It’s no secret that yoga does wonders for the body and can calm the mind. And research continues to point to its power to help ameliorate various ailments such as hypertension, pain, and insomnia. Now, there’s growing evidence that modified yoga, when taught by specially trained individuals and employed in a therapeutic context, can be a tool of healing and empowerment for people who have experienced trauma.
The term trauma-sensitive yoga was coined by David Emerson, E-RYT, founder and director of yoga services at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA, to describe the use of yoga as an adjunctive treatment within a clinical context. The practice, pioneered by experts such as Bessel van der Kolk, MD, and championed by others such as Richard Miller, PhD, CEO of the Integrative Restoration Institute and cofounder of the International Association of Yoga Therapy, aims to help clients regain comfort in their bodies, counteract rumination, and improve self-regulation.
The objective of trauma-sensitive therapy is not to access emotions or dredge up trauma memories, but rather to help clients heighten their body awareness—to notice what is happening inside their bodies—and thereby learn to release tension, reduce and control fear and arousal, and tolerate sensation. The practice is based on the growing understanding that trauma takes a heavy toll on the body and the brain. When the body absorbs and anticipates trauma, individuals are likely to experience hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and an inability to calm themselves. At the same time, their bodies respond by shuttering or dampening sensation. They avoid stimuli and their bodies become numb. Trauma-sensitive yoga helps them learn to calm their minds and regulate their physical responses and, thus, their emotions. They’re able to learn to recognize and tolerate physical sensations and thereby regain a feeling of safety inside their bodies.
The benefits don’t arise from the ordinary practice of yoga and it’s not a modality to be employed at the local yoga studio, advises Emerson. “It’s a serious clinical intervention and an adjunctive aspect of a broader psychodynamic therapy,” he says. “Part of the protocol at the center is that everybody has to be in therapy.”
Emerson worked with van der Kolk on a study funded by the National Institutes of Health assessing the impact of yoga on individuals with complex trauma and demonstrating a clinically significant impact.
The mechanisms for its efficacy are unknown, and there are several theories, but Emerson points particularly to current research in neuroscience shining a light on regions of the brain known as pathways of interoception. “These key parts of the brain seem to add up to our ability to experience our visceral selves—for example, to be able to feel our muscles contract or extend, or feel our feet on the ground.”
Trauma researchers, he explains, have demonstrated that many of those areas of the brain are affected by trauma and are underactive in those who are traumatized. “We have these parts of the brain that help us feel ourselves,” says Emerson, who adds that those having experienced trauma become shut off from those feelings. “They cut themselves, hurt themselves, self-medicate, do things with their bodies that seem hurtful.” He’s all too familiar with the self-inflicted scars, burn marks, and razor lines he’s seen in victims of trauma. “They’re trying to work out a relationship to a body they don’t have direct, reliable, sensory access to. It therefore becomes an antagonistic, violent, painful endeavor that’s probably based in part on underactive interoceptive pathways.” When working on the study with van der Kolk, Emerson and the researchers observed the pathways of interoception becoming more active in a small brain scan cohort of individuals who engaged in trauma-sensitive yoga.
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