I was recently fortunate enough to interview Trauma Sensitive Yoga pioneer, David Emerson. As Director of Yoga Services at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Boston and co-author of Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, he has impacted many people’s lives for the better.
“This is the most enjoyable work, most fulfilling and enjoyable,” he says. “People often think about burnout and getting drained (teaching so many trauma classes) but it’s real. When you’re there with each other for a reason, it’s very meaningful.”
After ten years as a social worker, Emerson decided to train as a therapist but, while studying, “decided I didn’t want to talk to people and figure things out by talking to them so I left and became a yoga instructor.”
He was influenced by reading Traumatic Stress by trauma expert and founder of the centre Emerson works at, Bessel van der Kolk. “He talked about how the body keeps score,” says Emerson. “I was fascinated by the body and trauma and possibilities for trauma treatment that didn’t involve talking. By time I met him, 12 years ago, I’d been a yoga instructor for 3 or 4 years.”
In Emerson’s work with the military, he has found individuals to be very receptive to yoga. “The first places I started to reach out to were military institutions – we’d started all these wars,” he says. In spite of some institutional resistance, individuals were very open. “At the time, we had no data. Now we have more good data but people were receptive even then. The soldiers and marines themselves were very receptive.
“The Trauma Centre treats complex PTSD. This is mainly adult survivors of chronic abuse and neglect and people in the military have more propensity. We work with a lot of teenagers with severe trauma histories. It’s our speciality.”
Emerson’s research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (one of the US Department of Health’s agencies). “It was a good PTSD study,” says Emerson. “We got good data, but personally, my favourite study was by a graduate student who did a dissertation on PTSD and our yoga program. It was a small qualitative study.”
Bessel van der Kolk, Emerson et al are completing an fMRI study (looking at functional magnetic resonance imaging). “The pilot indicated changes in parts of the brain related to trauma exposure. We are hoping to get funding for a larger fMRI study.” It is a really exciting discovery.
Another of Emerson’s recent randomized controlled studies found a short-term yoga program was associated with reduced trauma symptoms in women with PTSD.
In a 2009 paper, he refers to a small pilot study conduct in 2006 at the Boston Trauma Center by van der Kolk and Yehuda, where they compare the eﬀects of group Yoga classes to a structured group-treatment intervention.
“Participants (16 women between the ages of 25 and 55) were randomly assigned to either eight sessions of a gentle 75-minute Hatha Yoga class or to a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group, considered a gold standard in trauma treatment.”
Changes in symptoms were assessed through self-report inventories measuring the severity of PTSD symptoms, positive and negative aﬀect, and body awareness.
After eight weeks, the yoga participants showed improvements in all dimensions of PTSD, an increase in positive aﬀect and decrease in negative aﬀect, and an increase in their physical vitality and body attunement. Compared to DBT participants, yoga participants reported a greater reduction in frequency of all PTSD symptoms and severity of hyperarousal symptoms, as well as greater gains in vitality”
The Trauma Center’s website has my favourite definition of yoga, calling it a way to become friendlier with your own body. “It is very difficult for people,” says Emerson. Dissociation is one way in which people survive “these traumatic experiences that cut us of from the body so inviting people to start to have a body again is challenging.”
Other challenges have included dealing with institutions, like the military, where “CBT is really solidified. The teenagers have different types of challenges. We’ve tried everything when working with teens over the past 5 ½ years. We work with them for short ten minute sessions, one on one, so they don’t have to worry about all the social stuff.”
Of course the highlights outweigh the challenges. Emerson says his biggest personal highlight is, “When somebody says, ‘I feel my body in this way and I’m going to make some choice about what to do’ moving or breathing better.”
He’s on a roll professionally, too. As well as having co-authored Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, he’s writing another book aimed at therapists. “Getting a grant from Institute of National Health” was another highlight.
Emerson says, “I was invited to marine base in North Carolina and spent some time with marines just back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I was surprised at how open and receptive they were. It was very exciting.”
They’re on the verge of getting funding for the fMRI project so between the research, his ongoing work, writing the book for clinicians and starting his first program for yoga teachers this autumn, Emerson is very busy.
“A lot of people are now talking about doing yoga for trauma. The Trauma Centre is a good place to start.”