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Reclaiming Your Body 

David Emerson & Elizabeth Hopper

1. Psychic trauma—Physical therapy. 2. Yoga—Therapeutic use.

Overcoming Trauma through Yoga- Reclaiming Your Body
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Book Details
 178 p
 File Size 
 1,981 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 by Justice Resource Institute, Inc

About the Author
A registered yoga teacher, David Emerson is the director of
yoga services at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource
Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. In 2003 he
collaborated with Bessel van der Kolk, MD, the founder and
medical director of the Trauma Center, to create the
Trauma Center Yoga Program, which includes classes and
teacher training programs. Emerson currently leads
trainings for yoga teachers and clinicians interested in offering traumasensitive
yoga to their clients.
Elizabeth Hopper, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist
with a specialization in traumatic stress and has worked
with trauma survivors for the past fourteen years. She is a
staff psychologist, supervisor, and the associate director of
training at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute.
Dr. Hopper is also the director of Project REACH, a
program that serves survivors of human trafficking
throughout the United States. She offers national training and
consultation on traumatic stress and alternative interventions for trauma survivors.

Founder and Medical Director of the
Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute

THERE MUST BE many different things that inspire people to develop a yoga
practice, and what got us at the Trauma Center involved in yoga was
rather peculiar. After all, what does it take to get a rather conventional
person to stand on one leg with his fingers pointing at the sky for
prolonged periods of time, or to casually lie on the floor to assume the
posture of a happy baby?
Somewhere around 1999 we became familiar with a new biological
marker called heart rate variability (HRV). HRV had recently been
discovered to be a good way to measure the integrity of one of the
brain’s arousal systems, the one located in the oldest part of the brain:
the brain stem. Well-regulated people tend to have robust HRV, which is
reflected in their ability to have a reasonable degree of control over their
impulses and emotions. This is mirrored in the capacity of their
inhalations and exhalations to produce rhythmical fluctuations in heart
rate. People who are easily thrown off balance tend to have low HRV,
and they also are at risk for developing a variety of illnesses, including
depression, heart disease, and cancer.

After several months we had collected enough tracings of our
traumatized patients to make us conclude that they have unusually low
HRV. This could help explain why traumatized people are so reactive to
minor stresses and so prone to develop a variety of physical illnesses.
Aside from our scientific interest, there also was a more personal one.
While we were experimenting with HRV, we measured the integrity of
our own brain stem regulatory systems, as well, and discovered that my
own HRV was not nearly robust enough to guarantee long-term physical
health. Thus, we had a double incentive to start concentrating on
improving HRV, both to protect our patients against losing their cool
and getting sick, and to find a way of taking care of my own recently
diagnosed brain stem dysregulation.

We looked on the internet to see what research had shown to help
improve HRV. Google listed 17,000 yoga sites that claimed that yoga
changes HRV, but when I looked up what studies had been done to
prove that this is, in fact, true, the search engine produced no results.
Yogis may have developed a wonderful method to help people find an
internal balance, but there is not much of a scientific tradition of
measuring the various claims of what yoga can and cannot do.
A few days after we started to think about ways in which we could
improve people’s HRV, David Emerson walked through the front door of
the Trauma Center. He introduced himself as a yoga teacher who had
been working with war veterans at a local vet center and developing a
modified form of hatha yoga to help these trauma survivors. Dave asked
us if we would be interested in collaborating to study the efficacy of
yoga as a treatment for PTSD. We looked around for a space to teach
yoga classes and figured out how we should formally measure how yoga
affects PTSD. This collaboration led to one of the most gratifying
programs at the Trauma Center. Yoga became a major cornerstone in our
understanding that it is imperative to befriend one’s bodily sensations to
overcome the imprints of trauma.

Why did yoga provide a key to recovery from traumatic stress? Our
work with traumatized children and adults had taught us that assaults
can cause a disintegration of people’s self-protective capacities. Our
bodies are programmed to automatically respond to physical threats by
fighting or fleeing. An experience becomes traumatic when this natural
flight/flight defense is aborted. When you are assaulted and realize that
there is nothing you can do to stave off the inevitable, this selfprotective
system may break down, resulting in the inappropriate
activation of fight/flight reactions in response to minor subsequent
irritations, and an inability to regain a sense of safety and relaxation.
While the mind usually shuts down during a traumatizing experience,
the bodily sensations associated with immobilization and helplessness
carry the memories of having absolutely no control over the outcome of
your life: the fate of trauma survivors is lived 
out in heartbreak and gutwrenching sensations.

The most profound legacy of trauma may be this timeless feeling of
being battered by unbearable physical sensations: crushing feelings in
your chest, agonizing tension in your shoulders, and burning pain in
your abdomen, accompanied by the conviction that you are utterly
helpless to do anything about it. The body, instead of being an ally on
one’s road to recovery, becomes the enemy. Many traumatized people
learn to tell a story of what happened, so that friends and relatives can
understand why they are so frightened, angry, or out of control, but the
real problem is that they do not feel safe inside—their own bodies have
become booby-trapped. As a result, it is not OK to feel what you feel and
know what you know, because your body has become the container of
dread and horror. The enemy who started on the outside is transformed
into an inner torment.

Table of Contents
Title Page
Foreword by Peter A. Levine, PhD
Foreword by Stephen Cope, MSW
Introduction by Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD
A Brief History of Traumatic Stress and Trauma Treatment
Historical Views on Mental Health Symptoms
Link between Traumatic Events and Symptoms
Veterans and Traumatic Stress
Expansion of the Application of the PTSD Diagnosis
Modern-Day Treatment Models for Post-traumatic Stress
Complex Trauma and the Limitations of Available Treatment Models
More Recent Treatments
The Future of Trauma Treatment
Trauma and the Survival Response
The Impact of Trauma
Yoga as Trauma Treatment
The Origins of Yoga
Yoga in the West
The Need for Trauma-Sensitive Yoga
Key Themes of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga
Experiencing the Present Moment
Making Choices
Taking Effective Action
Creating Rhythms
Developing a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Practice
An At-Home Practice
Integrating Yoga-Based Practices into the Therapy Office
Matching Yoga-Based Interventions to Goals
Creating Present-Moment Focus
Developing Mindfulness Skills
Building Curiosity and Developing Tolerance for Experiencing Sensation
Changing the Relationship with the Body
Building Affect-Regulation Skills
Breathing Practices and Affect Regulation
Practicing Choice
Integrating Aspects of Experience
Increasing Confidence
Building Connection to Others
Addressing Challenges in Introducing Yoga-Based Strategies into the Therapy Office
Building a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Class
Teacher Qualities
Responding to Triggered Reactions in a Yoga Class
About the Authors

Overcoming Trauma through Yoga- Reclaiming Your Body
Published by
North Atlantic Books
P.O. Box 12327
Berkeley, California
The Trauma Center at Justice Resource
Institute, Inc.
545 Boylston St., Suite 700
Boston, MA 02116

Cover photo © Zelei
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