Ahimsa, the ethic of non harming can take on a number of meanings in the yoga classroom, including ensuring safety, being trustworthy, maximising choice, collaboration, and prioritising empowerment. These principles are important in a broad range of settings but especially vital in yoga contexts where many practitioners expose their bodies, minds, and vulnerabilities.
Whether through replicating inherited behaviours and practices from past generations or adopting business practices meant for commercial contexts, or not understanding the ways in which violence, victimization, and other traumatic experiences may exclude victims/survivors of trauma, many common practices in modern yoga fall short of these principles.
Part 1 of this paper discussed empowerment, maximising choice and the need for collaboration with students. This second part highlights some ways in which our practices can erode trust and compromise safety in the classroom.
While I draw from some of the standard practices learned from the Trauma Centre Trauma Sensitive Yoga framework  in offering possible ways forward, the possibilities are by no means finite. It is hoped that by highlighting these areas that we can focus our efforts to collectively imagine and shape paths ahead, so we may evolve as a profession and be better able to serve our communities.
Exaggeration is a standard technique in the world of advertising, and the norms in the political, cultural and media realm in general are heading towards seemingly ever increasing exaggeration and hyperbole. Increasingly, so too are the claims in yoga related advertising. It is now commonplace to see yoga advertising touting claims that are hyper-inflated, over generalised, or are baseless in science. This is commonly seen in claims about the health benefits of yoga - for example, that certain postures "wring out toxins in internal organs" , or “rinse the spine”  or “purifies the body” . Another common area for mistruths appear in advertising for retreats and yoga teacher trainings. In these areas, concrete outcomes are promised. Just about any Google search for yoga retreat or yoga teacher training will bring up advertisements for experiences that guarantee healing, life transformations, spiritual awakenings, removal of emotional blockages and so on .
Many yoga practitioners turn to teaching because our lives have been touched by yoga in profound ways. But our own experiences are not an accurate predictor of another's experience, however strong our own convictions. Through exposure to increasingly inflated claims and exaggerated truths and imprecision in language, consumers have learned to be skeptical about both advertising, and the advertisers behind them. As English Professor Marilyn Chandler McEntyre says:
“We need to reclaim words that have been colonised and held hostage by commercial and political agencies that have riddled them with distorted meanings" .
Our hyperbole, imprecision and inaccuracy with our words leads to a mistrust that calls into question our trustworthiness and our integrity as people. If yoga is to be a healing, positive experience for our communities, the relationship between a teacher and the community needs to be built on trust. Without honesty and reliability in the information we share and the claims we make, there can not be trust - we need to mean what we say.
TRUSTWORTHINESS IN DESCRIPTIONS OF CLASSES AND TEACHERS
Related to trustworthiness and safety, is how accurately our classes match the class descriptions. Quite often, classes are advertised as being as welcoming ‘all abilities’ by those without the means to cater to those in wheelchairs, or those who can not sit on the floor, or can not kneel, or bear weight on their hands or those who can not follow the flow of a fast paced vinyasa flow class - such scenarios are common in the general public.
Facilitating chair yoga, offering variations to a genuinely broader range of the public requires skills often not covered in basic 200hr and 500hr yoga teacher training programs. Without the requisite training or experience to cater to the general public, it could be harmful to those attending those classes to hold ourselves as being able do so.
TRUSTWORTHINESS: SURPRISE CLASSES
Well-meaning teachers may at some point want to incorporate new modalities to keep classes fresh for example, trauma release, dance, or group sharing, sound bathing, tea ceremonies, wine tasting, yoga selfie events and so on. While some students may enjoy the new activity, this comes at the cost of others. One of the key defining experiences of many trauma survivors is the feeling of being unsafe  - it stands to reason then that the first imperative of working with those with traumatised histories is to create conditions of safety. And for many, this means predictability. Surprise classes and unpredictable contexts that students did not consent to threatens to undermine the feeling of safety and leave some feeling exposed.
Make your classroom a safe space
- Examine who you are capable of teaching and be upfront about it
- Define what you offer clearly and honestly
- Match class content with your description
- Define boundaries around what you are competent to do, and not do
- Develop a list of trusted professionals you can refer students to
- Learn to break down postures to their most basic elements
- Observe what you praise and use it consciously
- Support and be kind without assessing students’ performances
- Consistently remind students of the value of listening to their bodies
- Avoid terminology that ranks postural practices as beginner or advanced, simpler or harder, challenging or easy
- Consider not touching students
- If you are using adjustments, use a system for seeking consent
TRUSTWORTHINESS: SCOPE OF PRACTICE
Scope of practice describes the procedures, action and processes that professionals are permitted to undertake in keeping with the their training and education. Scope of practice issues often emerge in dealings with students who have injuries or other health conditions, require counselling, or advice in relation to physical therapy, diet and nutrition. Given the power relations between a teacher and student, even a passing comment can be taken as actual advice when it is given by a teacher in a classroom.
For those with a history of eating disorders, or struggle with negative body image, hearing recommendations to fast, diet, cleanse etc in the context of a yoga class can have disastrous effects.
Advice beyond your scope of professional competence can compromise a student’s wellbeing - causing or prolonging confusion, fear and doubt, misdiagnosis and mistreatment or worryingly, delay seeking attention from someone qualified or worse, discourage seeking advice from qualified professionals all together.
Even if a facilitator is qualified in another area, if their role at in the classroom is to teach yoga, then arguably they should perform the role they were engaged to perform.
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SAFE ENVIRONMENTS: YOGA BODIES
How we represent yoga has implications for who feels welcomed, who feels able to access yoga services, and who feels welcomed, who feels ‘at home.’ When our representation of yoga prompts otherwise interested people to self- exclude, we can do yoga and the public a disservice.
The world of advertising, which has largely normalized unrealistically thin bodies to create an unattainable desire that sells has long been criticised for perpetuating problems of poor self esteem, body negativity and anxiety amongst women.
“the media perpetuates a market for frustration and disappointment ensuring customers will never disappear” .
Worryingly, the yoga industry has borrowed the same tactics. Yoga related advertising often conflates yoga practice with stunning displays of hyper- flexibility and athleticism, and ’yoga bodies’ as belonging to thin, young, flexible, able bodied women who are often also white . Yoga Journal models are less diverse today in age and race than they were 40 years ago and female ad model body sizes have changed in line with society body ideals .
Berger discusses experiences of black women and yoga who affirm the ‘skinny white girl yoga culture’. The effect of this culture can be triggering and trauma-inducing for many Black women who have to navigate in spaces where they feel they don’t belong.
“I’m a black woman who’s been doing yoga regularly since 1989. I don’t enjoy the skinny white girl yoga culture that is prevalent where I live .. so it’s rare that I'll go to a class. Instead I practice at home, usually late at night. Light a candle, burn some incense, put on some mellow music and practice on my Mexican blanket for about 30 minutes. Yoga is for everybody” 
SAFE ENVIRONMENTS: PHYSICAL INJURY
While yoga is generally safe, the rates of yoga related injury is rising . How we structure our businesses or classes have a bearing on safety levels for students. Running large classes where odds are stacked against our ability to spot when someone might need assistance is a factor for injury risk. Employing business models that allow people with no yoga experience to become yoga teachers after a month or two of training, employing or ‘certifying’ minimally experienced teachers who then go on to teach is another factor leading to increased injuries . When we consider the combination of large classes, minimally trained teachers, who use physical adjustments the risks are compounded.
SAFE ENVIRONMENTS: ENCOURAGEMENT TO INJURY
Another way we can expose students to physical injuries is through how we encourage students in class. It is common in classes to see teachers praise demonstrations of athleticism in class, or moments of ‘achieving’ postures. The short term effect of praise may be boosting for a student - but the subtle implication could be that external achievement is praiseworthy. How we praise communicates what we value. If we encourage students to explore the edge of their physical limits without equally reminding students of the value of easing off, we may send messages that amount to ‘more and further is better’.
Encouraging external achievement can be problematic in a number of ways. First, it deprives a student from exploring subtler sensations. Second, chasing accomplishments in asana fosters a mentality that will inevitably lead to injuries. Finally - if we aim to facilitate students towards embodiment and connection with their own mental, emotional and physical experiences, then this mentality works in the opposite direction of steering students towards using yoga as another way to dissociate, to push forward despite, not because of, feedback from their senses.
Praising external achievement may at times subtly reinforce the impression that the most athletic asana equates to the most ‘advanced’ yoga which exposes students to the risk of physical harm and closes them to the benefits of non-asana practice.
Whether this perception attracts people expecting yoga to teach them impressive feats of flexibility or repels people who can not see themselves in such depictions of yoga practice, the effect is equally misleading and harmful in the same way that widespread advertising of unattainable beauty standards has been shown to negatively affect the self-esteem and health of young women.
SAFE ENVIRONMENTS: EXPOSURE TO EMOTIONAL INJURY
Many yoga teachers intend to help their students to create a positive attitude or mindset particularly during times of grief, stress, or other difficulties. But we can emotionally injure students by suggesting to them how they should feel. There are many variations on themes of ’be positive’, ‘stay happy’, ‘be grateful for what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t’ etc in the yoga landscape. Such can minimise a student’s emotional state or negate their actual experiences.
Suggestions that: "everything happens for a reason" or that our own thoughts cause everything that happens to us can be especially cruel to those who have suffer violence, abuse, neglect, poverty and/or tragedy. Yoga and teacher teachers should not amplify or magnify trauma through well meaning, but ill-considered commentary or logic.
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SAFE ENVIRONMENTS: CONSENT
In many schools of yoga, touching the physical body has been an established teaching tool. Many teachers assume their touch will be welcomed by students. Touch can be soothing, healing and helpful for some. Sometimes touch will invoke fear, inadequacy, intimidation, violation, confusion, pain, and disorientation - it is impossible for a yoga teacher to know how touch will be experienced by the recipient, or to imagine what sensations, memories, or associations will be triggered by that touch - especially in trauma contexts.
“Sensory messages from muscle and connective tissue that remember a specific position, action or intention can be the source of the trigger”. 
If we simply assume that our well intentioned touch will be well received - it is a matter of time before that physical contact will intrude on someone’s feelings of safety. This is just as true for what we feel is skilfully applied touch done with valid reason as it is for aggressive adjustments: the impact is not caused by our intention, but by the recipient’s response to our act.
Holding classes where participation in class involves students touching each other, for example, group massage or partner yoga when there is no pre-warning of such touching prior to class can also feel intrusive or unsafe to some participants.
Many teachers now consider best practice is not to touch students at all, using verbal cues and demonstrations to guide students instead. For teachers who continue to use physical adjustments, securing timely and meaningful consent to physical touching is essential to avoid harming students. Consent should be sought ahead of time before class, and allow the space for people to change their minds during class. Asking for consent while students are in the middle of a posture, or asking for verbal consent in front of others can make someone feel put on the spot and pressured to consent.
HI, I AM Yonnie
I am committed to the values of diversity and social inclusion, and deeply values yoga and movement practices that are accessible to all without exception.
Read more about Yonnie and her work here.
THANK YOU FOR READING THIS!
Yoga classrooms can be safe, healing, respectful spaces. However, inherited behaviours and practices from past generations, adopting mainstream advertising techniques, and failing to understand ways in which violence, victimisation, and other traumatic experiences may exclude victims/survivors of trauma has eroded student empowerment and compromised safety in yoga classrooms. It is hoped that by highlighting these areas we can apply that understanding to how we design yoga spaces so as to be consonant with healing and recovery.
Feel free to share your story, question or feedback below this post, we love to hear your voice too!
- Yonnie Fung
- Emerson, David Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body , 2011
- McEntyre, Marilyn Chandler, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009, p 7
- Greenwald, Ricky Childhood Trauma, A handbook, Haworth, 2005
- Hamburg, P. (1998). "The media and eating disorders: who is most vulnerable?" Public Forum: Culture, Media and Eating Disorders, Harvard Medical School.
- Webb, J, Vinoski E, Warren-Findlow, J., Padro, M., Burris, E., Suddreth, E., Is the “Yoga Bod” the new skinny?: A comparative content analysis of mainstream yoga lifestyle magazine covers, Body Image, Volume 20, 2017, Pages 87-98
- Erin Vinoski, Jennifer B. Webb, Jan Warren-Findlow, Kirstyn A. Brewer, Katheryn A. Kiffmeyer, Got yoga?: A longitudinal analysis of thematic content and models’ appearance-related attributes in advertisements spanning four decades of Yoga Journal, Body Image, Volume 21, 2017, Pages 1-5
- Berger, M. T. (2018). I Do Practice Yoga! Controlling Images and Recovering the Black Female Body in ‘Skinny White Girl’ Yoga Culture. Race and Yoga, 3(1). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3w04347q
- Swain TA, McGwin G. Yoga-Related Injuries in the United States From 2001 to 2014. Orthop J Sports Med. 2016;4(11):2325967116671703. Published 2016 Nov 16. doi:10.1177/2325967116671703
- Rothschild, B. The Body Remembers,. New York: Norton, 2000, page 45
- https://www.doyou.com/everything-happens-for-a-reason/; https://thelifester.com/everything-happens-for-a-reason/