How To Heal With Yoga Philosophy And Somatics Therapy
Written by Kianna Morgan, a therapist in training and MSW student. Kianna is passionate about trauma-informed practices and enjoys writing as a way to share empowering information with people suffering from trauma and chronic stress.
How does yoga philosophy inform sessions?
For Ellen McKenzie (yoga therapist, somatic educator, TRE provider, and Zen meditator) yoga and Zen inform every aspect of her life including her work with clients. It is the foundation of her personal practice, and it is through that practice that she can best be a grounded present support for her clients.
Because both yoga and Zen aim to help people experience connection or union (samadhi), the labels we use and the context we create matter far less than the actual experience. Additionally, both of these are philosophies that can operate synergistically with other belief systems and religions. The lenses of yoga and Zen are inclusive rather than exclusive.
That also means that, unless a client has a specific interest, their influence is not always explicit. For some clients, there is a specific interest in learning about yoga and Zen. For others, it remains in the background. In session, Ellen helps clients connect to their bodies which invites them into a deeper relationship with themselves. That experiential practice is the embodiment of Zen and yoga.
There are a wide variety of tools Ellen can work with to help facilitate this connection including: somatic exercises, breath practices, TRE, yoga postures, meditation and more. Determining the ‘right’ mix of tools is something that is determined through collaboration.
How are yoga and somatics used in a session?
Each new client will begin their work with Ellen through a 90-minute introductory session. This provides time to discuss each client's unique history, symptoms, goals and intentions. That information is a vital component to the therapeutic process as Ellen does not work from protocols or set sequences. Each client will receive personalized practices targeted to support their goals and intentions.
Ellen will also do an assessment for each client where she observes their posture and movement. In this process she is watching for patterns of tension, compensation and sensory motor amnesia (SMA). While assessing, she will ask lots of questions which help her gather more information about how the client experiences their body. The client’s internal experience is a key part of the process, so open communication is fundamental to the success of the work.
Based on all the information she gathers, Ellen will then work with the client to formulate a plan. An example of how that might play out is Ellen suggesting a few ideas for starting points and then following the clients curiosity. Curiosity is a powerful guide for Ellen's work. When a client feels curious it means the possibility for learning and safety are present.
Somatics and yoga are two tools Ellen works with regularly. Often using both in a single session as the two have a synergistic relationship. Somatics provides an opportunity to drill into the subtle patterns that inform and direct larger movements. As those are clarified, the yoga postures may be used to explore the pattern in more dynamic and functional movements.
Additionally, a goal of many somatic exercises is to help create more mobility within the structure while the yoga poses bring in stability. You can think of the balance of mobility and stability as being similar to the concept of yin and yang. Both are necessary for a well functioning system and they are interdependent. One can not exist without the other.
When exploring movement, accessibility is always a priority, as is tracking body sensation and making sure that clients feel safe and empowered to make choices for themselves. A simple example of this is asking if the client would “like to do one more”, and then honoring their choice.
Empowered curiosity is fertile ground for change. By working intentionally to meet each client where they are, and ensuring that curiosity and agency are cultivated, then clients have the opportunity to connect with their own truth and follow that on their path towards healing.
How does yoga philosophy and co-regulation help me regulate my nervous system?
Co-regulation is one of the greatest gifts of the human experience. We have the power to help regulate each other by simply being grounded and present in our own bodies. That fact is a big motivation behind Ellen’s personal practice. She recognizes the importance of doing her own personal work to support her clients...and it helps her too!
Being with another grounded and present human being can be a salve to our nerves and settling to our bodies. In session, our therapists bring an authentic playful demeanor that supports our client’s nervous systems. Play also invites clients to step outside of right and wrong, and into curiosity.
Ellen will take the time to talk with each client about boundaries and empower them to explore within their window of tolerance. Having the safe space to explore your window of tolerance will help you regulate your nervous system.
How are sessions with a yoga therapist different from a typical yoga class?
Yoga classes can be highly beneficial, and practicing in community offers a beautiful opportunity for co-regulation. With that said, yoga classes necessarily have to focus on the group rather than the individual's needs. Additionally, many yoga classes focus on physical exercise, include loud music, and often (intentionally or unintentionally) push students to do poses that are not supportive for their body and/or nervous systems.
The result is that yoga classes can feel like a gamble. If the sequence and teacher aren’t a good fit for your needs in a given moment, then the class can feel disempowering. Adding to the challenge, the room for choice is more limited and (because only the teacher speaks) collaboration is less available.
Unlike group classes, in individual sessions Ellen intentionally invites collaboration. She will ask for the client’s feedback and insight throughout the session, and actively involves each client in creating a personalized home-program. Occasionally, Ellen will even have to explicitly ask folks to communicate more in a session. It is not uncommon for new clients to expect to be quiet and take direction. In reality communication helps Ellen better understand the client’s experience and thereby develop a blueprint for sessions and practices that best support you.
In the end, the aim of the work is to find tools and practices that allow you to re-educate your nervous system and connect with your body. Working with a variety of tools, including somatics and yoga, allows you to explore multiple avenues that lead to connection with self and address experiences like sensory motor amnesia.
What is sensory motor amnesia?
Sensory motor amnesia, is the term used to describe physical patterns of contraction, stress, and tension that become normalized over time through repetition, trauma, and/or prolonged periods in a position. While these patterns may have served an initial purpose, the normalization process becomes problematic when you can no longer access or release the muscles.
Simply speaking, our bodies forget how to functionally utilize these muscles, which is why it is called sensory motor amnesia (SMA). While that term might sound intimidating, the good news is you can re-educate your system to move with ease and freedom in your body. Through that re-education you may experience reduction in pain symptoms, increased mobility, increased stability, improved coordination and balance, decrease in anxiety and/or depression, improved sleep, clearer thinking, and more.
Within sessions, Ellen actively helps normalize the experience of SMA. When clients are uncovering SMA it can feel frustrating, scary, or confusing. People are often shocked to find they can not feel or engage with certain muscles. This discovery is something to celebrate! Because now we can engage with the area and help it learn to find freedom again.
How does sensory motor amnesia show up and how do you work with it during sessions?
There are a wide variety of ways that we can start to identify SMA. Some examples are: inability to activate or move a targeted muscle, experiencing shakiness or jerkiness when engaging with a muscle, feeling confused or uncoordinated when working with a muscle, ticklish and tender areas, and more.
One way Ellen works with it is to invite the client to create slow intentional contractions and then slowly release the contraction in increments. Sometimes Ellen will describe this process as working with our tissues like a dimmer switch. We want to be able to feel and engage with each gradient of engagement. In doing so, you may uncover specific areas or ranges of SMA.
Other ways Ellen will invite clients to engage with SMA is through breath, verbal processing, touch and TRE - neurogenic tremoring. When working with Ellen, she will invite you to experiment with a variety of these tools to help you start to both uncover and unwind your SMA.
Outside of the sesion, Ellen encourages clients to engage with a home-program. Just like learning anything, repetition is paramount. Even short 5-10 minute practices help to plant additional seeds that germinate into awareness, healing and ease in your body.
How do you work with clients that can’t feel into their body following trauma?
Trauma and create and/or reinforce patterns of SMA because many people will experience a disconnect from their body (or dissociation) in response to a trauma. In that moment, dissociation is an adaptive response that helps us survive, but getting stuck in that response can lead to a breakdown in one's relationship with their body. They may start to feel like a victim to the whims of their body and even feel further traumatized by the lack of agency they experience in their body.
Feeling the body may become its own trigger that furthers the dissociation. To help break this cycle, Ellen works slowly and gently to invite clients into identifying safe ways of feeling. She will also help them develop a vocabulary for describing their experience. In doing so, clients can begin to step out of only experiencing pain/fear/panic in their body and start to experience things like weight, temperature, pulsation and more. Learning to feel in this way invites clients to explore with curiosity which also helps foster the experience of safety.
As safety is established clients can start to explore areas in their body that feel triggering. Ellen will work closely with clients here to help the titrate in and out of the area, keeping a strong connection to safety, and invite them to begin building a new relationship with the area through movement, touch, breath and verbal processing. Each client is additionally always empowered to establish boundaries for themselves. Sometimes the freedom to not do is more important than the ability to do.
Red Beard Bodywork has a team of trauma informed therapists that specialize in applying somatic therapy to support your health and well-being.
At Red Beard Bodywork we will create a safe holding space for you to connect with your body and release tension with somatics and yoga therapy. Our somatic therapists are dedicated to helping you regulate your nervous system and release tension, stress, and trauma. Our trauma informed therapists would be honored to assist you in reaching your fullest potential through the healing process. Book with us now to begin your healing journey.