Yoga and Somatic Movement Therapy
Bringing Complex Trauma to the Mat
The body is an ancient storehouse of not only our own but also our ancestors’ emotional experiences. These are stitched into our tissues – cells, organs, fascia, bones. Whatever we have been too scared, angry, young, overwhelmed, or frozen to feel, the body holds, until we are ready to let it into consciousness and express and integrate it. One of the gifts of a somatic practice ... is that it offers an opportunity to unpick old seams. When the time is right, a particular movement or a certain touch can send a thread unravelling out of time, releasing memories and emotions we did not know were there. This is a process of clearing and making space, as a result of which we are able to move forward a little less encumbered by the invisible baggage of the past, with a sense of being lighter, freer, more joyful and at peace. (1)
What is complex trauma?
Complex trauma (also known as developmental trauma) refers to an accumulation of traumatic experiences most usually occurring during childhood. Traumatic experiences might be:
Neglect (for example, caretakers not doing their best to provide clean clothes and a reliable supply of food, or absence of emotional support and boundaries).
Witnessing violence (for example, parents or caretakers fighting).
Being bullied (for example, being taunted, terrified or physically harmed by a person or group of people).
Sexual abuse (for example being talked about in sexual terms, touched sexually or being the recipient of unwanted sexual acts).
Witnessing alcohol or substance abuse by parents or caretakers (or being forced or drawn into abusing drugs or alcohol).
Physical abuse (for example, being beaten, thrown around or handled harshly).
Emotional abuse (for example being told you are stupid or ugly, or being manipulated into meeting the needs of a parent or caretaker).
The website complextrauma.org explains:
The adverse experiences encapsulated by Complex Trauma typically begin in early childhood, are longstanding or recurrent, and are inflicted by others. Most often they are perpetrated within a person’s formative attachment relationships. Sometimes they are compounded by patterns of risk and dysfunction afflicting generations of families. Frequently, they intersect with structural and institutional forms of violence and oppression that beset certain peoples and communities, particularly those holding minority status within a given society. (2)
The term ‘complex trauma’ refers both to the originating experiences and also to the difficulties arising from the adaptations that traumatised people make in order to survive the traumatic experiences. Once life-saving, these adaptations can become a prison or a deep-freeze; they can make the person feel like the living dead, like a shadow, or like a time bomb about to explode. When clients first start trauma work, they sometimes feel a sense of hopelessness because the traumatic events have happened and that cannot be changed. However, the ongoing issue of trauma lies not in what happened in the past but in feelings, beliefs and behaviours happening in the present. As one of my clients says: ‘If trauma was the events themselves, they happened X number of years ago, and we are X number of years too late to resolve them.’ Luckily, we are not too late. Present-time trauma can be fully undone.
The body and trauma
When a person is living in a state of complex trauma, their unconscious brain, nervous system and body are fixed in an emergency response to dangerous events that happened in the past and have now ended. A large part of the process of trauma recovery lies in creating the conditions for the body to integrate those events, so that the unconscious brain can understand them as historical and can encode them as ordinary memories (rather than a volcano constantly erupting into the present), and the nervous system can down-regulate out of fight, flight or freeze. For a person living in trauma, making this transition can look like abseiling across an impossibly vast chasm on a piece of old string, but it’s actually a very simple shift – your body is always doing its best to create homeostasis, and given the opportunity, your nervous system will always choose to regulate.
Because trauma is happening not in the conscious mind but in the body and the nervous system, healing and processing have to happen in the body and the nervous system. Talk therapy can be useful to help you understand more about the causes of your trauma – and in the early stages of working with traumatic experiences, this may be as much as you are ready for – but ultimately, talking about what happened is unlikely to make much change to your present-day feelings and behaviours. In order for that transformation to occur, there has to be a somatic dimension to your work. ‘Somatic’ (from the Greek word for ‘body’ soma) indicates the body viewed not objectively, as it appears in an anatomy text book, but subjectively, as experienced by the individual person, replete with sensation, imagery, emotional connectivity and intelligence.
What happens in a yoga and somatic movement therapy session?
I often think about the work of yoga and somatic movement therapy (YSMT) as giving a voice to deep body. By listening, and then reflecting, with the help of the therapist, you are able gradually to weave an ever more adaptive web of synaptic connections, so that the flow of information from body to mind (and back to body again) becomes increasingly fluent, and as a whole embodied system you become more agile and responsive.
How does this work in practice? Initially, we take some time to settle in together, and I invite you to orient your awareness inwards, perhaps with your eyes closed, if that’s appropriate for you. This is an opportunity to offer attention to sensations arising in your body, and to notice any emotions, images or memories that emerge. Sometimes I may suggest that you make a particular shape with your body, maybe with the help of a bolster or some blankets; other times you may be simply sitting or lying; or I may be supporting you to follow your body into positions or movements that it naturally wants to make, without any prompting.
As you notice anything you feel in your body, I will invite you to reflect on and speak your experience – in a way that works for you. We may consider whether a sensation has a colour, a shape or an energy, whether there are emotions or memories that go with it, whether there are any words it would like to speak, or whether it reminds you of a person or time in your life. For example, a dialogue might go:
Jess: What’s happening now?
Client: I’m feeling a heavy sensation in my chest ... It’s kind of diamond-shaped and it’s pressing me down like a big hand.
Jess: Is there anything else about the heavy, diamond-shaped sensation that’s pressing you down like a big hand?
Client: It’s dark ... and it feels ... foggy ... like heavy fog ...
Jess: Are you aware of any emotion that goes with the heavy fog?
Client: I’m not sure ... No, I don’t think so ... Yes ... there is a feeling. It’s ... sadness ... Yes, it’s sadness. It makes me want to cry.
Jess: See what it’s like to stay with the heavy, pressing sensation in your chest and feel the sadness for a little bit. Let me know if it gets too much so that we can stop and shift attention elsewhere for a while.
The intention of the dialogue is to enable a deeper and more subtle awareness of what you’re noticing, to include more dimensions, and to keep relating any reflections back to felt experience: images, memories, emotions and awarenesses that arise directly from your body. My voice is also there to reassure you that you are not alone, that you are still – always – being held in the safe container of the therapeutic space, and to remind you that your words are being witnessed. A traumatic childhood often includes experiences that are not allowed to be known and spoken within the family system, and definitely not outside it. Having these experiences be heard and received empathetically, when you are ready, can be a powerful agent of positive change.
It’s normal to find it hard to put words to somatic experience. In fact, being lost for words is a very good sign, because it indicates that the unconscious mind – the part that has no verbal language (and is not constrained by linguistic forms) – is leading the process, and the thinking brain is taking time to catch up.
As we explore together, we may also identify different parts of self in different parts of your body, and we can invite each of these to speak and act, and perhaps to communicate with the other. For example:
Client: I’m so furious with my brother for what he did to me I could kill him, just like that. I could pound him into dust ... [Her stance changes and her body collapses.] But I can’t hit him because he’s much bigger than me and I’m too weak. I just want to run away so far that he can never touch me again ... run away and hide where no one can ever touch me.
Jess: So there’s a part that’s furious and wants to pound your brother into dust ... and there’s a part that wants to run away and hide.
Jess: And if you go into the part that’s furious, are there any sensations you notice in your body?
Client: I’m making a fist with my right hand, and my right arm feels really tense.
Jess: And if you go into the part that wants to run away, are there any sensations?
Client: I want to curl up in a tiny ball. There’s a sensation in my belly, a kind of fluttering. I want to curl up tight.
Jess: And if the sensation in your right fist and arm could speak, do you have a sense of what it might say?
Client: ‘Fuck off, just fuck off out of my sight. Never come near me again or I’ll totally fucking destroy you!’ [Braces arm and makes a fist.]
Jess: And what do your right fist and arm want to do now?
Client: [Makes a slow-motion gesture of punching.]
Jess: Does that movement feel complete or is there anything else?
Client: [Repeats the punching gesture several times, each one faster and with increasing energy. Then her whole body relaxes.]
Jess: And what’s happening now?
Client: I’m shaking a bit, and the fluttery feeling has sort of spread out over my whole torso. That feeling wants to say thank you to my fist. ‘Thank you, fist.’
Jess: And does your fist want to say anything?
Client: It says, ‘I am strong and I can protect you now.’
Jess: Let’s allow the shaking some time just to happen.
An important part of self that we always invite to the session is the one that holds the whole picture. This part already knows without having to think. It knows your whole story so far and has traced the map of the journey you still need to take. Words my clients have for this aspect of themselves include:
This part of self is able to speak from a broader perspective and offer information and guidance that is not available to the parts embroiled in trauma survival and recovery. Every one of us has this part – and if you can’t find it or you feel that it isn’t there, you can imagine it. That works just as well.
Each session closes with a process of integration. You are invited to reflect back over what you have experienced, to notice which feelings, images or awarenesses were important for you, and to explore tools and strategies for taking these off the mat and into your life. The integration also functions as a kind of elevator out of deep consciousness, so that as we end the session, you are once again standing on solid ground, here in your present-day life. Returning reliably to a sense of capacity is an important factor in making this work feel and be safe. As one of my clients says:
The biggest fear for me was that I open a can of worms that turn out to be alligators, and I get packed off home with the open can and alligators and I’m alone with it. But each session, while experienced and owned by the client, is facilitated in such a way that we don’t break, we don’t get stranded in the past. There is support within the session to think about what we have encountered and how we can take care of ourselves until the next session.
It’s not yoga
When I went to my first yoga and somatic movement therapy session I thought I was going to a private ‘gentle yoga with a bit of meditation’ class. Either I didn’t listen or I couldn’t hear.
In a yoga and somatic movement therapy session you won’t be asked to hold complex postures, do breathing practices, mudras or mantras, or sit in meditation. If you practise yoga, you may be accustomed to viewing tightness and discomfort in your body as something to ‘release’. In this kind of work, we’re not trying to get rid of sensations, but to invite them to be present, exactly as they are, so that we can fully feel them and listen to the important information they have to offer. A sensation is an ambassador from the land of deep body, and whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral it is welcome, and we do our best to open our attention to what it has to communicate.
You may also be accustomed to using yoga as a way to cultivate peace and tranquillity. While peaceful states do occur during YSMT sessions, we are not trying to create them. Our business is to offer equal attention to whatever arises. When no threat is present and the nervous system is regulated, it is naturally calm and peaceful, but if we try to bypass anger, grief and other difficult emotions, we cannot experience nervous system regulation. Being in a regulated nervous system is different from feeling spaced out, ‘empty’, out-of-body or dissociated. When your nervous system is regulated, there’s a sense of being grounded and centred in your body, aware of your surroundings (but not hyper-alert), connected with your own sensations and emotions, and available to make authentic contact with other people. As the work of yoga and somatic therapy progresses, you will find that you spend more and more time in a regulated state.
It’s not bodywork
When you receive yoga and somatic movement therapy in person, there is potential for the therapist to hold, support and move your body, and to offer integrative touch. While people with complex trauma often experience muscle and organ pain, and while this pain may (or may not) dissipate during a YSMT session, the intention of our work is not to move or manipulate your body in such a way as to relieve biomechanical discomfort – as an osteopath or physiotherapist might. Our process is to inquire of the sensation so that we can learn something about the experiences it is holding.
Whereas if you go to see an osteopath or a massage therapist, they will take it as a given that you consent to being touched, a big part of the initial work in in-person yoga and somatic therapy sessions may be exploring your capacity to give consent for touch – and to refuse touch clearly when it isn’t what you want. If, for example, you have experienced childhood sexual abuse in which survival depended upon allowing another person unrestricted access to your body, it’s likely that at first you will be unable to say no to therapeutic touch, and part of our work will be getting curious about the discrepancies between apparent compliance and genuine body-based needs and desires. Part of my job as a yoga and somatic movement therapist is to communicate consistently, through both what I say and how I am being in the session, that you, the client, are in charge of what happens to your body, and it is always OK to say no.
It’s not psychotherapy
In the beginning, I got irritated when Jess kept asking me what I felt in my body. I was thinking, ‘I came here to talk!’
While there are dialogue processes in yoga and somatic movement therapy (derived from Person Centred Therapy, from Internal Family Systems Therapy, and from Janina Fisher's TIST model), the intention in a session is not to talk about your experiences or to recount stories from the past. This is because this kind of speaking and listening takes place in the cognitive brain, and that is not where trauma is happening. Yoga and somatic therapy is ‘bottom up’, meaning that we go first to sensation and communicate upwards to thinking mind. It’s not that there is no meaning-making in this work. There definitely is – but this proceeds out of the felt experience of the body. When we have fully felt (physically and emotionally) what the body is communicating, then we can start to draw conclusions and set intentions for next steps.
In YSMT, we work with the fundamental understanding that while the thinking mind can play all sorts of tricks, information held in the body is always trustworthy. As Gabrielle Roth (founder of the 5Rhythms™ dance practice) says:
It’s not that the body never lies; it’s that the body can’t lie ... The truth is what we carry in our bodies. The deceit is what we struggle with in our heads. (3)
Titration and pendulation: ‘I’m scared it will overwhelm me’
Knowing I could trust Jess not to push me into flashback – and that if I went there, she could support – was really important in enabling me to trust the process.
Clients sometimes have the idea that trauma work is all about reliving traumatic events. Actually, in a yoga and somatic movement session I’m working very hard to ensure that this is not what happens. When difficult memories arise for a client, I want this to occur in body time – gradually and in small, manageable pieces which are digestible by the body – rather than as technicolour epics that swamp the person, causing them further trauma. This process of softly-softly is known in trauma work as titration. Peter Levine explains:
Consider two glass beakers, one filled with hydrochloric acid ... and the other with lye ... These extremely corrosive substances ... would cause severe burning if you were to place your finger in either beaker; indeed, if you were to leave that finger there for a few moments, it would simply dissolve ... Naturally, you would want to make them safe by neutralising them; and if you know a little chemistry, you might mix them together to get a harmless mixture of water and common table salt, two of the basic building blocks of life ... If you simply poured them together, you would get a massive explosion, surely blinding yourself and any other individuals in the lab. On the other hand, if you skilfully use a glass valve (a stopcock), you could add one of the chemicals to the other one single drop at a time. And with each drop there would be a small ‘Alka-Seltzer fizzle’, but soon all would be calm ... Finally after a certain number of drops, both water and crystals of salt would begin to form. With several titrations, you would inevitably get the same neutralising chemical reaction, but without the explosion. This is the effect that we want to achieve in resolving trauma. (4)
Long before the beaker’s about to explode, my job is to guide you to ‘pendulate’, or shift your attention away from the difficult memory and onto something pleasant or neutral. For some people, it’s helpful to establish right at the beginning of our work a safe place (‘a warm sandy beach’ / ‘my woodwork shop’) or person (‘my nan’ / ‘my dog’ / ‘my best friend who always makes me laugh’) they can go to when they start to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes opening your eyes, breathing, and walking around the room while naming some things you can see works best. Sometimes just redirecting your attention can be enough. Once you feel regulated again, you can pendulate back to the difficult memory or sensation, and carefully excavate a little bit more. As you become more experienced at trauma work, and more tuned in to your nervous system, you will become aware of when and how it needs to titrate and will start to be able to pendulate instinctively.
Safety and trust
Trust was the overarching quality I needed to be certain of.
No trauma work can happen outside an ethos of safety and trust, and every single client I spoke to in connection with this article named building trust as a crucial element in their YSMT process. Indeed, experiencing a safe reliable space and a safe reliable person – and slowly developing the capacity to trust both space and person – is in itself a significant part of the work of resolving trauma. This requires of you, the client, courage, curiosity and a willingness to stay present over a period of time and through different challenges. As one of my clients says, ‘The level of trust required takes time to build and there will be many bumps and turns along the way.’
If you’ve ever adopted a frightened animal from a shelter, you will know something about this kind of trust-building. It’s a gradual process, consisting of lots of small acts of gentle presence, and repetitions of reliable structure: there will always be dog food at 8am and 6pm, in sufficient quantity and set out in the same place, and there will always be a walk at midday. You have to be patient and you have to demonstrate to your new animal companion that you are reliable, consistent and kind, and that you are not going to hit them, kick them or throw them out on their ear if they scratch the sofa or wee on the kitchen floor.
That wary animal that wants to trust, but can’t control its fear – that’s your nervous system when you first arrive in a Phoenix Rising session. The human autonomic nervous system, which controls the process of fight / flight / freeze, is a physiological survivor from our most primitive animal brain. In this part of our neurology there is literally an animal in charge. It doesn’t understand language. It needs to experience in action and through sensate experience that the environment is safe and that the people in it can be relied on. Just as your rescue dog gradually gains confidence in your company because it consistently experiences you as safe, so your nervous system will slowly relax into the secure holding of the therapeutic space as it recognises on a felt level that here is not dangerous.
Unconditional positive regard: 'Will I be judged?'
I needed to know that I would not be judged about my experiences and also about my understanding of the process or Jess’s guidance.
An anxiety that my clients frequently express, especially in the early stages of our work, is that I will judge them. Traumatic experiences inevitably carry a freight of misplaced shame that can spill out indiscriminately, for example as the belief that this person despises you, while this other person thinks you can’t do your job, and that one thinks you’re a dirty slut or a worthless ex-druggie.
Carl Rogers, whose Person Centred Therapy informs Phoenix Rising yoga therapy (my original therapeutic training), coined the term ‘unconditional positive regard’ to express the attitude that a sound therapist has towards their client and which enables the therapeutic relationship to promote emotional and psychological healing. When we have unconditional positive regard, we accept and support the client irrespective of experiences they disclose, ways they have responded to those experiences, what they say or how they behave. That doesn’t mean that we endorse the person’s views necessarily, or that we go along with any ways in which they may be behaving harmfully (to themselves or to others). And it doesn’t mean that we allow the person to cross our personal boundaries in their speech or actions. It does mean that we do not withdraw our fundamental love of and support for them. In other words, unconditional positive regard is about the person, not the behaviour. As a yoga and somatic movement therapist, I hold all my clients in unconditional positive regard. That’s all of them, and, yes, that includes you.
Real life / online
Prospective clients often ask me whether yoga and somatic movement therapy, as an embodied form of therapy, really works online. The truth is, online YSMT is surprisingly effective, and is actually not all that different from receiving YSMT in person. The felt body connection between the two of us is still there. So is the therapeutic container – the dedicated safe space that client and therapist step into for the duration of the session. For some clients with complex trauma, the online space actually feels safer than a real-life session, at least initially. As one of my clients says, ‘Working online gave me a sense of being more in control.’ And for some clients, it feels more possible to shout, roar, jump up and down or dance when online in their own, familiar space.
The main difference between a real-life and an online session for me is that is that when we’re online, touch is not available. This can make things a bit simpler in online work, especially in the beginning, when the primary intention is to create a safe enough space for you to be able to stay. As time goes on and our work progresses, not being able to touch also means, of course, that there is no opportunity for learning to negotiate consent specifically around physical contact – although we can explore giving and refusing permission in other related ways, for example when you choose whether or not to follow a suggestion I might offer for a movement or physical position.
The process of yoga and somatic movement therapy isn’t linear. It involves numerous double-backs and countless repetitions. Many is the client who thinks they’ve cracked it at an early stage and leaves ... only to return a few weeks or months later when they realise that actually they have only completed one round of a much bigger recovery spiral. It can take a while to ‘get’ this work, to make a connection with your body and to understand on a felt level how that connection can initiate trauma healing in your life. But gradually you will start to notice small changes – perhaps a little less anxiety, moments of contentment, a sense of greater authenticity, the confidence to try for a promotion, a lessening in addictive behaviours, pleasure in a new hair cut, greater capacity to make good choices in relationships ... As one client puts it:
This work is sooooo challenging. It’s like going through the worst kind of hell again and again. But the rewards ... They’re pure gold. There’s no doubt at all in my mind that it’s worth it. Yoga and somatic movement therapy is changing my life.
1. Jess Glenny, The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes, Singing Dragon, London, 2020. Available to buy here.
2. ‘Complex Trauma: What is it and how does it affect people?’: https://www.complextrauma.org/complex-trauma/complex-trauma-what-is-it-and-how-does-it-affect-people.
3. Source unknown.
4. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2010.
Thanks go to my complex trauma clients old and new, all of whom have informed my practice of yoga and somatic movement therapy immensely, and especially to those who generously contributed words for this article. I am very grateful.