David Emerson is a proficient yoga instructor and coauthor of the book, ‘Overcoming Trauma through Yoga’. He is also the founder of the Black Lotus Yoga Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching yoga to individuals with PTSD. David now focuses his energies in the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA where he has successfully developed the Trauma Center Yoga Program.
Read on to know the rehabilitative role yoga plays in the lives of people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Me: What made you think of using yoga as a rehabilitative therapy for trauma? Share a bit of your journey so far.
David: At the Trauma Center in Brookline MA, we understand trauma as primarily a body thing and not a thinking thing. In other words, traumatized people are not thinking so much about what happened in the past as living in a body that is frozen, and hyper-alert, and numb, and where any dynamic change is a terror. This view is supported by new neuro-research but trauma is still often treated as a problem of thinking (“if only you stop thinking about the past and instead focus on what a lovely day it is” etc.) as evidenced by the prevalence of techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). We felt that the body needed to be addressed front and center and thus yoga seemed like it had a lot of potential.
Me: How has the recovery been for patients, post a few sessions of yoga? Would yoga have to be a continuous ongoing process for them?
David: Yoga is very difficult for severely traumatized people because we are inviting them to start to feel/notice and interact with their body. Because the body experience has been so horrifying, most traumatized people put a lot of energy into disconnecting from it. While there are pertinent clinical terms for this phenomena like dissociation, the important point is that in order to survive traumatized people have had to figure out how to exist while feeling as little connection to or association with their body as possible.
You can get away with this for a while and in fact it helps many to survive but at some point it becomes unsustainable and folks seek therapy. Traditionally all a therapist would have to offer this person is a way to talk about what it is like to not have a body that feels safe etc. but the problem is not the “idea” of not having a safe body, it’s the experience. With Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) – our model at the Trauma Center – we patiently practice having a body that feels safe and maybe even enjoyable over whatever period of time that takes.
Me: Is there any particular yoga asanas that the patients are made to undergo to help them in their recovery from trauma?
David: We do not “make” people do anything with their body. In fact, the treatment is to invite people to experiment with various asana, notice what they feel, and practice making choices about what they want to do with their body in a given form.
Me: Do share the kind of work and assistance given to individuals with PTSD thorough the Black Lotus Yoga Project, Inc. What is the kind of research/study you have done for your book Overcoming Trauma through yoga?
David: I started Black Lotus as a non-profit dedicated to teaching yoga to people with PTSD. In that regard, I partnered with the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA where I was eventually hired in 2006 to develop the Trauma Center Yoga Program. I dissolved Black Lotus in 2012 and now work exclusively at the Trauma Center. In terms of research, we have done 2 pilot studies beginning in 2003 and last year completed the first ever randomized controlled study funded by the National Institute of Health to investigate yoga for PTSD.
Me: Any particular patient success story that you would like to share with our readers?
David: Success in our context is when a person notices, “hey, I can feel my feet on the ground” or “I can feel my leg muscles activate when I lift my leg”. Success is when someone notices that a form is uncomfortable and chooses to stop doing it and notices that there is something else that they can do, maybe another form that feels good.
These kinds of successes happen every day and, in my mind, it’s the accumulation of experiences like this that results in the kind of healing that Trauma Sensitive Yoga can offer.
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