Karen George was at a loss about how to help her client, a woman so severely depressed that she was unable to leave her house other than a weekly appointment with George in Skidegate in Haida Gwaii, BC.
“She was so guarded, her hands clenched at the arms of the couch, like she was ready to run,” says the Family Art Therapist. “It was really hard to figure out what to do.”
George had tried a lot of approaches, from somatic experiencing therapy to art therapy, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, George decided to try a course on trauma-informed yoga aimed at mental health and community outreach professionals. She admits that at first she wasn’t really sure if it was going to work. After all, somatic experiencing is an embodied practice too, and that hadn’t worked.
“Somatic experience therapy can have big outcomes because you go deeper into the body, and so people can get quite activated,” George says. “Trauma-informed yoga is really about slowing right down and letting clients be in total control.”
After completing the course, George decided to try out one of the 10-minute movement and meditation scripts with her depressed client. After three weeks of beginning each appointment with very slow chair yoga, George noticed a change.
“She used to have this shake; her hands shook all the time, so when she tried to do art, she’d get more frustrated. After the third week of doing yoga, we noticed her hands weren’t shaking.”
This was a big deal for the client and for George. Beginning each appointment with a grounding yoga practice seemed to help the client relax enough to engage with other modalities. “She’s not as intense as she was before,” adds George. “She even put her feet up a few times.”
Yoga in schools
As Erica McLean makes her rounds of elementary schools across Prince George, she pays careful attention to those students who may struggle with self-regulation.
McLean is a School Community Coordinator for the Prince George School District currently on secondment with Engage Sport North-Sport For Life, an organization that aims to increase physical literacy for all.
McLean was looking for new ways to support those students who sometimes struggle to be successful in their school day. Through her personal explorations of mindfulness and meditation, she’d learned that yoga could be effective at supporting people who had experienced trauma.
Like George, McLean signed up for a course with Yoga Outreach, a nonprofit that specializes in trauma-informed yoga training.
The most compelling part of the course for McLean was the language. “First you start with reclaiming and then you move on in such a gentle way, and I thought, ‘Yes! This is exactly what needs to happen.”
Mclean was also struck by the kid-friendliness of basic principles like “befriending the body.”
“If I am working with a group of kids, I say that our body is our friend. Then I can coach them to notice, “What does it look like when your friend is upset?” It’s very tangible.
Since adding yoga to her physical literacy sessions, McLean has had a lot of positive feedback from teachers. “Educators appreciate the purposeful arc of energy in a physical literacy session where we bring up the energy to practice Fundamental Movement Skills but we transition to a well-regulated state after a short savasana.” Classroom teachers have also admired the fact that a student who may have had a frustrated outburst over a basketball game is able to lay quietly participating in a relaxing body scan with their classmates in the next transition.
Yoga with coworkers
Tami Compton’s work day at the K’omoks KDC Health Centre on Vancouver Island is jam-packed with monthly lunches for Elders, workshops, moms and tots groups, craft nights, foot care, hand waxing, providing community with health promotion information on diabetes, arthritis, nutrition, physical activity, and AIDS/HIV – and lots of listening to community health concerns.
As a Community Health Representative, she’s noticed increased anxieties amongst her clients in general and related to the pandemic. Their rise in worry is also affecting her colleagues.
“Sometimes it’s hard not to take on and feel what your clients are going through,” she explains. “It’s always good to have something to manage those feelings, to ground yourself when needed, and to help ground them as well.”
Compton had never even tried yoga before, so the idea of bringing it into staff and client meetings seemed pretty interesting. Like MacLean, she was surprised by how well the terminology matched what she had learned about trauma recovery in her work.
“Reclaiming the body, having a body, and creating safety – it totally made sense to me,” says Compton.
Now Compton finds small ways to bring yoga and mindfulness into her day. A grieving client seemed to take some comfort from a few minutes of belly breathing and grounding exercises. Compton informally gathered a group of co-workers for a check in, and a few physical forms such as seated and standing mountain. The group appreciated the midday stress reliever, says Compton. After a hectic day, Compton says she now practices the grounding and breathing techniques on her own at home.
Co-regulation – links between my health and yours
When Yoga Outreach first conceived of a yoga-in-the-workplace training, it was aimed at overstretched staff in health and recovery facilities where the nonprofit was already delivering yoga to patients. Nicole Marcia, Director of Training and Mentorship at Yoga Outreach, observed that when counsellors in a facility had a chance to ground and self-regulate through mindful movement, the overall relationship between the volunteer yoga teachers, clients, and staff strengthened too.
Taking signals of safety and positivity from those around us is called “co-regulation,” and one of the inspirations for using yoga at work.
“In one way, it’s about the relationship between a counsellor and a client, or a teacher and students, but in another way it’s so much bigger than that,” says Marcia. “It’s also about participants’ relationships with themselves, their coworkers and with the global community. It’s relational work in a big way.”
Marcia explains that one part of the course focuses on trauma theory, which is useful for professionals to know in many client-facing contexts. However, at least half the time is spent trying out activities for themselves, and then practicing teaching them to others.
“When they leave they have breathing techniques, physical forms they can do in a chair, and grounding techniques, with scripts to accompany all of them,” says Marcia. “They leave with their own sort of toolbox.”
Yoga without trained yoga teachers?
Some people may worry that it’s inappropriate or risky to lead yoga without a teacher training certificate. While this might be true of intense fitness-focused yoga, trauma-informed yoga is entirely sensation focused and student led. Essentially, students (or clients, or coworkers) focus on simple questions, like how it feels to slowly lift an arm up and down, or extend their out breath by one second. Every suggestion is prefaced by an invitation, such “If it feels right for you, ….” so that participants can opt out of movements that conflict with injuries or even their moods.
The only obstacle MacLean sees for people bringing yoga into their work is confidence. Her solution: admitting up front that her leadership comes from experience, rather than expertise.
“I just don’t feel there’s a right way to do mindfulness and meditation. I think that we can all own it in different ways,” MacLean explains. “As long as I say first, ‘I’m not an expert. These are just practices that have worked for me’, then everything that comes after is good.”
By Wendy Goldsmith