Yoga: A Healing Art in a Psychotherapy Context

By: Teresa Bennett-Pasquale, MSW, LSW

Trauma in the Body and the Mind I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, long-standing expert in the field of traumatology, speak recently at a three-day conference at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, MA on the “Frontiers of Trauma Treatment.” Much of his data was focused on the neurobiology of trauma and how the brain functions in and around the experience of trauma in such a way that often it is difficult if not impossible for a traumatized person to access his or her emotions through language. Studies have shown that the language center of the brain actually shuts down when trauma is triggered. He pinpointed the body as a potential gateway to treating emotional pain and trauma when it cannot be accessed through dialogue (van der Kolk, 2006).

In other words, often, to access emotional pain through the brain, you must in some way access or attend to the body. In some ways, we feel that in our own bodies all the time—we feel anxious and our stomach hurts or our chest tightens; we feel stressed and our neck and shoulders become stiff and ache; we feel sad and our throat closes or we have chest pains. The body’s somatic experiencing of the world is a constant undercurrent in our lives. Babette Rothschild illustrates this connection between body and mind in her book, The Body Remembers, in which she spends 173 pages illustrating and illuminating on the subject. Rothschild states, “The body remembers traumatic events through the encoding in the brain of sensations, movements, and emotions that are associated with trauma. Healing PTSD necessitates attention to what is happening in the body as well as the interpretations being made in the mind” (p. 173).

Every day, we are feeling our bodies speaking to us in their own ways—speaking emotions in pain, tension, nausea. The sensory experience of trauma not only creates a somatic or sensory imprint—it literally changes the brain functioning in a person around the traumatic experience. Not only is the sensory experience of the trauma vivid, but the person’s capacity to regulate the sensorial memory of the trauma and verbalize it becomes diminished or even incapacitated (van der Kolk, 2006).

How Yoga Bridges the Gap This is the part where yoga comes in. Talk therapy is limited by one thing—the therapeutic work is done in the talking. To really tap into the physical side of emotional pain, there must be a leap taken from the talk to the body, and yoga is that leap. Yoga is, experientially, mind and body all wrapped into one. Yogic practices consistently utilize and illustrate grounding, centering, and methods of self-regulation, including attentiveness to breath and relaxation.

I experienced the healing power of yoga myself in a crowded yoga studio in uptown Manhattan a few years ago. I remember my first “Savasana,” commonly known as “Corpse Pose,” which is usually done at the end of a yoga class. “Savasana” consists of lying flat on the floor with your hands at your side and your palms facing upward; the upward facing palm is a very intentional way in yoga to remain open mentally as you express it physically. I was sore in muscles I hadn’t known I had and somewhat sweaty from the crowded room, but I remember feeling more relaxed and free than ever before. Emotion welled in me from untapped sensorial places, and without sadness, I felt the urge to cry. The teacher’s voice, soft and melodic, wafted in and out of my ears as I began to let go even of the urge for tears. I fell in and out of consciousness, more body than mind, more emotion than words. Without language as a barrier to feeling and expressing my true self—my pain and pleasure—yoga took me into my own heart, my own center, and back to the root of myself in a way that was more honest and pure than anything I had ever experienced.

I had a colleague ask me one day, following our training with Dr. van der Kolk, “I don’t get it. What is it about this yoga thing that does all this ‘stuff’ for a person? How can it tap into emotions and senses in such a way that it can be so powerful?” My simple reply to her was, “Just do it. Then you’ll see.” She came back to me a week later and said, “I get it. Yoga is like no other exercise I’ve ever done, because it is like a gift you give to yourself,” and she has had a weekly dedicated yoga practice since that first class. Where Yoga and Psychotherapy Meet I would describe yoga not only as the gift we give ourselves, but as a vital and effective entry point in the healing from emotional pain and trauma. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk believed so strongly in the healing power of yoga that he has created a yoga program based out of the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA. He also has done some of the first clinical research on yoga for trauma treatment. His center also provides a trauma certification program for yoga teachers and trainings in yoga and trauma for mental health professionals.

Within the yoga sphere, as well, the connection between yoga and emotional healing is becoming a more focused area of study. Amy Weintraub, MFA, is a Registered Yoga Teacher and creator of “LifeForce Yoga,” which is specified “Yoga for Depression,” and also focuses on yoga for anxiety and general mood issues. She travels around the nation and internationally, taking her LifeForce Yoga practice and training to professionals on mental health and yoga. Recently, I discovered Jill Satterfield and her Vajra Yoga Studio in Manhattan, NY, which has a “Social Action” Yoga Teacher Training with a focus on mental and physical trauma in youths-at-risk, addiction recovery, and chronic pain populations. In addition to individual practitioner programs, institutes such as Omega, the Open Center, and Kripalu in the northeast United States offer a wealth of lectures combining mental health and holistic treatment methods.

I was lucky enough professionally and personally to have come across two wonderful souls, Geri Topfer and Penni Feiner, founders of “Kula for Karma.” “Kula” is a yoga nonprofit based out of Ridgewood, NJ, whose mission is to take yoga to needy populations at little to no cost. They take yoga to populations ranging from at-risk children and teens to addiction populations to (now) combat veterans. I have discovered that various other programs such as “Kula for Karma” exist throughout the nation and can often be found through an Internet search with minimal effort.