Yoga in Support of Trauma Recovery

taught by Mikki Jordan
Saturday, October 10, 2015
1:00 – 4:00PM

“For many survivors of trauma, the body is at best disconnected from the self and, at worst, is a volatile, dangerous place.  Yoga is fundamentally a body-based activity, so we reach an impasse: how can we make this body-based activity accessible and tolerable when the body has become the enemy?”
 –David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma through Yoga

Mikki Jordan, clinical social worker and recent graduate of TMC’s Hatha Yoga Teacher Training program, will delve into how and why the ancient practice of yoga could, and perhaps should, become an integral part of trauma recovery work.  Drawing from both personal and professional experience while providing an overview of the research that’s come to light around the benefits and challenges of somatic based therapies, Mikki will lead participants through an exploration of how a trauma-informed yoga practice can be a radical yet wonderfully simple intervention in trauma recovery work.  Part practice and part discussion, this workshop is open to anyone interested in learning more about how yoga can be used as an evidence-based healing modality that moves beyond traditional talk therapies into a deeply visceral, transformative experience.

Yoga in Support of Trauma Recovery: An introduction

By Mikki Jordan, MSW, RYT-200

She sat across from me, body pained, quivering, skin flush, breath gasping.  I shifted my seat an inch or two toward her - an instinctual effort to reassure, to comfort, to let her know she wasn't alone.  Wrong move.  Her body recoiled in terror, practically flying out of her seat.  

I was speechless.   I just wanted to help.  But now I was the enemy.   It happened in a flash.  One minute I was assisting this woman in filling out an application for Disability, asking seemingly mundane questions about her work history, the next her body revolted in terror and, being the only other body in the room, I was immediately cast as the terrorist.  It only took that one seemingly inconsequential question for a world of horror to be triggered in her body, for the abuse she'd suffered as a child to reignite in the present moment.   I was no longer the well-intentioned social worker.  I was her abuser. 

The woman continued gasping for air; her body, mind, and soul writhing in anguish.  And, from her report, this is something she went through daily, for years, decades.  Her life had been incapacitated by PTSD related symptoms, not to mention the laundry list of physical ailments she accumulated along the way.  These included Fibromyalgia and chronic back pain, the culmination of which left her wheelchair bound, her entire being locked in a cyclical torment.

Sitting with this woman in that claustrophobic room, bearing witness to her daily hell, I did what any holistically minded social worker/yoga teacher would do: I gently suggested she focus on her breath.  Up to that moment I had been immersed in reading about the benefits of yoga for trauma survivors.  I knew that developing somatic awareness, learning to be present with and sit safely in one's own body, to breathe in a manner that triggers our relaxation response, are crucial to recovery.

All well and good, except it didn't work. 

When I asked her to focus on her breath, to consciously elongate each inhale and exhale, her panic increased exponentially.   My own anxiety escalating, I then asked her to shift focus to the way in which she was connected to the floor, sensing into how the floor was supporting her, in an effort to bring her back to the present moment.  Unfortunately, for someone whose present moment is a constant visceral experience of terror, this also was not a great suggestion.  Any awareness of her body in the space around her felt dangerous.  Her body was, as Bessel van der Kolk has described, "booby trapped" by trauma.   And it turns out there's good reason for this.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has been immersed in the field of trauma research for decades and has been a true pioneer in bringing to light the neuroscience of trauma, leading him to examine why body-based therapies and interventions, particularly yoga, are so crucial to recovery.  What Dr. van der Kolk's work has shown is that trauma is not some story from long ago.  It's not like a bad thing that happened, he states, a memory that can be talked away in therapy. 

Trauma lives in the body, right here, right now.  Until our bodies can be released of this trauma, our nervous system, our limbic system, and many other bodily functions, will continue to respond in the present moment as if the trauma were still occurring.  This plays out in the most unconscious parts of our brain, the part untouched by cognition and reasoning.  Yet our current treatment approaches tend to rely largely on cognitive based therapies.  Yoga, he argues, is one way to initiate healing at its core, the body, where the trauma is most alive.  Only then can the brain remotely process the more cognitive aspects of traditional talk therapies.

This leads us to an impasse.  On the one hand there is increasing evidence that yoga can be of great benefit to the recovery process.  An accumulation of scientific research suggests that more body based approaches to treatment are not only recommended but necessary for full recovery.  But if a trauma survivor's body is "booby trapped" by traumatic symptoms, having essentially become a land mine of terror and hyper-reactivity, where do we begin?  How do we find a way in? 

As yoga instructors how can we lead a class that's inherently mindful of the extent to which so many bodies have been hijacked by trauma?  As mental health practitioners and counselors how do we begin to incorporate body based approaches into practice so individuals have the best chance at recovery?   And as trauma survivors, how do we do the impossible: come home to a body so deeply wounded that we've come to feel it as the enemy? 

Then there's the larger question: on a systemic level, how do we ensure that more holistic approaches to recovery work are at the core of our treatment modalities, accessible to all, and not just an "alternative" option accessible only to those who have the time and money to pursue them?

Please join me on Saturday, October 10th, as we lean into these questions by going more in depth into the work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, further examining his findings on the physiology and neuroscience of trauma and how current research suggests the need for a more holistic approach to mental health treatment. 

This will be part community discussion, part gentle yoga practice.  All are welcome!  Hope to see you there!