Teaching Trauma Informed Yoga to Kids

As the summer of 2017 ends, I’ve been reflecting on my time spent teaching yoga to children who live at a local shelter in NYC. Due to the nature of this work and for the protection of the students, the exact location remains anonymous. This NYC shelter is provided as transitional housing for children and mothers who were victims of domestic violence. Upon completing my second summer at this location, I’ve compiled different strategies, activities and classroom management techniques that have helped me to effectively teach this population.

Unfortunately, child maltreatment is all too common and should not be ignored. According to the CDC, “In 2012, U.S. state and local child protective services (CPS) received an estimated 3.4 million referrals of children being abused or neglected.” In addition, the 2009 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence showed that over 60 percent of children had been victims of direct or indirect violence over the prior year. 

If you are an educator or work with children in some capacity, you may not know explicitly that your students have experienced trauma. Therefore, it’s always important to keep trauma informed practices in mind. It may not always be obvious that a student has experienced trauma. In my experience, sometimes, the children who are presenting the most challenging behavior or seeking extra attention are also the ones who have experienced trauma. When I recognize that their behavior is communicating an unmet need, it is much easier for me to meet the child with compassion and look at their behavior as information rather than a threat. This information helps me to create a safe space by offering a class with practices that aim to meet their specific needs.

Below, I have listed some tips to help you create a safe space for your students and lead a yoga class that gives students an opportunity to connect with themselves and feel empowered.

Safety through Expectation, Routine & Choice – Students who have experienced trauma have experienced a threat to their safety. Creating a safe space for your students is crucial so that they feel safe enough to explore and practice new things. Always tell your students what to expect. For example, I always let my students know that we will be doing a breathing exercise at the beginning of every class. Routines create a sense of safety, so I’ve found it’s best to keep the structure of the class the same every week while changing the activities within the structure from time to time. You can also tell them before you’re planning on transitioning to a new activity, and even tell them that you’re going to turn the lights off for relaxation so it isn’t startling. Keep them informed every step of the way. Lastly, allow participation to be a choice. In my classes, I encourage my students to rest in child’s pose or in their tall yoga seat as alternative options if whatever I’m teaching doesn’t feel safe or comfortable in the moment.

Sleep Deprivation & Relaxation – A lot of students who experience trauma have trouble falling asleep at night. This leads to over exhaustion and probably a desire to lay down on the mat in the middle of practice. At the shelter, I found it extremely beneficial to carve out 15-20 minutes of relaxation every class. I reminded the students that they had this opportunity so they were less likely to want to go to sleep at the beginning of class. In addition, I really reiterated activities and poses that would help them fall asleep at night. (i.e. belly breathing, tensing the muscles and letting go, and child’s pose.) I always reminded the students that these activities were for them to practice outside of yoga class, and not just when I was there teaching them. I asked questions for example, after child’s pose, such as, “Did your energy level go up or down? If it went down, when would be a good time in your day for you to practice this?” Knowing that many of my children were really struggling with falling asleep at night, I found it particularly important to teach them practices that could help them quiet their minds and get a good night’s sleep.

Connecting to Their Bodies – Research has shown that traumatic experiences can lead to one disconnecting from their body as an attempt to avoid pain or uncomfortable emotions. Our job as yoga teachers is to help students be aware of their bodies and build a stronger, more compassionate connection with them.  The kids I taught at the shelter were extremely disconnected from their bodies. One of my younger students was constantly rolling around and running around the room. It might have appeared like he was trying to give me a hard time but it was clear to me that he literally had no idea where his body was. Whenever I noticed frustration rising within me, I paused and instead of yelling at him to get back on his mat, I would mindfully reflect the situation to him by asking questions like:  “where is your body?” “where is your body supposed to be right now?”  These questions helped him to remember where he was in the moment and what was expected from him. Another activity I found extremely helpful was drawing. By starting the class off with a focus activity, it helped the students get grounded enough to be able to feel their body and mindfully experience movement.

Touch & Consent – I never gave hands on adjustments to students in yoga poses and I never recommend doing that with children, especially victims of abuse. However, human touch can be very healing, for example, getting a hug when you’re sad. As I wrote above, a lot of students have trouble relaxing and switching gears from fight-flight-freeze mode to rest & digest mode. What I found helpful, after developing relationships with my students, was placing a hand on their head during relaxation. This was the only time I ever placed my hands on a student, and I only did it with his or her approval. I asked if it was OK if I placed a hand on their head and if they said yes, I would tell them at any point if it’s not OK anymore to tell me and I’ll take it off. I also checked in after my hand had been placed there and asked them, “is my hand still OK here?” After a week or two of this, the students started asking for me to put a hand on their forehead.  This gives them an understanding of what it means to give consent, which gives them a sense of agency.  

Personal Power– At the end of the day, my main goal as a teacher is to leave my students feeling empowered and inspired. A lot of the kids at the shelter, as a result of their past experiences, felt weak and discouraged. I found that students really loved practicing the warrior poses as it made them feel powerful. Another activity that helps build personal agency is saying the affirmations, “I am so strong” and “I can do this.” Towards the end of our time spent together, these were some of the activities that stood out the most in the children’s minds. 

Joy & Love – The most important thing we can offer children is our joy and our love. I’ve found that when I get too serious or try to stick to my class plan a little too rigidly, I lose my sense of joy and that is when the students disengage. If we can give our students plenty of opportunities to be seen, heard and really feel supported, they will feel joy and they will know they are loved.

Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel says, “For a child or an adult, it’s extremely powerful to hear someone say, ‘I get you. I understand you. I see why you feel this way.’ This kind of empathy disarms us.” I hope these tips are useful and provide you with insight on the importance of empathizing and finding compassion for our children and students, especially victims of trauma. It’s important to remember that when we teach yoga and mindfulness, we can only offer them what we have practiced in our own lives. Remember to be compassionate towards yourself and your own growth and healing. When I practice self-compassion, I embody what I want my students to learn.