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Understanding 'trauma-informed' yoga with Stephanie Beauverd

Stephanie Beauverd is a qualified counsellor and certified mindfulness meditation teacher with a background in psychology and mental health. I met Stephanie during the intensive training of mindfulness-integrated cognitive behaviour therapy (MiCBT) in 2017 and have since remained connected online. I can confidently say that she truly embodies all that she teaches and simply wants to be of service for the betterment humanity. I hope you find the following written interview helpful in further understanding the practice of yoga and maybe even be inspired to start a yoga practice or delve deeper into your current practice.

Georgina: You have been an absolute power house in providing accessible services to your community. You seem to be providing all that is really needed right now and for that, thank you! The particular service that I’m most curious about trauma-informed yoga.

As you have trained to be a yoga instructor, then continued your training to also teach ‘trauma-informed’ yoga, how would you describe the difference in teaching yoga in a trauma-informed way?

Stephanie: To provide some context and clarification, I want to explain the difference between being generally trauma-informed as a yoga teacher versus running specific trauma-sensitive classes or programs for trauma survivors.

Trauma-sensitive specific yoga classes mostly follow a structured format and guidelines developed by psychiatrist Dr Bessel van der Kolk and David Emerson. Their specific method of trauma-sensitive yoga has been empirically validated as a clinical intervention for complex trauma or chronic, treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their Trauma Center in the US. There are yoga teachers here in Australia that run trauma-sensitive yoga classes and programs that are specifically for trauma survivors only.

In the yoga community, there are teachers who are trauma-informed in their knowledge and experience and bring that into the general classes that they teach. That’s what I do. As we know, many people in our community have experienced trauma, to varying degrees of course, but all equally valid. Based on my many years of working in the mental health sector and the current statistics, I know that when I teach a yoga class open to anyone in the community at a studio or online, there will most certainly ALWAYS be someone in my class that has experienced trauma. Therefore, for me as a teacher, I believe ALL yoga classes should be taught with some level of trauma awareness.

Now, to your question, how would I describe the difference in teaching yoga in a trauma-informed way.

The main difference is that the psychological and emotional safety of students is prioritised, as well as physical safety. Often in yoga classes there is a heavy emphasis on physical safety: making sure students don’t injure their physical body as they move. However, if you are teaching with a trauma-informed lens then you aim to teach yoga in a way that assists the students to feel as mentally, emotionally, and spiritually safe as possible; that what you are teaching or instructing will not trigger or distress a person. This means there are a whole range of extra considerations that the teacher needs to be aware of to safely facilitate yoga, especially a group class.

A trauma-informed approach to yoga also means the way the practices are taught might differ. For example, a general public yoga class might start with a meditation. The teacher might instruct all students to close their eyes and focus on their breath or perhaps even change their breathing. If the teacher does this without giving any other options or encouraging choice (even in some cases walking around and telling off students for not following the exact instructions!), this could cause distress for someone who has experienced trauma or is managing a mental health condition. Often many generalisations are made, for example for some people, closing their eyes and focusing on their breath is extremely calming and relaxing, for other people it could be extremely triggering, distressing, or uncomfortable to do so. The way most Western yoga classes are taught is that normally one instruction is given, assuming it will suit every single person in the class, but it doesn’t.

If you attend a yoga class that is run by an experienced trauma-informed teacher you would hopefully notice some of the following things.

  • Physical hands-on assists or touching are not provided by the teacher, your physical body and space are respected.

  • Invitational language is used, inviting you to try things, not demanding that you do them.

  • Individual choice is encouraged, everyone in the group might be doing different movements or practices and that’s okay.

  • The environment should be private, relatively quiet with bright lighting and be scent-free, to maintain the feeling of safety and reduce potential triggers.

  • Physical movements or postures are offered with choice and with a focus on how they feel for each person rather than how they look, also the use of props is encouraged.

  • Language of inquiry (i.e., How does this feel for you? What can you notice?) is used to encourage self-reflection and connection to self.

  • The teacher themselves might embody qualities of calmness and approachability, is willing to listen and genuinely supports each student’s personal autonomy.

  • Emphasis on staying present, trauma-informed mindfulness practice is used to help stay connected to the here and now.

These are just a few examples of what might be different in a trauma-informed yoga class. Of course, each teacher will facilitate a class in slightly different ways and each class will vary based on the students present at that class. I would recommend trying classes with different trauma-informed teachers until you find one you like and feel comfortable with.

Georgina: In my opinion, body-based practices are an *essential* component in healing from trauma/s because there is such ‘fragmentation’ or disconnection between the body and the brain and the mind. What do you think are the elements involved that create a sense of ‘wholeness’ when regularly practicing yoga?

Stephanie: Great question! I think wholeness is something that would be defined differently for each person but it is a common feeling that many yoga practitioners experience from their practice. I think two of the key elements that are involved in creating this sense of wholeness are self-insight that comes from self-reflection, and the mind-body connection that occurs when we practise.

As you start to practise yoga you learn a great deal about yourself and slowly understand yourself more and more. You gain a deeper level of insight into your thoughts, actions, automatic reactions, emotions, and sensations in your body. Once you understand yourself better you realise that underneath the surface of who you think you are there is the true you. Our personality, perception and beliefs are conditioned by our upbringing and those around us. Through self-reflection and meditation you see that often you might be acting or living in the world in a way that is simply a learned behaviour, it may not be who you really are deep down. In yogic philosophy, this is the journey a yogi undertakes, uncovering who they really are and connecting with the wholeness of who they are. Through yoga we can realise we are enough just as we are: we are not broken, incomplete, or lacking as we might believe. This all helps us feel more whole.

The other component is that yoga is a practice that helps all parts of ourselves connect with one another, and in particular the mind and body. When our mind and body are not in sync or we aren’t aware that they are meant to be in harmony with one another, we can feel disconnected and fragmented, lost in overwhelming thoughts, emotions, or sensations. Yoga as a practice helps us find and cultivate a stable internal centre point that helps you stay grounded and feeling anchored amidst internal or external chaos. When we have experienced significant trauma in our life or live with an ongoing mental health condition such as anxiety, a sense of wholeness might be lacking or hard to cultivate, which is why yoga can be helpful to re-establish that sense of wholeness.

Georgina: What have you noticed in yourself and in others by regularly practicing yoga, particularly in relation to mental/emotional health?

Stephanie: For myself personally over the years I have noticed that through my dedicated yoga and meditation practice, I am less reactive, I am kinder to myself and others, I understand myself better, I make better choices, I feel stronger, more confident, and empowered, and more specifically my stress and anxiety levels have dropped and reduced in frequency and intensity. Through yogic practices I have learned a great deal about how my mind works, how my breath and nervous system are intimately linked, and how to respond in healthier ways to unpleasant emotions and unhelpful thoughts. I think after all these years of practise I am a calmer, more peaceful, happier, and a healthier person in general. I really don’t know what my mental or emotional health would be like if I had never started practising yoga and meditation!

Whilst the benefits of a regular practice are unique to each person, in general I’ve seen my students become more confident and empowered in how to handle changes and challenges that are present in their lives. It’s important to remember yoga is not a magic fix that ensures you will never be stressed or challenged again in your life. What I have seen is how practitioners of yoga, when they are faced with a stress or challenge, have a greater strength and resilience because they have their yoga practice that they can come back to, that supports them through life’s ups and downs.

Georgina: How would you describe your wish/intention for how people would feel after a session or class with you?

Stephanie: My guiding aim as a yoga teacher is to embody the calm, peace, presence, and authenticity I aim to help others find and cultivate for themselves. My wish is that when students leave a session or class with me that they feel seen, heard, and appreciated for who they really are. That they leave feeling more connected to the present moment, to themselves, and to their own needs and wants. My intention is to share the practice of yoga and let the practice itself work its magic for students. In my private yoga for anxiety sessions my wish is that people leave with more insight, knowledge, skills, and greater confidence to better manage their anxiety and stress.

What I would love people to know about yoga is that:

Yoga is NOT simply a physical exercise routine that looks pretty on social media! Yes the physical aspect is an important part but there is so much that yoga has to offer! There are countless styles and paths of yoga, enough options to suit most people. If you want to improve your mental and emotional health you might consider learning yogic meditation or breathing practices. If you want to enhance your spiritual connection you might study yogic philosophy. Yoga, when taught authentically and traditionally, is a holistic practice and way of living that can help you enhance your physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health. The original intention of yoga was to help individuals find freedom from suffering and to discover who they really are, and then let this flow into our society at large.

You can find out more about Stephanie's services through her website and instagram.

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