Reclaiming your body – yoga’s healing power for trauma

Photo: cover art of book on yoga and trauma
This book should be required reading for all yoga teachers.

I’ve been reading and thinking about a book that surprised me by its fresh perspective on yoga practice and yoga teaching. The book is Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD (Boston: North Atlantic Books, 2012). The book should be required reading for anyone who plans to teach yoga, even if they are not going to specialize in yoga therapy or deal specifically with populations that undergone high levels of trauma (war veterans, sexual abuse victims, battered wives, etc.). 

The credentials behind the book are impressive as well. It has two forwards, one by Peter A. Levine, PhD, author of  Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and a leading advocate for a somatic approach to healing trauma, and a second one by Stephen Cope, the head of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living and an author of yoga-inspired books. The introduction is by Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD, the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center  and one of the intellectual thinkers behind this approach to treating trauma through yoga. The lasting physical and psychological consequences of trauma is a growing field of investigation, theory and application. Certainly, the mangled bodies of veterans from two decades of American wars abroad and related stress have forced greater attention on this issue.  But trauma is also present in child and sexual abuse, which are both widely prevalent in our society. Trauma can also be the result of neglect, of lack of human affection at the most formative stages of life.

Emerson is the director of yoga services at the Trauma Center of the Justice Resource institute of Harvard University. In 2003 he co-designed the Trauma Center Yoga Program that includes classes and teacher training programs. Hopper is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress and works as the associate director of training at the Trauma Center. The approach has more than a decade of direct experience working with trauma victims on the yoga mat.

I’ve been sitting on this commentary for six months, never having the time to finish it since it’s going longer than normal blog articles. I wanted to do justice to the book because of its importance for yoga practitioners and teachers, and because it affected me personally. I cannot say that I have been the subject of trauma. I can’t put my finger on a childhood or adolescent incident. I can say that over the past decade I have wrestled with some of the physical and emotional symptoms described in this book.

What’s up

Photo: hands are placed on the back of a supline yogini
Sometimes another person can help disipate the stress that seaps into the back, but touch can also trigger alarms.

Trauma-sensitive yoga as laid out in this book is aimed at three groups: the survivors themselves, clinicians (the mental and physical health professionals who are helping these people get back into a safe and healthy mind set, and are encouraging them to practice yoga), and finally, the yoga teachers.  The authors provide a broad introduction to the study of traumatic stress and treatment, but do not get bogged down in theory, just enough to provide a framework for understanding. The book does include notes that allow you to track down the seminal works on the topic, as well as useful references to yoga and meditation.

Van der Kolk points out that trauma survivors end up feeling as if “their bodies have become booby-trapped”:

The trauma is a thing of the past, but your body keeps reacting as if you still are in imminent danger. These internal triggers transform your inner world into a minefield.

So the authors lay out the purpose of practicing this type of yoga as the following:

“We view trauma-sensitive yoga as a way to make peace with your body, to learn through experience that your body can be effective again, and to reclaim your body as your own. We also believe that the lessons learned through trauma-sensitive yoga can translate into a more generalized acceptance of, and trust in, one’s own self.”

For me, one of the most important aspects to remember that the involuntary survival response to threat is not just binary—fight or flight. We have to cast a wider net of awareness:

We respond with a variety of strategies designed to get us away from danger, including fight, flight, freeze and submit responses.

These responses are closely linked with the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. In other words, these reactions are not under conscious control, but instinctive reactions to ensure survival. By becoming more aware of how our bodies are reacting in a flawed attempt to protect us, we can recognize that we are not at risk and can come to feel more comfortable in our own skin. Perhaps the most difficult response to detect is numbness, the lack of feeling all together. Because we don’t feel anything, we assume that nothing is wrong, but all the time our sinews are being tied in knots.

Why it’s important

Adjustments are a two-edged sword.
Adjustments are a two-edged sword.

People come to yoga for a lot of reasons: to become more flexible, to get a yoga butt, to tap into their spiritual side, to sweat. For a large share of yoga practitioners, yoga is an opportunity to relieve their human suffering, though they may label suffering with another name. It may be a problem with chronic pain, an old injury that hampers movement,  or difficulty dealing with stress. Some people are able to point to the locus of the pain, but they don’t know the cause. For others, it may be an inability to breathe freely that masks a deeper pain. Many will not recognize that they suffered trauma, and ascribe they’re lack of body awareness to never having been athletic or being up tight.

When a yoga teacher is in front of a class, there is no way of knowing what brought each student to the mat. A small, but important (and brave) number are there because they suffered trauma at one stage in their life and it had a lasting effect. This reality has implications for the teacher’s choice of language (tone and vocabulary), the setting of the environment (classroom or practice space),  the method of assisting a student (touch, especially), the selection of postures and sequences,  the use of props and other aspects that instructors may take for granted.

The book is only 187 pages long so it is a fast read, but it is charged with insight and consequences. And it carries a powerful message that all yoga teachers can adopt:

The guiding principle of recovery is restoring a sense of power and control to the survivor.

We can all desire to acquire “power and control” over our bodies and lives.

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