The question how to guarantee that your students feel safe in yoga class is a hot and happening topic in the yoga scene – and with good reason. Firstly, because of a number of incidents of sexual abuse among yoga teachers reported in recent years.
Secondly, there is increasing awareness of the potential healing effects of yoga for trauma-related health issues. Therefore, people coming to your class might be more trauma-sensitive than the general population.
And last but not least, there is a prevailing myth that yoga is free from the risk of injuries. This is simply not true. Yoga requires the body to move in ways it does not usually do. New students have to become more flexible and stronger step by step. It is therefore important to pay careful attention to the prevention of injuries when a student comes to your class for the first time.
As a yoga teacher, you should be aware of the effect the environment and your behavior might have on your students. How can you make new students feel safe in your yoga class? And how can you keep them safe? Here’s a list of do’s and don’t s to create a physically and emotionally safe environment in your yoga classes.
When a new student comes into your class, take a moment to introduce this potentially new environment to him or her. You can show the student around, show the studio and the changing room and toilet. Tell the student about your way of teaching, so he/she knows what to expect. It can also be helpful to name a few customs in a yoga class. For example, do you have any opening rituals such as chanting Ohm? Is there always time for tea or do you have another class directly after? In this way, you can give the student an idea of what is going to happen.
Another important thing to start with is to pay personal attention to the student. Is he/she familiar with yoga, or is it their first time? What expectations does the student have? Ask for injuries and tell the student how you normally deal with it – do you give adjustments, or do you recommend coming out of the pose in case of pain? Is it allowed to ask questions during class? Does the student have any other questions before starting? In this way, you make the student feel welcome and safe.
The environment of the studio is a very important factor in the sense of safety. With trauma-sensitivity in mind, it is best to stick with a neutral environment. All kinds of sensory triggers can cause anxiety, such as specific smells, sounds or unexpected changes. If you use music, use gentle background music with very little (or no) vocals. And although the use of scents is quite common in yoga classes, it is not necessary. In order to create a safe yoga space, the lighting you use has an effect as well. Make sure the light is dim and comforting, instead of harsh or too dark. Overall, create a clear and neutral environment for a peaceful atmosphere.
For new students, there is often a lot to learn. Instead of rushing into a sequence, slow down and invite the students to be mindful of their body, breath and mind. This is beneficial not only for beginners, but in general encourages self-awareness. Some gentle exercises to warm up are also a good idea to prevent injuries. And including a resting pose, such as child’s pose, in the beginning of your class is a good way to give the option of taking rest whenever needed. If you are teaching an open class, you can talk to the new student before starting or name a few options while teaching.
Safety, especially in a trauma-sensitive approach, is largely about respecting personal boundaries and establishing trust. Therefore, asking permission before using touch is very important. This can be tricky, as saying ‘no’ in public can be a challenge for some people, so simply asking in the beginning of class who is okay with it might not be enough. A non-invasive way to ask for permission, is to do this during opening meditation, when most people have their eyes closed. You can invite your students to place one hand on their belly or shoulder if they do not want to be touched. Another option is to use cards that students can place next to their mat, depicting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for hands-on adjustments. This option even allows people to change their mind during class.
As a yoga teacher, you can use your position to show your students how to be compassionate. Allow yourself to make mistakes, to lose your balance now and then, and laugh about it. This takes off pressure for new students and people who tend toward perfectionism might learn to soften. Show your own human side and emphasize the beauty of practice instead of perfection.
A safe yoga practice includes the prevention of injuries. In some yoga poses, specific alignment cues might be helpful for one person, but harmful for the other. As recognized more and more, every body has its own anatomy. It’s important as a yoga teacher to acknowledge individual differences. Therefore, try giving different options and use gentle, invitational language. In this way, you allow your students to explore their own bodies without judgement. You also significantly lower the risk of injuries.
Read an example of how to teach functional versus aesthetic alignment: How to Practice Pigeon Pose for All Levels of Mobility
As a yoga teacher, you might get questions about a large variety of health issues. If one of your students reports medical, physical or mental conditions you do not know about in detail, preferably refer to a specialist. Try not to make claims based on unfounded knowledge; instead acknowledge you cannot possibly know everything. If you do have qualifications in the medical field, of course you can use your expertise to help your students in their practice. In this case, be aware though that teaching a yoga class is something different than offering therapy or a medical consultation. Keep it simple and separate. This is the principle of being professional: do what you are supposed to do to the best of your knowledge. No less, no more.
In conclusion, making your students feel safe in yoga class includes different elements. Giving each student personal attention, acquainting new people with the environment and asking about injuries can help you to establish trust and clarity. A calm and quiet environment creates safety in general. While teaching, focus on the prevention of injuries and respect boundaries in terms of touch. And finally, your own attitude as a teacher can be a tool to make students feel welcome and safe too. If you aren’t a trained psychologist, I’d advise you from calling your classes trauma-sensitive yoga  classes. But even without it, the non-violence aspect is inherent in yogic philosophy and should be a given in any form of physical yoga practice too! Be compassionate and mindful, and don’t forget to enjoy! This will make students not only feel safe in your class, but confident as well.
Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain is creative director & senior teacher at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams since 2013. She teaches during the Arhanta 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training as well as a variety of 50 hour courses like Yin Yoga and Vinyasa Yoga, for more than eight years now.