Trigger Happy Yoga Teachers by Sarah Ezrin

Sarah Ezrin

A gust of cold air hit my face as the door of the yoga studio swung open mid-class and promptly slammed shut. A middle-aged man clomped into the room, running shoes on, dripping sweat, clearly having come in from the middle of an exercise class. 20 pairs of eyes collectively looked back to see what all the ruckus was about. I tried to keep the student’s attention focused in their bodies, making some off the cuff joke about outside distractions being a good test for our focus. I continued to teach the class despite the interruption, leading them through a Sun Salutation, when the man started to loudly open and close all the mirrored closets in the back of the studio. It was a smaller space, so he had to slide people’s bags and water bottles aside to get the door fully open. I assumed he was looking for a yoga mat, but he shut that closet and opened the instructor cabinet where we teachers keep our belongings and the stereo equipment. He began rummaging around, landing on a foamy exercise mat, which was stuck behind my purse.

I had been teaching for a few months straight at this point, without a day off and to say that my patience was worn thin was an understatement; I was a person without skin.  As he picked up my purse and moved it to the floor so he could reach the exercise mat, my frustration bubbled to the surface and before I could stop myself, I snapped, “Can I help you?”. He startled and turned around. “That is the instructor closet,” I continued, the students held Downward Facing Dog, trying not to peak between their legs, “and there are no shoes in the yoga studio.” I immediately regretted my tone, shaking a little from the aftershock of my reaction. He let the closet door slam shut, his head hanging a little lower, as he stepped outside.  I kept an eye on the glass doors the entire class hoping he would return, so I could apologize or at the very least let the yoga win him back, but he never returned.   He may have never returned to any yoga class.

Even though this happened nearly a decade ago, I have never forgotten that man.  I still feel sick to my stomach about the whole thing.  Yes, he did not know the “rules” of that studio or yoga culture, but as a clear beginner, that was not up to him to know.  It was up to me as the teacher to educate him and teaching by shame is a sure-fire way to ruin yoga for someone.  I hope he tried again. I hope he found a teacher who did not mind letting him surf on a foamy exercise mat for the first class or who caught him at the door and showed him where to put his shoes. Who kindly asked him to come on time the next session and encouraged him to stay all the way through savasana.  I hope he found a teacher that helped him love yoga and that he is still practicing to this day, this early encounter having faded into the background as only positive associations now fill his heart.

Why did I react so strongly to this person? I was triggered.

The term trigger, has become a common part of our modern vernacular to explain a present event that leads people to react internally as if re-experiencing an old hurt.  Often the reactions are incongruent with the current circumstance, an echo of previous pain. Common trigger reactions include irritation, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness. Psychologists differentiate from what they call “big-T-Trauma” trigger responses, which would fall under the category of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and “little-t-trauma” trigger responses.  An example of a “little-t trauma” would be growing up in unpredictable circumstances.  This may lead to being triggered when things feel out of order or out of control.  Another example, would be being the youngest child in a large family.  One then may easily trigger if they are feeling ignored. The phrase “trigger warning” seems to be popping up all over the place, including in the Oxford Dictionary, where it is defined as “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material”. Despite the increasing usage of the phrase, most day to day interactions do not come with trigger warnings. We experience little-t-trauma triggers all the time, which despite being called “little”, can have a big effect on the nervous system.

How and if people respond to triggers varies depending on their history.  As I write this a car back fire just occurred outside of my window.  My sister has survived numerous episodes of gun violence. If she were here, what was an innocuous occurrence to my nervous system could have been incredibly upsetting for her. Because triggers are related to the body’s stress responses of fight-flight-freeze, they are particularly distressing when the experiencer is already under pressure, like being over-worked or fatigued.   I was triggered by the beginner student in the opening allegory, because I was especially run down.  If a different person were teaching, they may not have reacted the same way.  If it were a different day, I may not have been set off at all.  When we are well-rested and in a place of calm, we can navigate the minefield of life much more balletically.  When we are worn thin, the honk of a horn can feel like the roar of a tiger.

Enter the yoga teacher who, like most teachers of other fields, are underpaid, overworked, and ironically, stressed out! I have travelled to a lot of places in the world and yoga teachers seem to have this in common: we are all running around from one thing to the next. There is a reason there are a lot of funny videos and jokes out there about angry yoga teachers.  It is not all mala beads and chanting. And despite finding our dharma and living our dream, many of us, like the rest of the world, are exhausted. Most yoga teachers are solopreneurs, meaning we run every aspect of our businesses. Teaching classes is the just the tip of the iceberg.  Yoga teachers also run their social media, networking, and marketing. Some of us are writers, some are yoga models, some lead trainings and workshops, some organize retreats, many in faraway places.  Not to mention the administrative side of running a business.  Being a solopreneur means we get to call the shots, but it also means that there is no clocking in or clocking out.  If we are not careful with our energy, it is easy to turn teaching yoga into the same grind most of us wanted to put behind when we started down this path. The more we grind away, the more exhausted we are. The more tired, the more easily we are triggered.

I asked yoga and fitness teachers what their triggers were and more importantly, how they knew they were triggered.  While triggers happen unconsciously, if we can catch it in our body, we have an opportunity to breathe into the situation and take a moment before reacting.  Interestingly, many people had similar responses to the unofficial poll with much of the triggers falling under the same broad categories.  Teachers were commonly triggered when they felt disrespected, ignored, out of control, and unable to please.  While we cannot control how other people behave or react, we can change how we respond.

Here are some suggestions to help to lessen the effects triggers have on us teachers, so we can save our energy for what is important- sharing this amazing practice!

Own your humanity-The number one step in recovery is to admit our powerlessness.  Admit being triggered. There seems to be increasing stigma in the spiritual world around feeling anything other than joy and gratitude 24/7. If you scroll through social media accounts of various spiritual leaders, most of the posts are perfect pictures along with wise words and inspirational quotes. This misperception permeates the greater culture, as well.  When I first started teaching, I would call my Dad exhausted or in a panic about something and he would say, “use your yoga, Sarah”, which of course would trigger me more! Own your humanity. Yes, we are yoga teachers,but we are also human.  Flawed, perfectly imperfect humans.  While we come to the mat every single day to practice living life from a calm and connected space, to access a glimpse of the divine we know in our bones we all are, we do so with two feet here on earth and with that comes very human emotions. The work is not to never get triggered or upset.  There are numerous interviews with the Dalai Lama admitting that he too gets angry! The work is noticing when we do, so we can then practice responding with grace. We will not always succeed.  Some days will be easier than others, but the yoga is in the awareness.

The body always knows–  Triggers happen on a nervous system level.  The primal brain is where we sense danger.  Because of this, triggers can happen in an instant.  Yoga teaches us to be embodied, so that we can notice what is happening on a physiological level. What starts as learning to feel one’s quadriceps becomes more refined over time to subtler sensations, such as intuition and gut-sense.  Remember that most triggers are remnants of old pain resurfacing.  By tuning into whatever is arising, we can not only change course of our response, but it will help anchor us and bring us back to the reality of the present.   I asked teachers how they know in their bodies when they are triggered.  Personally, I know that I am triggered, when my breath stops and my solar plexus fills with swarms of butterflies.  YogaWorks teacher trainer Hayleigh Zachary says she knows when she is triggered when her “breath goes high in (her) chest”.  I invite you to pay attention the next time you are triggered to the experience in your physical body.  Without trying to understand the why.  Where do you feel it first?  Is it specific to one part of your body or does it seem to permeate the whole body? How does your breath get affected? As we practice staying with what we are feeling, we get better at allowing it to pass through us more quickly.

Photo by Andy Blake

Make a good first impression-Even though yoga is an internal practice, it is the external benefits that have made it increasingly popular. What was once a highly-specialized discipline taught one-on-one has made its way into the mainstream. Yoga is now being used in ads for big companies like McDonalds and Aflac insurance. There are classes offering Yoga with Goats, Yoga with Beer, Yoga with Cats, Yoga with Pizza (ok, I made that one up), you name it, and as the public’s understanding of the practice expands, the external aspects seem to expand with it.  The good news is that more and more people are interested in yoga (yay!), but most of them are still under the impression that it is just exercise.  This makes for people brand new to the practice coming late, wearing running shoes in the studio, using foamy mats, chugging water in Warrior 2, answering their phones, looking bored, looking angry, leaving early, doing ab work in savasana, talking to their friends mid-class, etc, etc ,etc.. It also means we yoga teachers must teach not just the lesson plan, meditation, philosophy, energy healing, and all the other subtler aspects of the practice, but the culture and discipline that come alongside it. Treat everyone as though they are brand new.  Even if they have been doing yoga for years on end, if they are still unaware of the basic rules, consider that they are brand new to yourclass and teach them with love.  Make a good first impression!  The kinder we can do that, the less steep we can make the learning curve for people and while a yoga body may be what initially brought them in the door, a yoga being is what will keep them coming back.

To Each Their Own– The winner of the trigger poll was a student who does their own thing in a led class. While yoga is an individualized experience, there is a beautiful communal side of contributing energy to the larger group. There are varying degrees of this and when the poll first went out a respectful woman in my teacher training asked concernedly, “what about modifying for injuries?”. I believe I can speak for most teachers, when I say that we are not talking about someone taking care of their body with props and modifications.  We celebrate those kinds of choices!  Instead, a common trigger for teachers is the lone wolf who decides to practice a completely different program than the teacher’s sequence, often including grandiose postures and typically in the front of the room. Many teachers reported feeling “disrespected” or “ignored” when a student does this.  If this is your trigger reaction, save your precious energy for the students who do listen and respect you.  Send this person away from your awareness with love.  Other teachers said their concern was for the other students in the room.  Think of the lone wolf as a welcome challenge for students; real time training.  I love it when there is a distraction in the room such as a chronic handstander or ringing phone. These are the best opportunities to practice yoga.  While having a serene practice space is preferred, the external world does not quiet down for our benefit.  Instead we must learn to find peace amidst the hullabaloo. Finally, some are concerned for the lone wolf himself as they look about one headstand away from a concussion. As the child of alcoholics, I often find myself trying to manage people experiences.  To prevent my students or loved ones from feeling pain.  It never works. We must walk through our own fire to learn that it can both burn and transform, if we are open to it. As teachers, it is our responsibility to show up and teach a safe class. The rest is up to the student.

Ask Why? – Another common trigger for yoga teachers was students using or checking their cell phones during class. I think this is a trigger for any teacher frankly, but it is particularly challenging in a yoga class where the whole point is to unplug (pun, intended).  Vanessa Morton a yoga teacher based in Cyprus taught a class where a group of friends asked her to take a picture of them mid-class! Another person shared going to a class where it was the yoga teacher who was taking the pictures.  These are extreme examples of an unfortunately common problem.  If you see a student with their phone out during class, rather than publicly scolding them or throwing their phone down the stairs (it’s been done!), approach them softly and ask, “is there an emergency?”.  This gives the person the benefit of the doubt. Multiple times students with phones have responded with, “yes, I’m a new mother” or “I’m a doctor and on call”, in which case, encourage them to keep the phone on silent under their mat.  Or leave it with the front desk. If there is no emergency, they often put the phone away and quickly understand that it is not appropriate unless there is a grave reason.

It’s Not Personal-It is not about you. Even when it is about you, it is not about you.  In his classes, Bryan Kest used to say something like, “a great way to work out your control issues is to teach yoga”.  On numerous occasions, I have had people not following along, assuming they were being resistant only to find out that they did not speak English well. Sometimes, someone is squirmy and doing a million things in savasana, not because they don’t want to rest, but because they had trauma and do not feel safe being still.  I had a girl the other day make eye contact, shake her head, and scoff at something I said and it still was not about me.  It was her interpretation of what I said, as the rest of the class were all nodding and laughing.  The death glares we receive when teaching abdominals, not about us. The person thanking us of the amazing class, still not about us!  There have been more days than I like to admit where I think, “why am I even here” as it feels like pulling teeth to get the students to move or breathe.  The first five years of my teaching I spent in an inner dialogue with myself asking over and over, “do they like me?”, “I think they like me!”, “wait, do they still like me?”.  It doesn’t matter if they do or don’t, it is not about us.  Yoga teachers are not there to gain likes or followers or admiration.  We are there to create a safe space (see #4) for students to learn about themselves.  We are there to provide a mirror.  If we are triggered and emotional, we will become fun house mirrors. The more still and grounded we can be, the more clearly the students will see their reflections.

Practice What We Preach- The best way to lessen the occurrence and effects of triggers is to practice self-care.  Remember, we are more prone to being triggered, the more stressed we already are. As healers, it is easy to live life on an exhale, always giving and taking care of others, but one cannot pour from an empty cup.  It is essential that we take as much time resting as we do teaching.  To carve out moments in the day to get grounded.  To make our practice time sacred and to get on the mat every day, even if it is to lay there and breathe.  Whenever I find myself getting more frazzled and therefore more triggered and therefore more frazzled (it’s a vicious cycle!) my therapist reminds me that we are the architects of our own schedules.  If we are overworking or overscheduled, it is a chance to look at what triggers arise for us when it comes to saying “no”.  Are we afraid of upsetting another?  Are we afraid of losing more opportunities?  Sit with whatever comes up in the body and then trust that saying ‘no’ to something is saying ‘yes’ to our self.

The world is filled with potential triggers.  Luckily, the practice of yoga provides us with a metaphorical shield against them.  By staying connected to our bodies, we can remain grounded in the present moment and therefore less likely to unconsciously react.  By asking wise questions, we learn that people will do what they will do and that it is never personal.  And by leading by example, we can help students guard against and learn about their own triggers. So the next time you find yourself faced with something potentially upsetting, see what happens if you don’t pull the trigger.