How Yoga & Somatic Experiencing Help: Healing Trauma & PTSD

Trauma is really a somatic issue. It’s in your body and, because of that, yoga has great relevance… the most important part [of trauma treatment] is starting to regain ownership of your body and be comfortable in your own skin. – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

  • The word “somatic” means “relating to the body.”
  • The term “Somatic Experiencing” refers to a particular technique developed by expert trauma therapist Dr. Peter Levine that involves focusing on body sensations to relieve trauma symptoms.
  • Hatha yoga is a powerful tool in trauma treatment due in part to its ability to help with the following issues.

Learning to Inhabit the Body

Body-based work, such as yoga, may act as a treatment bridge, increasing a sense of awareness, safety and mastery over one’s body while building skills to effectively interpret and tolerate physiological and affective states. – The Trauma Center Research Abstract: Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for PTSD

  • Learning to inhabit the body is perhaps the key in the trauma recovery journey. There is a distinct difference between being aware of the body and living within it. (Judith Blackstone)
  • In The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk devotes a chapter to yoga as trauma therapy. In that chapter, he discusses heart rate variability, interoception, self-awareness and communication.
  • As a result of van der Kolk’s work, a yoga program was developed at the Trauma Center, a leader in research and offering a trauma-sensitive yoga protocol.

Correcting Energy Issues

  • Susan Pease Banitt (a Kripalu-trained yoga teacher and author of the excellent book, The Trauma Tool Kit) includes asana and pranayama in her list of healing modalities for correcting the energy issues that result from trauma. (See also: Trauma Effects.)

Releasing Stored Emotions & Tensions in the Body

  • Banitt is clear that trauma healing includes letting the body go through the necessary releases. She uses the apt term, “Unwinding the Body” to refer to the release of stored emotions and tensions through body therapies such as yoga therapy or Somatic Experiencing.
  • Somatic Experiencing focuses on the physiological responses in the body in order to restore the nervous system’s normal balance. It is designed to discharge “trapped sensory memory” and to gradually integrate this energy without reliving or thinking about the traumatic experience. (B. Grace Bullock PhD)
  • As a result of letting the body go through these releases, “you can never be traumatized by that memory again. It becomes just another memory.” (The Trauma Tool Kit)

We can get a sense for this point about trauma and memory by considering even mildly disturbing memories. Everyone has experienced a moment of failure, embarrassment, pain or fear that, when remembered, causes a sickening of the stomach or agitation, for example. In such a case, there is a tremendous difference in quality of life when that memory becomes “just another memory” with no emotional charge. In the cases of traumatic memories, the intensity is exponentially greater before and after healing.