Reconnecting Mind to Body

Trauma-sensitive yoga helps survivors trust themselves again.
By David Emerson, Elizabeth Hopper, PHD

Trauma hurts. It has touched most of our lives in one way or another, and takes many forms: abuse at home, sexual assault, war, and other difficult situations. Some of us have experienced accidents, disasters, interpersonal violence and abuse, medical trauma, or traumatic losses, while others have been exposed to trauma indirectly through the experiences of friends or loved ones.
In some cases, trauma overwhelms our ability to cope, and the resulting symptoms can be debilitating. We may experience trouble falling asleep or waking suddenly from nightmares. Recurrent memories of the trauma may disrupt our focus. We may struggle with negative thoughts about ourselves, or experience difficulties in our relationships.
A trauma survivor’s relationship with his or her body often becomes the great casualty of trauma. This lack of regard for one’s own well-being can manifest in drug and alcohol abuse, high-risk sexual behaviors, extreme weight loss or obesity, or self-harming behavior. These manifestations cause further harm and may ultimately become unsustainable. We need to find other ways of coping.
While talk-based therapy serves a critical role in the healing process, many find that it is insufficient. The ways that trauma is held in the body must also be addressed. Trauma-sensitive yoga is one way to reconnect with the body and complete the healing process. Because a trauma survivor may experience his or her own body as a source of pain, trauma-sensitive yoga adapts the practice to become more accessible and tolerable.
We encourage trauma survivors trying yoga for the first (or even hundredth!) time, who find that it feels more difficult than they ever imagined, to remember that they are not alone. Many brave women and men want desperately to heal, but suffer obvious distress sitting, standing, or just being. Every stilted movement, every rigid gesture expresses this deep struggle: “My body feels like the enemy, but in order for me to live fully, I must find a way to befriend my body.”
Trauma-sensitive yoga is a way to make peace with your body, learn through experience that your body can be effective again, and reclaim your body as your own. We believe that lessons learned through trauma-sensitive yoga can translate into acceptance of, and trust in, one’s own self.
Adapted from Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body (North Atlantic Books, 2011) by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD. David Emerson is the director of yoga services at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass. ( Elizabeth Hopper, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress and works as the associate director of training at the Trauma Center.