We’ve all heard it—from yoga teachers, from therapists, from ministers, from other holistic practitioners: “You’re in a safe place.”
Many guided meditations directly write this line into the scripts with the intention of setting a tone for safety and security. The LGBT and other socially progressive movements also like to make use of phrases like safe space or safe zone to alert people that (in theory) they won’t be judged in a particular venue. Therapists and 12-step sponsors I’ve talked to over the years insist on the value of this line. The general argument is that if people coming for services have no conceptualization of what safety means, they must be instructed as to what is a safe place, a safe person, or a safe experience. They must be reminded that the danger of the past is indeed passed.
I call foul.
Whenever I’ve been told, as a survivor of trauma, that I’m in a safe place, my body tenses and my palms get sweaty. My entire visceral being longs to cry out, “Please don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t be feeling.” A client of mine recently resonated with this experience only her wounding around the word safe carried even graver implications. Her abuser often assured her that she was “safe” in his care. No doubt that for people such as my client, the word itself poses the problem.
Let me be clear—working with the concept of safety as teachers or as human services providers is critical. Yes, people are more likely to thrive when they experience a general sense of safety and empowerment. Yet telling people what they should/shouldn’t be experiencing is incredibly disempowering. As helpers, we can set the intention for ourselves to make our class, our therapy office, or our sacred spaces as safe as possible. We can do this by using inclusive language, avoiding statements that could be triggers for a good portion of people, offering modifications in the spirit of flexibility, and using the language of invitation instead of the language of command (see inset). However, it’s up to the individual to evaluate their own experience of safety in that space.
Safety is not a black-and-white, binary construct. In some spaces I can declare that I feel 100% safe throughout the experience. Yet this is incredibly rare. There may be elements of an experience (like a yoga class or a sermon) that my body recognizes as safe and nurturing. Nonetheless, in the same yoga studio or sacred space within a different context, I may experience extreme vulnerability, which also threatens my sense of safety and security. There are people in my life I generally experience as safe. However, when some of our interactions get charged and that familiar quiver rises up in my body, I have to take some extra steps to assure my safety (e.g., taking some deeper breaths, exiting a situation in order to center before readdressing the issue at hand).
When I engaged in an extensive course of therapy to address my own trauma, my therapist and I targeted one of my core negative beliefs: “I’m not safe in the world.” In the approach to therapy she used (EMDR), clients are encouraged to develop a positive, natural opposite cognition such as “I am safe in the world.” I balked at that very visceral level. Because the world is a breeding ground for trauma and suffering and because of who I am—a super sensitive, free thinking, queer woman who rejects most things binary—it is not possible for me to experience a sense of total safety in this world.
We brainstormed and I identified several close friends with whom I felt safe and accepted. Several groups to which I belonged I could also describe as safe. From there, an alternate cognition emerged: “I can create pockets of safety for myself in this world.” I know that I am in one of those pockets when I can breathe fully, when my muscles are not gripping on to tension for dear life, and when I feel like I have the green light to be my authentic self. For me, finding those pockets of safety has long been my focus and I endeavor to use this as inspiration for all of the services I provide. I hope that people can experience what I offer as a pocket or as an experience of safety, which can give them inspiration for evaluating whether or not other pockets or experiences in their lives can also be identified as safe for them. It’s up to my clients and students to decide if I’ve done a good job.
Suggestions for Cultivating Safety without Declaring “You Are in a Safe Space”
- Avoid telling people what they should/shouldn’t be feeling. Other than the obvious “you are in a safe space,” or “you are safe here,” also consider how using statements like, “This yoga pose alleviates depression,” or “This imagery exercise is calming and grounding,” may make people feel if they don’t experience it as such. A simple language switch like, “This imagery experience can becalming and grounding,” or “This yoga pose is known to alleviate depression,” can help you use some of your favorite teaching lines in a way that does not demean an individual’s experience. For more suggestions, please visit my 2015 article An Open Letter from a Trauma Therapist to Yoga Teachers: 12 Simple Ways to Make Your Classes More Trauma-Informed.
- Incorporate inclusive language. Language also goes a long way when it comes to issues of gender and culture. The transgender community is making us all more aware of how shifts like using the singular they pronoun and its variants (them, theirs) casts a more inclusive tone than him or hers. Also avoid terms like ladies or guys and consider how alternatives like friends and beautiful peoplemay be more powerful alternatives. If you are going to invoke sayings or terms from cultures other than your own, be sure you have a fundamental understanding of what they really mean before using them. For more suggestions on these issues, please visit www.decolonizingyoga.com.
- Avoid Trigger Statements, Phrases, Songs or Exercises. This suggestion is tricky to implement because every word, phrase, song, pose, or exercise can potentially be a trigger to someone based on their passed experience. Yet consider how certain words, phrases, songs, or poses/exercises may be triggering to more than one person in your class. For instance, in trauma-informed yoga, the general suggestion is to avoid the word relax because many abusers use this command to get people to comply. Alternatives like loosen, soften, ease, and rest can generally be substituted. Also consider pre-screening music choices for lyrics that may be too sexually charged or have references to violence. See the next item for further insight regarding poses and exercises.
- Offer modifications and options for opting out. Some yoga poses can naturally be more triggering than others, like happy baby or downward dog, because of the potential vulnerability of exposing certain organs. You are certainly not expected to remove any potentially vulnerable pose from your class, yet consider the power of publicly recognizing how vulnerable certain poses or exercises can be and giving your students options to modify the pose or to sit it out all together. In other sacred contexts or in therapy, the game general idea applies. If a client or member/congregant doesn’t respond well to doing a guided meditation in a certain way or praying in the way you instruct, what modifications can you offer for doing it differently? For many people, just knowing that they have the permission to modify can create a greater sense of ease and safety.
- Use the language of invitation instead of the language of command. One of the most problematic commands in yoga and other work using guided meditations or prayers is to close your eyes. Doing such can immediately create a sense of lost control, feeling trapped, or induce claustrophobia. Consider how inviting the option to keep the eyes open during the exercise and to close at any time if they individuals feels comfortable doing it can promote a greater spirit of safety through choice. Almost every command that we give in holistic practices can be turned into an invitation or suggestion. In the trauma-informed method of yoga I teach called Yoga Unchained, we realize that some audiences need for directive, instructive language than others and commands like, “Bring your arms to your side,” may be warranted. Additionally, I will often tack on phrases like, “If this pose is physically available to you” if I am using language of command, or I will follow up with modifications. The tone of how you deliver these commands can be a major variable in crafting an experience of safety for those in your care.
Originally Posted On Decolonizing Yoga
A very good article. Speaking as a person who spent 5 years in and out of therapy, I find myself in agreement with the main point. Thanks for taking the time to post it here.
As always Dr. Marich, I greatly value your insights. Thank yo for sharing
Many years ago a guy in an AA meeting said he could only hope to have “pockets” of serenity. That made sense, b/c to try to achieve a continuum of feel-good all the time is just as self defeating as addiction itself. We need to be real w/ our expectations.
One phrase that bristles my awareness is “I feel your pain”. Huh? No, I feel my pain, & you feel yours. Now, we can discuss it & share. We need to be specific w/ our choice of words for the right meaning to come across. I still find myself searching for the proper words, which gives me time to reflect on the meaning. Phrases can be handy, but defeating by their triteness.