Innovative Tools to Empower Students on the Yoga Mat
Innovative Tools to Empower Students on the Yoga Mat
Introduction by Molly Boeder Harris
The first time I was adjusted inappropriately in a yoga class I froze and held my breath. I wanted to run out but I felt so embarrassed that I stayed and simply wept my way through savasana (corpse pose). Unfortunately, but not unique to me, I would have a few more opportunities to practice my response. One technique was to tell the teacher I had injuries that didn’t actually exist, whereas another time I felt so overwhelmed I dropped into child’s pose and spent a few minutes negotiating the benefits of leaving and the risks of staying – finally with my head down and my mind tense, I made a quick exit of the room. The ultimate invasion of my safety and space occurred when I specifically requested “no adjustments” after the teacher (surprisingly) asked us, and then 90 minutes later, they proceeded to adjust me during savasana – the most important and the most vulnerable pose.
Startled by their touch as I was drifting towards deep rest, I exclaimed, “Please stop. I said no adjustments!” I was shocked and honestly excited to hear my voice say “No!” Even if I didn’t know exactly where that moment of confidence and clarity came from or whether or not I would be able to find it again when faced with a similar situation, it was empowering to know it was down in there. When confronted after class by the teacher who stood before me claiming with a proud grin that they “like to put their hands on every body in the room” I simply responded, “Well, you might want to reconsider that. I asked for no adjustments and you chose the absolute most vulnerable pose to ignore that request.” I re-affirmed (again) my right to keep their hands off of me and I never went back to their class.
Photograph by Michael Rioux
In this important reflection “Innovative Tools to Empower Students on the Yoga Mat” by Alexis Marbach, we are given a glimpse into the many reasons why people may not want physical contact in a yoga class, and importantly, a new and smart tool that will ensure that individual boundaries and comfort can be clearly and simply communicated without even saying a word or having the pressure to explain oneself. The “Flip Chip” may be the exact innovation that those with a trauma history have been seeking to feel safe attending public yoga classes, or perhaps more simply, for those with any body sensitivity – whether physically or emotionally rooted – that prevents hands-on adjustments from feeling therapeutic, comfortable or useful.
This tiny object may be a welcome relief for teachers, creating more ease for those who want to create an accessible and non-threatening class environment, yet who also enjoy practicing the art of physical assists when appropriate. Instead of making assumptions about whether hands-on adjustment are welcome or having to check in with every single student they approach while simultaneously guiding the rest of the class, teachers can now honor their students (and their bodies) exactly where they are at on any given day with a quick glance towards this chip. As Alexis suggests, the Flip Chip adds another layer to the larger conversation around boundaries and safety for survivors of sexual violence in healing spaces, since questions of how we navigate physical contact with survivors can and should be explored within any holistic healing arts practice – whether yoga, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic or otherwise.
Read on to learn about this creative and trauma-informed development in the yoga community from one of The Breathe Network’s practitioners, yoga instructor Alexis Marbach, and learn more about Alexis by visiting her practitioner page.
Innovative Tools to Empower Students on the Yoga Mat – by Alexis Marbach
There are times when all we want is that nurturing touch, and times when we just want to build a 10-foot perimeter around us with a sign that says “Please leave me in peace!” Students in our yoga classes feel the same way. Sometimes they want an adjustment and sometimes they don’t. From their point of view, there is nothing worse than a teacher on a mission to give everyone in the room a hands-on assist. But as yoga instructors, how are we to know what our students really want and how can we create spaces where they can easily communicate their needs?
Enter the Yoga Flip-Chip. The Flip-Chip is a small decorative chip, about the size of a coaster, which is placed by the student at the front of their mat. One side reads “Assist” and the other side reads “No hands-on assist”. Students can flip the chip throughout class as they come into different poses or sections of class. When reading about the Flip-Chip, I immediately felt a connection and was compelled to learn more. As practitioners who specialize in treating trauma, members of The Breathe Network who instruct yoga are actively engaged in a dialogue around the issue of assists and physical touch. The Flip-Chip is a phenomenal resource for those exploring this complex topic, and can be used to spark a dialogue with other healing arts practitioners across a spectrum of modalities about using a trauma-sensitive lens regardless of the setting.
“No Hands-On Assist”
I had an opportunity to talk with Nina Jackson, a yoga teacher, physical therapist and inventor of the Flip-Chip; and Catherine Ashton, a yoga teacher, Flip-Chip Ambassador and board certified trauma specialist, about the story behind the Flip-Chip, how it is being received, and what happens when teachers bring Flip-Chips into their classes.
Nina says that fifteen years ago, classes were generally smaller and the same people would come each week. Teachers knew each student’s history, including prior injuries and experiences, because the channels of communication were open. Then as yoga grew in popularity, there was a shift. Classes became larger and more dynamic as people sought out new teachers and new styles of yoga. The whole yoga scene became more complex, with more choices and moving parts. To make it all work, more substitute teachers were needed, however, they had limited knowledge of students’ individual needs. While all of this growth was exciting, that intimate knowledge of the small group of regular students became harder to maintain.
In her physical therapy clinic, Nina was seeing more and more patients with injuries either caused or exacerbated by yoga. Some were being pushed too far into a posture. Others were pushing themselves too far. As a yoga teacher, because of the challenges described above, Nina felt uncertain about how to help each student, even with her deep knowledge of anatomy. She found that newcomers were less inclined to share personal issues, even during one-on-one conversations. She thought about different ways to re-open the channels of communication, and so the Flip-Chip was born! “There are so many things to think about when preparing for a yoga class,” says Nina, “and with the Flip-Chip, at least I no longer had to guess whether someone needed hands-on help or not. I could tell at a glance what their needs were, and they didn’t have to explain themselves”.
Speaking with visitors to her booth at Yoga Journal, Yoga Alliance and other conferences, Nina discovered she was not alone. Others saw communication as a pressing issue and were seeking ways to dissolve that “general tension”, as Lisa Asch, owner of Birdhouse Yoga in California described it. Although she had created the Flip-Chip with injury prevention and healing in mind, specialists in prenatal, trauma sensitive, sensory integration and other fields began to take an interest, seeing in the Flip-Chip a way to empower teachers and students alike.
So what happens when a teacher brings the Flip-Chip into the class?
- Students who wouldn’t ordinarily attend when they’re having a bad day come to class more regularly says Erin Wendlandt, a yoga teacher working at Okinawa military base in Japan, where PTSD is a fact of life. They’re simply more comfortable entering the studio space knowing that they can set their own “ground rules”.
- Teachers are able to meet students “where they are”. Even if a teacher feels as though she has known a student for years and can predict what he or she is seeking in a class, this can change on a dime. That student could experience a form of trauma, could develop an injury, or could just need a little space, for reasons known only to them. Teachers are able to meet students where they are at – even if that place is a moving target.
- Teachers have the opportunity to start a dialogue about the non-physical parts of the yoga practice, such as ahimsa, setting boundaries, embodiment, and freedom from attachment (including attachment to the teacher dictating movement throughout the class).
- And, most importantly in my mind, students are empowered to make choices that are healthy for them. The yogis and yoginis that we see through The Breathe Network are learning to re-establish control and safety, and any way that we can reaffirm the ability to make healthy choices in a yoga space can be beneficial to survivors.
Catherine, in addition to serving as a Flip-Chip Ambassador, offers a unique training program called Yoga to Transform Trauma. The program trains teachers on the biology of trauma, the implications and impact of touch on teaching as well as how to teach a specially designed trauma focused class. After the training, there are three grassroots paths that teachers embark on: teaching in treatment centers, teaching in a community outreach setting (such as rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, VA Centers), and teaching in a more traditional setting. All classes are a combination of talk and somatic therapies and depending on the location, either free or donation-based with a portion of the proceeds supporting local organizations in trauma recovery efforts. Catherine designed her trainings to be portable, so all members of The Breathe Network and yoga therapists everywhere are able to reach out to learn more about ways to partner in their local communities.
While the Flip-Chip doesn’t solve all of the challenges with managing injuries and trauma histories, it is a tool for positive change in the way we teach, practice, and relate in the healing space of a yoga class. I encourage you to reach out and learn more, and contemplate using the Flip-Chip in your healing space! You can learn more about the Flip-Chip by contacting Nina at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website www.yogaflipchip.com.
Alexis Marbach is a yoga instructor in Boston, MA who teaches public and private classes as well as yoga instruction specifically for trauma survivors. She is also a member of The Breathe Network and the creator of the Brave Breath Workshop Series which includes a guided yoga practice, meditation, and journaling exercises with the goal of empowering survivors of trauma to reconnect with their physical body, their self-awareness and self-regulation, and their power of choice and right to reclaim their body. You can learn more about her via her practitioner page with The Breathe Network or by exploring her website.