Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body
“Because trauma affects the body’s physiology, and because traumatic memories are often stored somatically, leaders in the field are increasingly insisting that trauma treatment must incorporate the body.”
Violent, shattering experiences that violate a person’s sense of safety, order, and predictability are called trauma. Trauma can arise from abuse, assault, accident, war, illness, natural disaster, neglect and other experiences. Trauma leaves people feeling overwhelmed, alienated, disconnected from the body, unable to be present in the “here and now,” and perhaps most importantly, like they have no choice.
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga authors Emerson and Hopper offer trauma-sensitive yoga programs at The Trauma Center in Brookline, MA. There they have worked with the center’s founder and medical director, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., an internationally recognized leader in the field of psychological trauma, to research and develop body-oriented therapies which prioritize making a connection at a somatic level, before addressing emotions and cognitions with clients who have experienced trauma.
Trauma runs a debilitating course in the body. People experience intense suffering in the forms of tension, hypervigilance, sleeplessness, and distrust. When the body continues to react to past trauma as if imminent danger still threatens, eventually the body becomes perceived as unpredictable and unreliable - an enemy. People sometimes dissociate from life experiences, losing life sensations such as joy, pleasure, and connectedness.
For millennia, yoga has addressed states of human suffering such as craving and aversion. Authors Emerson and Hopper demonstrate how to deliberately and systematically intervene in the body’s alarm systems, and the yoga-based approaches they present in Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga use a series of postures and breathing techniques to rebuild a sense of connection to the self.
The book focuses on four main themes that have emerged as particularly important for yoga with trauma survivors: experiencing the present moment, making choices, taking effective action and creating rhythms. It was written for clinicians, yoga teachers, and people who have experienced trauma. Effective action begins in the first chapter, where the practices are introduced. Throughout the book, the authors offer permissions and choices, encouraging the reader to notice and listen to oneself.
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga includes a technical overview of traumatic stress symptoms and the body’s survival response system. Treatment research and statistics about the effects of trauma are well documented in extensive notes, and an index is included. There are numerous stories about and from the authors’ trauma clients. A brief discussion of modern yoga styles is useful for any reader.
Instructions follow for a trauma-sensitive home practice incorporating breathing practices and 20 postures. Black and white photos accompany the simple instruction for the 30–45 minute yoga practice. Modifications are included, as are reminders of what to notice in the postures, and the benefits to the practitioner’s physical and psychological health and well being. The authors provide answers to questions frequently asked by clients who seek trauma-sensitive yoga. Most importantly, readers are encouraged to experiment with choices they can make for themselves.
Although some Sanskrit names are used in this book, the names of yoga postures are generally indicated in English, and great care is given to name sensitivity and pose description. Some postures are given more than one English name, depending on sequencing. For example, Savasana is referred to as both Full Body Extension and Final Resting Form. This usage is intuitive to experienced yoga teachers; the photos mitigate any confusion that students and/or clinicians might experience. A reference to Warrior pose could have substituted the Sanskrit name Virabadrasana, or an entirely different posture with a more trauma-sensitive English name.
For therapists, Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga provides the “why and how” to incorporate trauma-sensitive yoga into a therapy practice. Tips are included for developing a personal practice and participating with clients; using appropriate words, voice tone and pace; offering choices; and asking for feedback. Suggestions are provided for self-care between clients. A reference table helps clinicians select postures, breathing techniques, and movements to meet therapy goals and help clients increase their sense of curiosity and confidence in addressing challenges.
Yoga teachers get valuable advice for modifying classes toward trauma sensitivity. Again, the emphasis is on offering choices to students, using clear instruction in the language of inquiry and invitation. Authors Emerson and Hopper discuss how to provide a predictable environment where students feel safe and able to comprehend yoga practices comfortably without losing focus. This chapter is packed with practical tips for class management and handling oneself as a teacher in trauma-sensitive classes, including the reasons why these dynamics are vital.
For people who have experienced trauma, empowerment and reconnection are the core experiences of recovery. Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga is highly recommended for trauma clients, therapists, and yoga teachers who want to work together toward complete recovery.