Being in the body is one of the first things we ask patients to do at the start of any mindfulness or yoga practice, so we often take it for granted that for those with trauma, being in the body is often anywhere from uncomfortable to deeply disturbing. It’s important to be aware of this vulnerability when working with individuals who’ve experienced trauma and to understand the implications of being “present” in the body for those for whom the present has been deeply unsafe.
In her book “Attachment-Based Yoga and Meditation: Simple, Safe, and Effective Practices for Therapy,” Deirdre Fay includes three basic skills that make it easier to be in the body specifically within the context of attachment trauma. With practice and repetition and over the course of time, Fay writes that these skills can become easier.
Skill One: Slowing Down
“The body changes when dissociation begins, contracting or tightening in an attempt to contain or keep away an experience that isn’t wanted,” writes Fay.
But slowing down, she says, creates space to notice moments of choice—however miniscule—that present the opportunity to shift out of the automatic pattern of dissociation. In these moments, short as they may be, the body can relax and tension can soften.
“As the body relaxes the muscles around the tension, the frontal lobe has more space to come online. Unconsciously, the client hopes that tightening up creates control, keeping the bad things at bay. The fear is that relaxing or easing will give up control, making things worse. The skill is learning to let the body fill up with sensation rather than shutting it down,” Fay writes.
The skill of slowing down allows patients to make contact with the reality that the body does not launch from a relaxed state straight to disaster; in fact, it is a process that unfolds step by step and can, in fact, be deliberately slowed down.
Learning to slow down can also counter the experience of powerlessness that accompanies trauma. It can give clients the opportunity to “learn the relief and enjoyment of having their hands on the wheel; they get to steer themselves where they want to go,” writes Fay.
Skill Two: Concentration and Focus
Slowing down creates the possibility for clients to notice moments of choice, which makes way for concentration and focus.
“Without the ability to focus on the pinpoint they want to follow, it is impossible to gain internal ground,” writes Fay.
Whether achieved through a more formal mindfulness practice or simply through counting, concentration and focus skills help clients move forward from the point of choice that they notice when they slow down. Without focus on a “pinpoint” to follow, they may still get swept away in the intensity of whatever has stimulated the dissociation pattern.
Skill Three: Staying Open, Welcoming and Becoming Fascinated
Of course, it is very often challenging for clients to maintain openness when dominated by the emergence of traumatic material or threat responses. But learning to inhabit the body becomes more possible with a level of curiosity and fascination around their experience.
“Learning to stay open, holding a welcoming stance, allows us to look around and be fascinated by the process,” writes Fay.
Yoga, Fay writes, can be an excellent ally in the client’s journey to being in the body and learning to stay open and curious about the process. An uncomfortable posture is an opportunity to both develop concentration (through deliberate focus on the sensations occurring) as well as to stay open and “learning to surf sensation” which Fay says “lets muscles encounter what is there without interpretations and associations.”
For more about how mindfulness and yoga can be utilized in the treatment of trauma, check out Fay’s book, “Attachment-Based Yoga and Meditation: Simple, Safe and Effective Practices for Therapy.”