Edinburgh Community Yoga (ECY), a not for profit yoga outreach organisation based in Edinburgh, works with under-served communities in the city, including people with mental health issues, community groups supporting people with drug and alcohol issues, military veterans affected by PTSD, women’s groups, prisons and hospitals. ECY also runs a range of corporate and public classes, retreats and trainings for teachers interested in this work.
Often we are asked what the most important aspect of our outreach work is. Though I clearly believe that there is great value and benefit to be gained from practicing yoga itself, my answer is that the most important aspect of what we do is the creation of a supportive community, and the relationships that are formed within that. I say this based on my observations and the feedback that comes from our participants across many of our outreach programmes. I also believe it to be true from my own experience of finding community through yoga.
Many people, particularly within prisons and psychiatric hospitals, the veteran community and the womens groups that we work with, have experienced childhood neglect and abuse by caregivers or repetitive traumatic experience within relationships at some point in their lives, resulting in developmental or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). This means they have not often, if at all, experienced trusting communities or relationships.
“I feel like I am being treated like a human being, for the first time in my life” -J, community outreach class
This statement from someone imprisoned in solitary confinement for many years and now trying to rebuild a life on the outside gives insight into the life experiences of some of the people we work with.
Trauma, especially complex/developmental trauma makes an individual feel frightened, unsafe and hyper-vigilant, as well as disconnected from sensations in their physical body, a difficult baseline from which to develop trusting relationships.
Judith Herman (1997) writes extensively on the subject of complex trauma, recovery and relationships.
“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only in the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In their renewed connection with other people, the survivor recreates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic operations of trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity and intimacy”
As we begin to understand this concept we can begin to understand just why the development of community is of key importance.
How we achieve this in a yoga outreach class is a result of the combination of our training, skills, experience, intuition, collaboration with organisations who have expertise in this area, the willingness of the individuals we work with to come along to class, and the concept that we are all connected to each other by something more powerful than the activity of our minds. Trying to keep the yogic principles of the Yamas and the Niyamas at the forefront of our minds as we reflect on our work and intention helps to guide us in the right direction.
As mentioned in previous blogposts we meet each individual in our classes with unconditional positive regard in the moment that we find them. We maintain boundaries and ground rules, but approach our work with friendliness, compassion for where people are and a calm and grounded approach. Through this approach trust can begin to develop between student and teacher.
We set clear boundaries and ground rules to create safety and are clear in our role as a yoga teacher, and not talking therapist, trauma expert or friend. We always have someone present in the room from within the organisation we are working with, for people to feel comfortable in the yoga class setting.
We offer people the opportunity to exert autonomy over their own bodies through using invitational language that encourages choice making and interoception (noticing and locating sensation in the body) and to develop a sense of reconnection to their own bodies. Students know that there is not expectation of achievement or ‘success’; the yoga practice is about each individual moving and breathing in a way that works for them; facilitated by the teacher. We are very careful about the use of physical adjustments, and are conscious of students being in control of their own situation at all times without the teacher putting their expectation of experience onto the student through demanding or instructive language that tells people what they will or will not experience. One of the most difficult aspects of doing this work is that as teachers we try not to become attached to outcome, progression or results for individuals or projects and keep focus on the experience that is had in the present moment. Maintaining this philosophy is certainly a challenging aspect of our own practice and something we often reflect on. How do you believe in a practice while not attaching to its outcomes? I think this deserves its own blogpost, coming next month.
These aspects of teaching are core concepts in trauma informed/trauma sensitive yoga workshops and trainings developed by David Emerson of the Boston Trauma Centre, an eminent leader in the field on this subject.
As teachers we hold our students experiences and challenges with the deepest respect and acknowledge the importance of working with integrity and safety in environments where people feel vulnerable and exposed and where new relationships can be fragile and uncertain.
The dynamic that exists between student and teacher is powerful. Sadly as has recently become apparent- if it wasn’t already- in the yoga world, like anywhere else, there is the potential for this dynamic to be abused, taken advantage of or misinterpreted. It is not uncommon for individuals, particularly those who are already vulnerable, to hope or believe that teachers, or even ‘gurus’ have all the answers and therefore fail to question questionable behaviours as a result of control, coercion, an unequal division of power or abject fear. Working with people who have already experienced traumatic relationships makes us acutely aware of this vulnerability and how easy it could be to re-traumatise our students by our actions, even when well meant.
As Herman states:
“No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”
Yoga should be, and often is, an empowering practice, finding strength in our bodies, space in the breath makes us feel physically and emotionally stronger. For this reason we aim never to perpetuate the idea that as teachers we have any control, ownership or superior knowledge over a student’s physicality, emotional state or experience. When we believe specific practices may help we offer them in a way that promotes choice and invites curiosity. It is our belief, and one that is taught clearly by Emerson and his team, that we cannot make an assumption about what an individual’s experience of that practice will be. This understanding has shaped the way we teach in this field.
Nothing happens quickly in our work; there is no expectation of immediate or obvious change to occur (and if there was we would be continually disappointed) but over time as community develops and trust is formed in the relationships that are created, individuals begin to develop confidence in the process and in themselves.
Recently, at one of our outreach yoga classes for people who have self-harm issues we closed our class sitting together in a circle practicing loving kindness meditation.
It has taken almost 2 years of meeting each week to develop the trust in our group to be able to explore this practice safely with careful facilitation, gentle introduction and ongoing support from a clinical nurse specialist in self-harm.
Many of the women are intermittent inpatients, often stripped of dignity and connection as they are treated for diagnoses of ‘emotionally unstable personality disorder’, labelled with pejorative terms such as attention seeker and at times treated with a lack of understanding of the complex, repetitive self-harming behaviours that are almost always underpinned by a history of complex PTSD.
The power of the community that has been created by these brave individuals turning up to our hospital based yoga class each week and the support they offer to each other was evident in that moment and in the words that were spoken together.
‘May I be peaceful, may I be well, may I be at ease’
May you be peaceful, may you be well, may you be at ease
May we be peaceful, may we be well, may we be at ease’
You can help us; If you would like to donate to ECY, you can do so here. You or your local studio can also organise a fundraising event in your area to raise money to support others to access the benefits of yoga. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
And of course you can add a donation to ECY whenever you place an order on the Yogamatters site. Simply select ECY and the amount you want to donate on the final stage of the checkout.