The ethics of taking yoga to vulnerable groups


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This article was originally published in Yoga Scotland Magazine January 2016.

The ethics of taking yoga to vulnerable groups shutterstock_65559241

Samadhi Pada, Sentence 33

maitrī karuṇā mudito-pekṣāṇāṁ-sukha-duḥkha puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ citta-prasādanam ||33||

All that is mutable in human beings is harmonized through the cultivation of love, helpfulness, conviviality and imperturbability in situations that are happy, painful, successful or unfortunate.

Working with vulnerable groups in any capacity relies on an assumption that one is able to do so with great respect and sensibility. When working in a therapeutic capacity, perhaps even more so. And although in working with the mind through the body the therapist avoids getting into the intimate stories of the individual, there is still an enormous emphasis on processing emotions, which is inevitably deeply personal in its effect. There is therefore an added level of trust afforded to a teacher or therapist who is working with vulnerable individuals. The responsibility to maintain a code of ethics is therefore one of the most important aspects to this work and requires an enormous amount of integrity on behalf of the teacher.

What are the ethics that are most important?

1.We must ensure the mental and emotional safety of our clients at all times.

2.We must recognize the limits of the practice and our role and not attempt to be all things to all people.

3.We must have done our own work and used the practices we offer for our own learning before teaching them to others. Yoga in its therapeutic capacity can be extremely powerful and transformational and having a deep understanding and respect for the ways in which the different practices may affect our students is essential.

4.We must maintain professional boundaries at all times.


What defines someone’s vulnerability?

Essentially we are talking about people unable to protect themselves from harm or exploitation, this could be due to life circumstances, mental or emotional wellbeing, ill health or age. This covers a vast number of different people which inevitably means they also differ vastly in their needs, responses and expectations, and it is our role to meet these different needs on an individual basis.

The key therefore when working with vulnerable groups is to know the essence of the practice. As the teacher you must know what it is you wish for the group to come away with, learn or experience and to offer that to them in a way that is appropriate for their mental and emotional capacity. There must be an understanding that less is more and that throwing everything at them at once is not only a disservice to the group but also to the practice itself. Having the confidence and the intuition to know what will work when for who is a skill that must be developed and honed before working with people who need this extra holding.

Many a time I have entered a space with a lesson plan in my mind to find the group facing me were not in the right energetic or emotional space for what I had imagined and instead we have worked on something different. All yoga teachers and therapists must have this capacity to read the room and to allow their classes to respond to the participants needs, but this, in my opinion, is never more important than working with adults with mental and emotional vulnerabilities. The work of a teacher in this context is to be grounded enough in themselves that they can hold on to the intention of the practice whilst responding to the immediate needs of the group.   This of course becomes more complicated when the needs of the group differ greatly and in this case I would always recommend the assistance of staff members/careers/support workers to be available and practicing too in case this becomes too much for the teacher to manage. As yoga therapists we are not and should not be expected to also be talking therapists, bouncers, councilors or friends to our students. The professional boundaries must be put in place and adhered to in order to keep both the client and the teacher safe.

How do we prepare for the unexpected?

Of course every individual is different, but by getting an understanding of the kind of group you will be working with is the place to begin. It is not always practical nor possible to gain much information about a group prior to a session, (and indeed I would recommend staying away from finding out about personal histories where possible) but to get a general feel for a group prior to a meeting is definitely best practice. Do they have mental health difficulties? If so what are they likely to be? Are they in recovery or in the process of coming off substances? Are they physically able and if not how might they be challenged in their movement? Are they likely to be medicated and do these medications have side effects it may be helpful to know about? Do the group know each other? Are they attending the class voluntarily or as part of a mandatory programme? Do they have any experience of yoga, mindfulness or mediation? Are all questions I tend to ask when establishing a new group.

Meeting the group where they are

In my experience another key factor is to meet the group on their grounds, in a place they are familiar and comfortable with. This can take away a lot of anxiety associated with coming into a yoga class. I try to create a “yogic space” with soft lighting, music, and lavender eye pillows wherever possible and to allow the group to welcome me into their world rather than vice versa.

There are so many different tools in a yoga therapist’s toolbox that one is able to really tailor the practice to the needs of a group. From chanting to chakras to asana, to mindfulness, to nidra and meditation, visualization and the endless practices of pranayama we are rich in the options afforded to us, and this, in my opinion is the essence of why working therapeutically with yoga can be so powerful. We can use the model of the koshas to ensure we are meeting an individual or a group of individuals at a place that is right for them. For example, when beginning to work with a group of people living with depression and anxiety staring with the mind and mindful mediation (manomayakosha) may be extremely challenging, but working on the mind through the breath (pranamayakosha) may be a much less invasive way in. For others sitting still in pranayama may be impossible and instead working with anamayakosha and pranamayakosha together in gentle movement and breath may be the way forward. This can be a fluid and intuitive model to work with and allows for constant dynamic development in response to the needs of the client or group.

Offering these transformational and healing practices to those who need it most is a great pleasure and an honor and as the work becomes more mainstream my hope is that the sharing of the work remains professional, coherent and appropriate to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those we look to help.

Laura is the founder of Edinburgh Community Yoga (www.edinburghcommunityyoga.co.uk). If you are interested in attending teacher training on working with vulnerable and at risk groups please contact her laura@edinburghcommunityyoga.co.uk for more information.