Trauma, Teaching, and Triggers: An Interview with David Emerson

Have you ever felt a student tense up in a Down Dog adjustment? Heard her breath hitch as you roll her leg to emphasize the femur bone’s external rotation in the hip socket? Sensed her body freeze as you stand behind her in child’s pose? Or worse – have you ever been that student?

I have on both counts, and it’s more than a little distressing to realize I’ve crossed another’s boundaries; it can be downright terrifying to have another cross mine.  Whether teaching or studying yoga, we are open with good intentions, committed to the notion of ahimsa - nonviolence – and attuned to support and surrender; yet, even the most seasoned among us may inadvertently create an unsafe environment for those we teach.


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One only need switch on the evening news or read a newspaper for evidence of our trauma-soaked society. Statistics on exposure to trauma are so staggering, it isn’t a stretch to say there are more trauma survivors in our communities than not. According to a 1995 national survey, over 50% of the general population indicated having been exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes. Whether caused by interpersonal or community violence, war, natural disasters, or events such as illness and death, trauma exposure results in highly complex and subjective internal experiences – experiences we need to be aware of as teachers and students engaged in practice together.

I say this not to scare you, but to emphasize the likelihood that someone in your yoga class is a survivor of trauma. 

Convivencia intolerable / intolerable life together
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This past summer I attended a workshop at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute entitled Yoga and the Traumatized Body. Given by David Emerson, E-RYT and Elizabeth Hopper, Ph.D, the co-authors of Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, it highlighted the latest in trauma theory and yoga-based interventions for survivors. While the workshop was oriented to educate mental health professionals in incorporating Trauma-sensitive Yoga as an adjunct treatment for trauma and PTSD, it became apparent any yoga teacher can – and I would say should – teach in a way that is trauma-sensitive.

How? Well, I recently reached out to David Emerson with some questions about Trauma-sensitive Yoga, and I think you’ll find his answers both accessible and interesting:

Lara: Can you give me a brief explanation of Trauma-sensitive yoga and why it’s important?

David: Trauma-sensitive Yoga is an adjunct treatment for trauma and PTSD. Our focus is on inviting our students to experiment with yoga postures as a way to reclaim their body recognizing that trauma deeply impacts our sense of safety and agency within our own body paradigm.

Lara: I know you work with yoga teachers who are not mental health clinicians and who have a vast array of teaching styles. How do you introduce the idea of Trauma-sensitive Yoga to teachers who might be new to the concept?

David:  For Yoga teachers we start by giving them as much clinical information on trauma and PTSD as we can. We believe that in order to be a good trauma-sensitive yoga teacher one must grapple with the complex impact that trauma has on the entire organism: from possible physical injury to disturbed interpersonal relationships to changes in the brain and body chemistry to our existential sense of “safety in the universe”.

Lara: Along those lines, some teachers may find the concept of Trauma-sensitive Yoga overwhelming or intimidating. They may think, “I’m not a therapist; I’m just a yoga teacher who may or may not see my students again. My yoga training didn’t prepare me for this.” What do you say specifically to those teachers?

David: Well, I am not a therapist, though I was a social worker for 10 years and did one year of grad school at Smith School for Social Work, thinking I wanted to become a clinician (turns out, I didn’t!) Our recently completed study took women, 18-55, all survivors of complex, chronic, childhood onset trauma (usually dangerous, abusive and/or neglectful homes), all diagnosed with PTSD, who had been in traditional, talk therapy for at least 3-years with no change in diagnosis.

All we did was add 10-weeks of yoga and we saw a clinically significant decrease in the PTSD diagnosis. We didn’t do any trauma processing (talking about the trauma). Just yoga.

Based on our study, Yoga teachers seem to have a great deal to offer in terms of trauma healing.

Lara: It appears the “rule” with regards to working with trauma survivors in the United States is a “no touch” approach. There are those who disagree, however, and have training programs that incorporate the healing power of touch. Can you expound on your position regarding touch in a Trauma-sensitive Yoga class?

David: This is a very important question for the yoga community to really grapple with. We came to our no touch policy through feedback from students over the years. Our first pilot study in 2004-05, did include some physical assisting. We found that most students were deeply impacted in a negative way by the touch, “I felt like I was doing something wrong”, “You were in control of my body” etc.

These were very gentle, non invasive physical assists but people were experiencing them as invasive and controlling. This sounded too much like trauma to our team and we took physical touch out of our protocol. Now we have our study as evidence. We did no physical assists during our 10-weeks of yoga and witnessed a clinically significant decrease in PTSD. Plus, some women were saying, during 2 months follow up interviews, that, as a result of yoga, they are able to be touched by their intimate partners or that touch with their partners was now more satisfying. This was a tremendous, and unexpected, development.

I would say, at this point, the onus would be on another group to prove that physical touch is beneficial for trauma survivors.

Again, we mostly work with adult survivors of chronic, complex, interpersonal trauma where primary relationships (parents, caregivers) were the abusers.  Our students are now in a position where they must find their own resources for self-care and self-efficacy and I question the appropriateness of trying to recreate safe parent/child dynamics through touch at this stage. Maybe for young children but I would say there needs to be a lot of thought put into this.

We cannot just assume that touch is “corrective” or safe or even helpful just because it seems like it “should” be or it was for me as an individual. One must prove it empirically.

Lara: Let’s say there are teachers out there who are interested in incorporating trauma-sensitive techniques into their classes, but they disagree or are uncomfortable with some of them. In your book, you suggest consideration of language, assists, teacher qualities, environment, and exercises. Are any of those more crucial than others for a teacher to implement? Essentially, if you had to make a suggestion of the top one or two, which would you choose?

David:  I would recommend deeply considering the words you choose and really questioning whether or not physical assists are appropriate and if you do decide to physically assist people ALWAYS ask permission somehow.

What do you think? Can physical assists be appropriate in a trauma- sensitive yoga class? If you’re someone who has experienced trauma yourself, what is it that makes a yoga class feel safe for you?

 

 

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- who has written 6 posts on Yoga Modern.

Lara Veon is a regular contributor to Yoga Modern. She also works as a body-centered psychotherapist and consults for Mindful Practices, a school wellness organization bringing yoga and wellness programs to schools and educators throughout the country. Her home is Chicago, IL where you can find her loving, laughing, and most likely standing on her head.

5 Responses

  • Carol Horton says:

    Great interview, Lara! Could you perhaps provide a link to (or citation of) the study cited? Thanks!

    • Lara says:

      The study will be published in early 2012, Carol. Dave was giving us a sneak peak! I'll try to remember to post the link here when I get it.

      • holley says:

        yes please do post the link, as I work (practice yoga) with women who have expereinced trauma and would like to read the complete study. Thank you

  • Linda-Sama says:

    I wrote three posts in my blog about this training, which I took in June this year.
    http://lindasyoga.com/2011/07/01/trauma-sensitive

  • Lara says:

    Linda – thanks so much for linking your blog here. I read through your posts about the training and appreciate how comprehensive and thoughtful they are! You bring up many salient points, particularly those about neuroplasticity (some of the most hopeful research in Trauma, I think), as well as the subjectivity of the trauma response. A pose/word/smell/sound can be healing to one yogi while it re-traumatizes another.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!