With so many students drawn to the practice of yoga for its healing potential, it’s important that we, as teachers, understand how to teach with awareness of mental health. By Jessica Humphries

A couple of years ago, for a short time, I taught yoga at a rehabilitation centre. Most of my students were in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and other, trauma-related illnesses. Although I had been teaching yoga for years, in this context I felt completely out of my depth and made a lot of mistakes. Mistakes that I would not have made had I been aware of the way in which yoga can trigger past trauma, or exacerbate existing wounds. Teachers: it may be in the language you use or the way you touch a student (even the most gentle touch can be deeply triggering for someone with a history of sexual abuse). It may simply be the room’s lighting or the way you use a prop.

Statistics show that 45% of the population will experience mental illness in their life and almost 60% of students start yoga for mental health reasons. As more and more students are being drawn to the practice of yoga to address mental health challenges, it’s essential that we, as teachers, understand how to create an environment that feels safe and welcoming for them. This is one of the many reasons I decided to complete a 50-hour teacher training in ‘Mental Health Aware Yoga’, and here is some of what I learned.

(PHOTO: FIZKES/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM)

UNDERSTAND COMMON MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS AND THEIR SYMPTOMS

Although, as yoga teachers, we are not in a position to diagnose or treat mental health conditions, it can be very helpful to have a basic understanding of the signs and symptoms of common illnesses in order to relate to our students and sequence classes accordingly. Understanding the basics of things like depression, anxiety, trauma and stress and how they can be supported by yoga psychology and philosophy can help you to create the most healing practice and environment for your students.

“ STATISTICS SHOW THAT 45% OF THE POPULATION WILL EXPERIENCE MENTAL ILLNESS IN THEIR LIFE…”

CREATE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT

Consider the following when creating a space for all students to feel safe and comfortable in:

  • Quiet. A quiet space is preferable for most students, but especially those with mental health challenges. Depression creates heightened sensitivity to sound due to low serotonin levels, and trauma survivors may be easily startled by loud noises.
  • Exits. Students with anxiety or a history of trauma will feel much safer knowing that they can easily exit the space and access bathrooms.
  • Privacy. Ensure the space is private from the public, with curtains or screens in front of any windows or glass doors.
  • Lighting. Use natural, soft lighting where possible. Bright lights may be jarring, and darkness may be triggering for some students. Changing the lighting throughout the class could also be disturbing for students experiencing PTSD.

ALWAYS SEEK PERMISSION BEFORE YOU TOUCH

This is the number one rule, and also the easiest to implement. Never touch a student without their permission. This is especially important in a post #metoo era where so many teachers are being accused of inappropriate touch. Yes, some students love adjustments, but some will have a history of physical trauma and find even the most well-intentioned touch deeply triggering. The training recommended placing adjustment tokens (small tokens/cards with a Yes on one side and No on the other), ‘No’ side up, on each student’s mat. At the start of the class, explain to students that they can communicate their preference using the token, and they are welcome to change their mind at any time. When adjusting, check in with the student, and be mindful of keeping all touch appropriate and professional (not everyone’s a hugger, yogis).

(PHOTO: FIZKES/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM)

MEET YOUR STUDENTS WHERE THEY ARE

One of the most powerful and loving things we can do for our students is to meet them exactly where they are. Of course there is the intention to experience growth as a result of our yoga practice, but that can only be achieved by accepting ourselves wherever we start. So, in practice, if your students are feeling tamasic (heavy) then start with slow, gentle poses and gradually build the energy to move them towards a more sattvic (clear) state. Conversely, if they are feeling rajasic (high energy/anxious) then start with more dynamic shapes and gradually slow things down to invite sattva. Combining a number of different practices can assist a mixture of students in moving towards balance.

USE LANGUAGE MINDFULLY

Choice is so important, especially for students who have had their power to choose taken away from them in the past. By inviting a student to make decisions that feel right, you give them a sense of empowerment and ownership over their own practice, body and life. Let’s be honest, it can feel a little bit awkward at first, but I can attest to its effectiveness after receiving feedback from students. So, instead of saying ‘Come into Down Dog’, try ‘If it feels okay for you, come into Down Dog’. Be mindful of pushing your students into something they’re not ready for with your words. For example, something like ‘If Down Dog is too hard then stay in Child’s Pose’ could easily be replaced with ‘If Child’s Pose is the most comfortable place for your body today, stay here.’ You’ll be surprised at what a difference these simple changes in language can make to your students’ experience of the practice.

UNDERSTAND COMMON TRIGGERS

For people in the throes of mental illness, things like complex cues, the use of Sanskrit, certain poses and even props can negatively impact their experience. Of course there are no hard and fast rules here, and it’s always up to the individual teacher to decide how to sequence and facilitate a class. But it’s helpful to be aware that complicated cues can take students out of their body, Sanskrit can sound like Arabic and trigger some PTSD sufferers, and the use of straps and certain poses in a class can be confronting for some trauma survivors. Even music can be a challenge for some people who may be taken back into difficult memories when hearing a particular song, or be affected by certain lyrics. As teachers, we often feel pressure to keep up with the latest and greatest in super sequencing, language, music integration and more. But keeping it simple can be a deeply healing experience for many students, and something to consider – especially if you know you have students with a history of trauma or mental illness.

OFFER UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD

‘Unconditional positive regard’ is a term coined by Psychologist Carl Rogers, and is a concept that is also valuable to teachers and students of yoga. The premise is this: no matter how dysfunctional someone is, or how much we disagree with their beliefs or behaviours, we trust that they are doing the very best that they can. Having this attitude in a yoga context allows us to facilitate healing without feeling the need to ‘fix’ our students, and gives the student space to accept their practice and, ultimately, themselves.

For more information about Mental Health Aware Yoga, see www.mentalhealthawareyoga.com