Tiffany Leamen

The Language of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga

By Tiffany Rose, SOYA RYT 500

Whether you are aware of it or not, you probably now, in the past or in the future will have a student who has experienced trauma. Research suggests that almost 1 in 10 civilians in Canada meet the criteria for PTSD. That means if you have a class of 20 students, 2 of them have PTSD.

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Much of the language we use about trauma can have a negative or belief building influence. Describing those who are affected as victims, survivors or traumatized does not build up or empower. It is important to note that while it is a very serious condition, describing it as a disease or something that is wrong with someone does not validate or normalize their current experience. I prefer to say I live with Complex PTSD rather than saying I am a victim of it.

Here are some ways to make your class more sensitive to those who have experienced trauma. In an asana class begin to create and hold space for students to own and have their own experience.

Avoid language that is commanding or takes ownership such as

– I want you to

– You should be feeling

– Let’s, we, we’re

Avoid sexually charged language such as

– Open or spread your legs

– using street or sexy names for body parts

– negative cuing and negative verbal alignment such as “don’t do…”

Instead offer:

– I invite you to…

– What you may be experiencing in your body…

– I am currently experiencing _______ sensation in my __________. Notice where in your body you are experiencing the sensations of this asana.

– Use anatomically correct language in a neutral tone

– Say “please” and “thank you”

It’s important to remember that your students are not on their mats for you.  For many this is a private, vulnerable and scary journey to embark on.  It is important to maintain a consistently reliable presence that offers them a safe environment in which to have any experience they need to have.

Normalize and validate. Every experience is valid. It’s important to provide safety for students but also important to respect that each body is going to be carrying trauma in its own unique way and therefore each student will ultimately have to carve out their own experience. As the teacher a sensitivity and insight into each student’s ability is an important tool.

For example, some students may be at their emotional limit in a pose even though they may not be executing it in a way that seems “correct” according to our training or our own ideas about each pose.  Correcting their posture could take a student into a place of disassociation due to an overwhelming amount of sensation which he/she may not have developed the tools to handle yet.  In this case it is better to leave the student just as they are and allow them to develop the ability to breathe and experience what they feel. It is much more accessible to stay present with the breath with minimal sensation than it is to try to breathe with intensity. The only exception is if the student is in danger of harming themselves.

Lastly, including yoga nidra at the end of the class may assist students to better connect with awareness to individual areas of the body, allowing them to release tension and relax without feeling overwhelmed by trying to focus on the whole body at once.

Tiffany is a SOYA 500hr RYT and lives in Red Deer, Alberta.  She offers trauma-sensitive yoga classes and workshops.  Please visit her website


Paschimottanasana – Sitting Forward Bend

Each morning I start my day with the thought, “I am a Spirit expressing myself through form.  How would I like to express myself today?”  Everything we do is an expression of our attitude at any given moment.  Do we wish to allow our beautiful inner Spirit to show itself outwardly through our actions? In the Bhagavad Gita, work is action.  Every action we take is part of our work during this lifetime.  Every work we do can be a beautiful expression of the Self.   For many of us we experience this joyful expression on the mat during our asana practice.  The next step is to take that joy off the mat.  Consider these words of wisdom from Swami Suryadevananda.

“Giving every work your enthusiasm, whether menial or ‘special’, is what makes every work an outpouring of the soul as it musters all one’s ability and heart. Really, there is nothing menial or mundane – these are attitudes we take towards this and that. Meniality and mundaneness are attitudes of the mind, manifest in action. We can make our lives rich, vibrant and ever fresh if we give every action – cleaning, chores, service to others, asanas, kirtan and finally meditation – every action a total action – involving every blessed ounce of ourselves as if it were the very last thing we would do in this life – we will slip off patches of dry land into the abyss of yoga. If we can learn to give a simple asana everything we have got we will learn to gather the rays of the mind and asana will lead to meditation. All the gizmos we have today distract the mind as one reaches for a water bottle, wipes and other accessories so much so that the asana stays in the realm of ‘doing’ and never becomes an expression of ‘being’ – asana stays asana and yoga stays out of reach.  Every blessed action has the potential for being yoga or an expression of being through doing. Doing is the doorway to the realm of being if we will only allow ourselves this. ”

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be distracted during your asana practice?  The following asana is a great pose for introversion and going inward.  As you practice it, try to stay present, without distraction so the true experience of yoga reveals itself to you.

PaschimottanasanaPASCHIMOTTANASANA: PASCHIMA means “the west” This pose stretches the western part of the body, which is the entire back from the head to the heels. From a sitting position with the legs extended straight out the upper body stretches up from the pelvis, arms over the head. The upper body bends forward the hands reaching toward the feet. Relaxing into the pose creates a sense of releasing into a place of surrender and humility.

Sitting on your mat stretch your legs out in front of you. Breathe in as you raise your arms up overhead, extending the spine through the crown of your head.  Exhale while hinging from the hips and folding forward over your legs.  Stop at your first edge, or your body’s first resistance to the fold.  Notice this place of resistance, and observe how the body will gradually release, allowing the pose to deepen naturally.  With an inhalation, raise slightly upwards and lengthen the spine again, then exhale and fold forward again.  With each breath release into the pose, allowing yourself to “be” the pose rather than “doing” the pose.  Embrace the attitude of fulness, wonder and joy.  Continue to breathe, allowing the asana to become an expression of ‘being’.  When you feel it is time to come out of the pose, inhale and raise up slowly extending arms overhead, then exhale and slow lowering the arms down to your sides.  Observe the effects of your work on your mind and body.

Counter Pose:  As a counter pose, place your hands on the floor slightly behind you, pointing the finger tips away from the buttocks (or optionally, point the fingertips towards the buttocks).  Lift the hips into upward facing plank (purvottanasana). Extend through the legs to the toes as they point downwards, working towards planting the soles of your feet on the floor.  Extend through the crown of the head and lift the hips upwards.  Take 3-5 breaths, then slowly lower the hips back down to the mat.  Make small circles with your wrists to release any tension in them.

For tight hamstrings, please bend the knees.  You can put a rolled towel underneath them if you like. You can also place a folded blanket under the hips to tilt the pelvis slightly forward – be sure to sit with your “sit” bones near the edge of the blanket to get the pelvic tilt.  Lovingly let go, and breathe.

Internal organs are massaged while the hamstrings and low back are stretched.  It helps to release tightness in the hips.  This asana improves digestion and kindles the gastric fire.  It rejuvenates the entire spine.  Energetically the life force flows through the sushumna nadi.  Surrender is the important lesson this asana teaches. There is a softening and an expansion from deep within.

By Mugs McConnell, quoting from Swami Suryadevananda. Drawing by Thor Polukoshko.

With gratitude to Swami Suryadevananda for his words of wisdom.  Visit  Many thanks to Thor Polukoshko for his drawing.

Horse Yoga

Horses Teach Yoga Students

Discover yourself though yoga and equine-assisted learning

By Sandy Bell, Chinook Communications at Windhorse Retreat.  SOYA teacher Jo-Ann Bance will be leading the next retreat March 22-23 in Rimbey, AB.

horses_yoga The breeze strokes your face during a seated meditation.  You soften your gaze and slow your breathing, and a horse moves closer to smell your head and hands.  She stands beside you.  Another horse moves into the centre of the circle of people and horses.  She rests quietly with her head down and gently sighs.  The feeling of unity deepens.

This experience is one of the highlights for participants in workshops and retreats that offer a unique blend of yoga and equine-assisted learning.   Weekend workshops are hosted by Windhorse Retreat, west of Rimbey, Alberta and week-long retreats are at Painted Pony Guest Ranch, Costa Rica.  Our yoga partners are Jo-Ann Bance, For Our Inner Yogi, Calgary and Mary Byerly, Panacea de la Montana Yoga Retreat and Spa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

“We are excited about hosting the retreats at Painted Pony Guest Ranch.  The combination of people, horses and yoga is magical, especially when set in a tropical paradise of Costa Rica,” says Kay Dodge, owner, Painted Pony Guest Ranch.

The yoga portions of these “Discover You!” experiences are not about doing yoga poses with horses as props.  The horses are full partners or facilitators in horse-human interactions – a foundational belief of equine-assisted wellness.  Our activities with horses are also grounded in the philosophy of natural horsemanship; that is, horses have complex, emotional lives as herd beings.

Horses are gifted and intuitive teachers who give us honest feedback to support our personal development if we are prepared and willing to listen.  The yoga portion of the workshops and retreats aims to enhance our sense of our inner state, so when we move on to activities with horses, we are more open to learning from them.

“We expect the participants to grow with all the positive energy, but for us, it is a positive experience for the horses as well.  Natural horsemanship helps the horses communicate with humans, and our horses were certainly hooked on to the people as well,” says Kay.

The yoga practice is designed for beginners, and when possible takes place outdoors.  The practice is intended to be restorative and rebalancing.

“After a deep connection made with the horses through the equine assisted learning activities, participants easily settle into the yoga practice.  They are asked to pay particular attention to the breath and to bring awareness into the body,” says Jo-Ann Bance, instructor, For Our Inner Yogi.

“Then as we move from the stillness of Savasana, we are invited once more to connect with our equine friends,” says Jo-Ann.

horses winterEnergy flows from person to person to horse as they connect to help each other work through an obstacle course.  The human partners describe trust and patience, and the horse partners rest their heads against kind hands.  The herd is complete.

No horse experience is needed for the equine activities, and safety and well-being for all is paramount.  Sessions with the horses are on the ground in small groups.  The retreats in Costa Rica also offer cultural and spa components, and trail rides into the countryside are tailored to all abilities.

Jo-Ann Bance, a SOYA 200 teacher who is currently upgrading to her SOYA 500 hr certification.  She and Sandy Bell will be hosting workshops at Windhorse Retreat on March 22-23 and April 5-6.  Planning is underway for a week-long retreat in December in Costa Rica.  Space is very limited.  To register text or phone  403-700-7880, or email  For more information visit