of extreme drug addiction, survival sex and deep poverty and therefore yoga was not an appropriate offering for them at this time in their lives.

[ii] However it should be noted that much work is being done in Vancouver and across North American to offer free or by donation yoga classes that are welcoming to marginalized populations, including the work by Yoga Outreach and Street yoga, who I refer to in this paper.

[iii] Intersectionality is a theory created by feminist legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw that seeks to acknowledge the way people can experience marginalization at the intersection of multiple axes of oppression (ex: race, class, gender etc). The theory seeks to illuminate the way these systems of power operate simultaneously, rather than independently or in opposition to each other.

[iv] Categorizing prostitution as a form of high risk, self-harm could also be problematized in other ways as well since some people see sex work as healing and empowering, but that is beyond the scope of this paper.

[v] The entire list includes: aboriginal women, women with disabilities, immigrant and refugee women, sex workers, younger and older women and sam sex relationships.