7 Key Elements of Introvert-Friendly Yoga

Melissa Renzi
December 20, 2016

I almost walked out of a yoga class the other day.

The snow came in spades over the weekend. After holing up in my apartment all weekend, I was ready to move my body and connect with my breath in community.

I was in search of a yoga class nearby at a particular hour and came across a studio that was offering a vinyasa class with live music. I walked into a heated room with a bunch of mats crammed together all facing a wall---of mirrors.

The music was so insanely loud that I could not hear the teacher’s words most of the time, which was a shame because the cuing I did hear was precise and helpful. That coupled with what seemed to be repeated snapping of her fingers made this introvert want to run.

I usually like adjustments; not everyone does. But I was adjusted rather forcefully in downward facing dog and a twist without her knowing the inner workings of scoliosis, tight shoulders, etc. in my body---and without consent.

This sensory overload contributed to a very stressful experience, which of course, created the opposite effect on my nervous system than we aim for in yoga.

There were at least a dozen other people in that class that seemed to dig it even when I didn’t, so I recognize that everyone has their preferences when it comes to yoga classes. Thus, I say this not to simply criticize, but to hopefully offer a glimpse of some alternative options for the introvert that seeks quiet, personal space, and safety in the yoga experience.

I teach at a wellness studio in the Chicago Loop called Room to Breathe, which is part of an integrative psychotherapy practice called  Chicago Center for Behavioral Medicine. Our yoga classes are trauma-informed, an approach that bears in mind that any student walking into a class may have experienced trauma and certain aspects of yoga classes can be retraumatizing. Trauma-informed yoga offers a framework for creating a safe space in which students can connect with their breath and increase their body awareness.

While I’m not grouping introverts and trauma survivors together, I have found that many of the principles of trauma-informed yoga happen to be introvert-friendly as well.

If you’re an introvert thinking about trying yoga or you have had a negative experience in a yoga class, I highly suggest looking for teachers who are trained in trauma-informed yoga and studios that have missions that include trauma-informed language like empowerment, gentle, choice, self-care, sensitive, and accessible.

You may actually find that many trauma-informed teachers are indeed introverted yoga teachers themselves (definitely the case at Room to Breathe!).

This is what we do differently as yoga teachers:

  1. We provide options. We encourage choice, whether it is taking rest or trying a variation of a pose. We focus on self-paced, dynamic movement that centers on the breath and body awareness rather than “perfect” alignment. When we do use alignment cues, they are to keep students safe and develop greater presence. Modifications are abundant in our classes.
  2. We keep our music chill. Sometimes I don’t use music at all so students can focus on their breath and stillness. When I do use music, I opt for soft, calming melodies without too many lyrics. Loud music in yoga creates what we call a “rajasic” experience, which, in this context, could be understood as over-stimulating the central nervous system resulting in exhaustion and imbalance later.
  3. We use minimal hands-on assists. At Room to Breathe, we refrain from placing our hands on students in most cases unless we have built a relationship or the student says they want adjustments. We use cards that students can flip over to privately indicate if they want assistance. Most of us use these cards in our teaching at other studios. We take time to ask ourselves who the adjustment is really for before assisting and we are conscientious about the ones we do offer. It’s your practice and if you want to move and breathe in community without being touched, we agree that’s important.
  4. We avoid too much stimulation. If heat is going to be created in class, we facilitate that process from the inside out rather than lumping students together in a heated room. We are careful to limit class sizes so that each student has personal space. We avoid too many visuals and smells. When so many of us are up in our head space all day long, we want to provide an opportunity to quiet the mind, not spin it into a tizzy of stress.
  5. We are aware of our voices. It’s not that we all speak in soft voices, but we find the balance in strength and softness. We naturally offer more opportunities for silence and stillness. We refrain from using too many Sanskrit words without defining them.
  6. We teach the essence of yoga. Our cuing weaves yogic philosophy and meaning into the practice in a way that is genuine and helps students to connect to what is arising in the mind and body. We support the positive physical effects yoga has on the body, but will never teach it as a workout or a group of poses to be conquered. We focus on facilitating interoception, the sense responsible for detecting internal regulation responses such as respiration, heart rate, and truly feeling into the body.
  7. We don’t teach with mirrors. Yoga certainly encourages reflection. Self-reflection. The internal reflection you find when you are deep in your breath and body and when you connect to your present experience.

Not all trauma-informed yoga teachers are introverts and not all introverted yoga teachers are trauma-informed. Yet, the overlap that I see is the keen awareness of what creates a calm, safe environment that nourishes students and fosters introspection.

If you live in the Chicago area, you can check out Room to Breathe in the heart of the Loop at 25 E. Washington, Suite 1025A. I’m there on Tuesdays!

Photo credit: Madeline Northway

Melissa Renzi

Melissa, MSW, LSW, CYT-200 is a licensed social worker, yoga teacher, and the founder of EarthFoodYoga, a company that weaves together yoga, healing food, and outdoor experiences to guide others toward self-care. 

Melissa is passionate about the outdoors and has backpacked solo around the world. Melissa also identifies as: Earth spirit and grounded gypsy, self-taught health chef, amateur salsa dancer, expert crossworder, scuba diving mermaid, holistic nutrition advocate, creative event planner, comfort zone escape artist, culture craver.

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