Why Trauma Sensitive Yoga Matters

As we softly re-open the studio, we recognise the collective and individual trauma experiences our community has been, and may continue to be, experiencing. Not only the pandemic which has altered so many lives, but the social fallout that has ensued as multitudes become unemployed and the cracks in societal infrastructures show up under pressure. However you are feeling, it’s valid. Whatever your experience has been, we want you to know you are seen, and this little yoga studio in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, is a safe haven if you are seeking to rest and heal.

We try to use lots of different language to let you know you are welcome and will be included here. When we say we are trauma sensitive, trauma informed, inclusive, accessible, body positive, we are wanting to convey the diversity of students we cater for, and our understanding that not all yoga spaces are equally welcoming. We endeavour to unite our backgrounds in mental health and counselling, with the wisdom traditions of yoga, to provide small group classes and 1:1 services that serve your needs.

Trauma can mean different things to different people. A useful working definition of trauma is:

‘The response to a deeply disturbing or distressing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self, and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.’

Maybe you will recognise in yourself some of the wounds life events have left in your mind and body. Bessel van der Kolk has written a compelling book, called ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ and as the title suggests, there can be a carrying of our biography within our biology. We all carry old hurts and while time heals many things, there can be lasting impacts which express themselves in different ways. Some people respond to stress more rapidly, or with aggression. Others will feel emotionally numb, almost unable to feel. Some lean on coping mechanisms that may be harmful such as excessive alcohol, drugs, misuse of food or even mindless scrolling. Some people with trauma in their histories will avoid the kinds of activities that cause them to feel vulnerable, including yoga and similar mind body practices such as tai chi. And yet, there is a growing body of scientific literature indicating that movement and body based therapies are very powerful and potentially effective for people with trauma. The idea of ‘bringing the body to therapy’ is increasingly popular amongst social workers, counsellors, psychologists and mental health advocates.

So when you come to yoga here at Surya Health, you are welcome to bring your whole self. We don’t expect ‘happy faces’, or social chit chat, although we are always happy to see you. We try to provide a situation where you can have choices, bodily autonomy, and skilful guidance to explore your own experience without being overwhelmed. Some of the principles we draw from are;

Safety: Feeling safe is key to healing from any kind of trauma. Our studio is private, within our home, tucked back off the street, and not exposed to passersby. When you enter the property you leave the busy-ness of the suburbs, and when you settle into the studio space, you can feel secure that there will be no surprises. As much as possible we keep things the same – same music, lighting, decor, and a similar rhythm to the classes too.

Transparency & Trustworthiness: We don’t hide the ‘back end’ of the business, and try to communicate clearly with you about what we are doing and why. For example class fees have remained the same for a long time, and we intend to keep the classes affordable as far as possible. We try to be responsive to messages across all platforms, and if any issues arise, we are always willing to discuss and try to find fair solutions. We keep the business model straightforward – you get what you pay for, no tricks or complicated arrangements. Equally when you become our student or client, we show you our common humanity by being brave, real, and present. We don’t project perfection, or try to be anything we are not.

Choice: You might notice in our cues, we will often offer options that allow you to choose what practice suits you on any given day. Our teachers are trained to use invitational language that is not too directive – you’ll never feel like you’ve been ordered to pop up into a headstand for example. We also offer a choice of class styles, and though we are a small team, you can also choose teachers to some extent. You can now choose to attend in person or online. We don’t ask you to commit to memberships or contracts either – every class is your free choice to make.

Collaboration & Mutuality: We try to be non-hierarchical – in that your teacher or therapist is really operating on the same level with you, walking beside you rather than leading and definitely not dominating. In our 1:1 work we take an approach of knowing you are the expert in your own health and wellbeing, we are merely guides and your cheer squad. In group classes we remind you of your inner knowing and support you to follow your innate wisdom. When we make decisions for our community, we will often ask for your input, and try to meet your needs as well as our own.

Empowerment: This is a key value that we hold dear. We hope that by accessing the teachings of yoga and/or the supportive care of naturopathy and counselling, you will learn skills that serve you throughout your life. We genuinely want you to thrive, and reach your many potentials, and if that means you move on from Surya Health, we happily let go and wish you well. We work to ensure everyone feels they can be both independent, and in community, to the extent that suits at the time. While we have our cultural ‘norms’ we are not seeking followers, and will actively dissuade you from placing your teacher or therapist on any kind of pedastal. While we believe in the benefits of a regular yoga practice, we also think it’s great if you develop your home practice, or seek input from different schools and teachers. Seeing you soar brings unending joy.

When we have the opportunity to move comfortably, breathe deeply, and practice mindful self awareness, we gradually develop inner resources that allow us to open up our ‘window of tolerance’ and become more resilient, able to tolerate more stressors, be less reactive, respond flexibly to different situations, and cultivate a freedom within that makes life richer on every level. That’s why trauma sensitive yoga matters – when we heal, we enrich our own and other lives, and as a community we are able to all heal together.