When psychologist Arielle Schwartz moved to Boulder in 1996 to study Somatic Psychology at the Naropa Institute, she discovered that teaching yoga was a great way to deal with lifelong anxiety issues.
When I moved to Louisville in late 2017 to begin a new life with my husband and two children, I discovered that a psychotherapy practice called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was a great way to deal with some trauma from the past. At the same time, I began researching ways to return to the practice of yoga.
That’s how I discovered Schwartz, who teaches therapeutic yoga, using some EMDR principles to help practitioners bend their minds as much as their bodies. She’s also the co-author of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology. Recently, I called Schwartz to learn more about her approach.
How did you become involved in yoga?
I actually grew up in a yoga community; my parents started going to Kripalu when I was 7, and I remember my dad coming to teach my third grade class. I stopped as a teenager, and then when I went to college at Oberlin, being away from home, and the demands, I went to community class and fell in love again on my own with yoga. It was Kundalini, and then when I went to do my teacher training I went back to my roots and focused on Kripalu.
For the layperson, can you describe what EMDR is?
EMDR brings together what I think are the best elements of any trauma-focused therapy: the meaning-making, your mind, what story you’re telling, what beliefs you hold about yourself in relationship to specific traumatic events. It works with your body, and how you experience sensations, how you experience the different arousal states related to that event, and it’s going to work with the emotions.
EMDR has a way of using the assessment state to light up the neural network associated with a traumatic memory through all these channels — the emotions, the beliefs, the images and the sensations in the body. Once you have access to that, then you use bilateral stimulation, either through eye movements or sound, as a way to oscillate rhythmically in the brain and also left and right sides of the brain.
There’s a whole bunch of theories about the working mechanism as to why EMDR is effective — some of has to do with lower brain centers and that rhythm, some of it has to do with the orienting response and how the eyes are moving. But once you activate that process, kind of like REM sleep when you’re dreaming, you’re processing and downloading the events of the day. You open it up so the therapist is not in control, but the client gets to drop into their own innate healing capacity.
Can you give me an example of what a trauma might be?
There was a client who came into work specifically on a car accident. I asked her to tell me more about the car accident, how it felt in the body, what was the belief and what was familiar about it. The client recalled being a child in her home with her parents arguing from her mind’s eye. We followed the associative process to work at what we call the root target, and she dropped into processing a series of childhood events. At some point she realized, “Oh, I had a car accident when I was 7.” Ultimately we loop around to the recent traumatic event, and once you clear what’s underneath it, that root target, you’re much more likely to experience relief from the distress.
Is there any similarity between what goes on in a yoga practice and EMDR?
I love this question! It’s one of the key elements to the yoga for trauma therapy that I teach; we will bring in bilateral stimulation and work with how things can get stuck in the body. So, for example, we’ll bring in alternate nostril pranayama, and have the students reflect on blocking belief. Or we’ll do things that cross midline, like croc crawls or eagle pose. Coming in and out of crossing midline, there’s so much that shows up in yoga.
The other is that as a traumatic therapist, what we want to look for is also re-patterning movement, because people who have experienced trauma get stuck in high arousal states or low arousal states. So we want to use our practice to restore flexibility to the yoga system states, so that the students can realize, “Oh, when I change how I breathe, I’m changing my physiology, or when I stand in tadasana, I’m bringing my awareness to my feet, and I really feel the strength of my legs underneath me, that allows me to tolerate anxiety.” Most often we’re alternating between a pretty powerful energizing breath or posture and then restoring into something like’s child’s pose. It restores that sense of choice and control.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Tuff Dunn.