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September 29, 2015

By Inner Fire Luminary, Phyllis Chan

Last summer, I took the Yoga Outreach Core Training program at the Vancouver School of Yoga.  Yoga Outreach does important work throughout our community by providing mindfulness-based yoga programming to often overlooked adults and at risk youth.  They serve men, women and youth facing challenges with mental health, addiction, poverty, violence, trauma and imprisonment.  

Teaching special populations is not for the faint of heart.  Yoga Outreach provides training and ongoing mentorship to prepare teachers for different situations.  Nicole Marcia is an incredible facilitator who breaks down how to teach trauma-sensitive classes in a way that’s easy to understand.  She is an amazing, kind, empathetic and eloquent facilitator. She was great at holding space for all of us, and led some really powerful discussions. Nicole was a great inspiration in grace and in strength and I was honored to learn from her.

My main take-aways from the training in teaching special populations:

  • Allow students to keep their eyes open if they don’t feel comfortable closing them.  Students who have experienced trauma may feel unsafe to close their eyes.
  • Do not give physical assists.  Even if you ask permission, they may not feel comfortable to say no … even if they don’t want them.
  • Use invitational language as opposed to directional
  • Dress humbly and not to wear flashy clothes

According to Nicole, behind almost every addiction is a trauma story.  Students who have experienced trauma find their body an uncomfortable and unsafe place to be.  Through the practice of yoga, we aim to connect them to their body and help them feel more comfortable in their own skin.   The hope is they learn to self-regulate, and choose healthy ways to calm themselves down in stressful situations.

Teaching in these environments is less about form and techniques.  Yoga Outreach classes emphasize the experiencing of one’s body as one’s own.   The International Journal of Yoga Therapy tells us that:

“An essential aspect of recovering from trauma is learning ways to calm down, or self-regulate.  For thousands of years, Yoga has been offered as a practice that helps one calm the mind and body.  More recently, research has shown that Yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life.  For these reasons, Yoga is a promising treatment of adjunctive therapy for addressing the cognitive, emotional and physiological symptoms associated with trauma and PSTD specifically."

Last week, I started teaching yoga at Pacifica Treatment Center, a place that promotes health and recovery from addiction.  The facility believes that yoga is a tool for recovery and has made it mandatory for all their patients to attend. It was definitely the most interesting class that I had ever taught.  I really enjoyed it, as I felt well-prepped by the training and the students were extremely grateful for the class.  When they don’t have teachers available to teach, they practice to a yoga video, which I hear is pretty outdated.

Teaching in this setting cultivates compassion towards all different types of students.  I find that as a teacher, I am getting more and more comfortable interacting with people from all walks of life.  I am grateful for this because it allows me to be more effective at sharing the teachings of yoga.  My teacher, Sri Dharma Mittra, speaks highly of Karma Yoga, doing work for others without any expectation of results. According to the Dharma Centre Staff,"He’s well known for being a karma yogi for his guru and still practices what he preaches.”  I just came back from his 500 hr teacher training and am so grateful to be a yoga teacher. It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.

To find out more about how you can support Yoga Outreach click here.
To find out more about Pacifica Treatment Center, click here.
To find out more about PTSD, click here.