Therapy is about exploring the interior world, often with an expert who is trained to guide and assess and help us make sense of our responses to experiences. Therapy is rarely about seeing the client as the expert. But where trauma is concerned, there is no better person equipped to understand the pain, suffering, and anguish than the client herself.
This makes treatment for trauma especially challenging. For example, studies have shown that rape is far more psychologically traumatizing that most modern military combat. However, rape, despite the profound distress, appears to be easier to recover from than combat trauma. The reasons for this are complex and range from individual coping styles to pre-existing evidence of psychological instability, to name a few. In short, there are no neatly packaged explanations for the various types of trauma, nor do foolproof treatment approaches exist for those who have endured it.
David Emerson’s new book, Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the Body Into Treatment, offers an intriguing alternative to help clients cope with trauma. Emerson, director of yoga services at the Trauma Center, part of the Justice Resource Institute, first used yoga as a complement to traditional trauma treatment in 2003. To test its efficacy, he and his team devised a body-awareness scale to measure trauma sufferers’ “sense of themselves and relationship to their physical beings.” The intent of the scale was to determine if doing yoga could change a survivor’s perception of her body.
The results were notable. Throughout the next several years, Emerson and his team refined their scale and were able to expand their sample population with the assistance of a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The team found that post-traumatic stress syndrome sufferers who had pre-existing complex trauma histories were particularly susceptible to the benefits of what Emerson calls trauma-sensitive yoga, or TSY for short.
Trauma-sensitive yoga, Emerson writes, “directly targets the very symptoms that other approaches struggle to address by using the body purposefully.” He recommends the basic tenets of yoga as complements to traditional trauma therapies, including breath work, mindfulness, and body awareness.
But as therapists know, trauma is quite complicated. One issue is that a traditional talk therapist is neither able to resurrect nor fully reframe the traumatic event for the client. Instead, the therapist is left with only the client’s own memory of the event, along with the body that experienced it.
TSY, however, acknowledges that the client’s body was indeed there, and still carries that trauma, Emerson explains. Specifically, his approach views the body as the consistent remnant of the traumatic event.
This, Emerson posits, is where TSY can be an advantage: It does not propose to refigure the cause of trauma, or to have the client articulate the complex emotions surrounding the event. Instead, TSY engages the body, or, more appropriately, it engages the place where the trauma lives.
But there are lots of different types of yoga. Is one form more beneficial than another when it comes to healing from trauma? It isn’t about the style or the form of yoga, Emerson writes. TSY uses postures that show up across different types of yoga, and “the focus is not on the external expression of the form but rather on the internal experience of the practitioner.”
In other words, the client does not need to get a form “right.” Rather, the idea is to work with something visceral rather than cognitive — and allow the client to shift her focus away from the external and toward her internal body sensations.
Sometimes such a shift can occur simply by inviting a client to notice what she feels within a particular part of her body, Emerson writes. But there is no need to interpret or label those feelings, he explains, only a need to invite acknowledgement and practice awareness in the moment.
“Our work,” Emerson writes, “is to strengthen the visceral, non-emotional aspect of our interoceptive capacity, not our capacity to transform body experiences into emotions.”
Often, and especially in the case of sexual trauma, the client finds her body to be the most frightening place of all. Trauma-sensitive yoga seeks to give the client permission to access that place.
This is not a book of anecdotes, but a book that describes a method and how it has been shown to help a wide range of clients with trauma. Emerson’s passion is evident on every page, but he is forthcoming about the potential limitations of TSY: It is not a cure, nor is it a temporary remedy for an otherwise long-term condition.
Instead, TSY is to be used in tandem with traditional therapy. And it is a tool for coping that I, for one, think is worth considering.
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy: Bringing the Body Into Treatment
W. W. Norton & Company, February 2015
Hardcover, 240 pages