Healing with Yoga

Healing through Yoga

Wondering how yoga can help? Often chalked up to “just a bunch of stretching,” this powerful practice is often underrated in its ability to heal. Yoga is not just a form of exercise, but rather a spiritual practice with a physical fitness component, harboring incredible transformative qualities for practitioners.

David Emerson recognized that yoga could be hugely beneficial to recovery from trauma, and he partnered with Bessel van der Kolk at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute. It was at the Trauma Center that Emerson refined trauma sensitive yoga to best suit the individualized needs of practitioners. Recognizing that many of the primary objectives of trauma treatment and recovery could be addressed through yoga, Emerson has created a practice that

  1. promotes choice and empowerment;
  2. fosters connection to others;
  3. facilitates reconnection with the body; and
  4. cultivates the ability to remain in the present moment, while thereby increasing distress tolerance.
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from Emerson’s book Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body

Emerson’s approach operates on knowledge that traumatic stress can be trapped deep within the body, and that talk therapy alone is often not enough to heal. Trauma Sensitive Yoga increases awareness of the present moment through focus on the breath and the somatic experience. However, there are some crucial differences in the guidance of these interventions.

Emerson advises the yoga teacher to guide each practitioner in suggested asanas, offering modifications and emphasizing individual choice. It is through consistent reminders of the concept of choice that practitioners begin to cultivate a sense of empowerment – over their experience, their bodies, and ultimately over their lives. Emerson advises the teacher to encourage each practitioner to pay attention to his or her body, to listen to the messages that each sensation might be conveying, granting permission to back off from an exercise that might cause pain or discomfort.

Further, Emerson’s approach spends a great deal of focus on the physical environment and on the qualities of the teacher. Emerson recognizes that every stimulus may serve as a potential trigger to an individual’s trauma. While the practice of trauma sensitive yoga increases the practitioner’s ability to tolerate distressing stimulation, there are many actions that can be taken and factors to be considered in order to minimize activation of trauma symptoms. He cautions against dimming the lights, for instance, and advises the teacher to remain relatively stationary throughout a class, so as not to alarm a practitioner by moving around the room. When moving around is necessary, the teacher should comment on his or her actions and the reason for doing so. Emerson also cautioned against using any type of physical assist or touch of any kind as a general guideline when working with someone who has been traumatized. Only when a relationship between teacher and practitioner has been developed over several months and the topic has been discussed and deemed beneficial to the practitioner, touch may be considered therapeutically appropriate.

Given the depth of attention paid to providing a safe container, LifeForce Yoga aligns closely with Emerson’s Trauma sensitive approach to yoga. Developed by Amy Weintraub, LifeForce Yoga provides myriad methods to managing mood, through use of breath, meditation, imagery, intention setting, mudras, and mantras. I integrate these techniques in therapy sessions with clients. Stay tuned for more information about how yoga can benefit your individual healing journey!

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