Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy

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by Ivan Nahem
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy by David Emerson
The full title is Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy – Bringing the Body Into Treatment, and it’s written by David Emerson. Thw book emerges from the work that began in 2003 at the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA. “From its beginning, the Trauma Center Yoga Program has been a collaborative effort among yoga teachers, clinicians, neuroscientists and our clients,” David Emerson writes. “We thought could we could use yoga as a way to help people to befriend their bodies and that this newfound friendliness would contribute to positive therapeutic outcomes.” The narrative details the continuing evolution of this form of yoga, with thorough observations and advice regarding practice. And it isn’t just simple speculation. In 2009 the organization was awarded the first grant ever by the National Institutes of Health to study the use of yoga for trauma, and often assertions are established through evidentiary findings.
David Emerson writes in a superbly lucid and authoritative manner. There are lengthy and fascinating examinations of the various types of trauma and their consequences. The types treated by this method are generally of the PTSD varieties which imply prolonged exposure to interpersonal trauma, as opposed to a single incident. And other means of treating these conditions are described, along with justifications of the use of yoga. Coming to the chapters which delineate aspects of the practice, each one begins with “practice examples,” in other words, anecdotes from experiences.
One fascinating principle explored in depth is that the objectives of such therapy can be quite different than those of garden variety yoga. “To be traumatized is to live in a body with which you have an unreliable and unpredictable relationship,” Emerson writes. So most often the intention of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TSY) is solely (I would say “simply” but apparently it’s not always simple!) to foster bodily awareness, even minimally ‒ or in more technical terms, to encourage interoception. In other words for many patients becoming aware of moving, even very simply, is a huge challenge. 
Since our focus in this magazine is primarily on yoga teachers, we might wonder whether the narrative supplies something of value for those who are not therapists per se, just ‘regular’ yoga teachers. I found it enlightening to be taken into a world of such extreme concerns, further preparing me to proceed judiciously, open to all possibilities. Some of the methodology would not be directly transferable to a general class but there is wisdom here that can be internalized as another drawer in the toolbox.  One example of where a method might be brought into regular practice would be when Emerson describes how trauma victims have in many cases been deprived of choice during their abuse, therefore the use of the imperative verb form is always avoided in TSY. The facilitator never says, “Lift your right arm,” but rather, “If you like, lift your right arm.” In my regular classes I most often do use the imperative, with the idea that such instruction brings us right into the present moment, but I make an effort to always offer a disclaimer at the beginning, which is that every instruction is an invitation, not a command, and the student should feel free to modify. Reading about this dynamic in therapy serves to underscore the importance of this habitual disclaimer. Besides which, if someone is bothered by such language, or if they indicate in any other ways that there is something deeper going on, I will now have a key to insight into their situation.
The last chapter offers a “Portfolio of Yoga Practices,” presenting a series of yoga forms that can be employed by the therapist, most of them quite easy and simple, with analysis of how to spotlight certain aspects, and suggested anatomical language. I’m sure these will be of great interest to those in the field. 
It’s heartwarming to know so much good work is being done for a population who so need to escape past suffering as entirely as possible. More than anything, a book like this is about compassion; it’s not forced down our throats, Emerson has a light touch in this regard, but it’s deeply felt.
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy is published by W.W. Norton & Company.

Ivan is the founder/Editor of Yoga Teacher Magazine.

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