Practicing Ahimsa in EMDR Therapy: Yoga Skills for EMDR Therapists By Anna Schott, MA, MSW, LISW-S, ERYT-200
Practicing ahimsa, non-harming, is intrinsic to EMDR therapy and can be woven into the 8 phases of EMDR therapy as a tool to help clients re-regulate and treat themselves with loving kindness. Ahimsa is defined within the context of yoga as having respect for all living things and avoiding violence towards others and self. Ahimsa falls under the Yamas, or moral restraints, in the eight-limb path of yoga. Yoga includes not only the physical postures, but also mindfulness, mindful breathing, meditation, and a moral guide to use within the context of yoga and in life in general. The Yamas are part of this moral guide and are yoga’s self-regulating behaviors that teach us how to relate to others and take care of ourselves. Yoga, as a whole practice, aids in healing trauma and when used in conjunction with EMDR therapy, miraculous changes can occur.
Ahimsa does not just inform our work with clients but also how we take care of ourselves as therapists. In the clinical setting, we practice Ahimsa in the words and actions we use with our clients to create a trauma-sensitive setting. We also counteract the effects of our own countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout as we take a non-harming approach with ourselves. The whole framework and modality of EMDR therapy embodies Ahimsa as we help our clients heal from trauma and cultivate a peaceful therapeutic setting.
Practicing Ahimsa in phase 1 of EMDR therapy influences the process of history taking with our clients. As clinicians, we must be mindful of how we conduct a mental health assessment and talk to our clients about their past to avoid retraumatization through asking about unnecessary details in regards to their traumas. Because of the fragmented nature of how trauma memories are stored, clients may not be able to identify an accurate timeline, or when they do start recounting specific memories, the proverbial can of worms opens and clients become flooded with trauma memories. We can avoid this by slowly exploring clients’ histories and not worrying about getting the exact historical details. We must remember what matters in history taking is the client’s perspective of their experiences and how they’ve integrated these memories into their view of themselves. Because of the triggering nature of our clients’ pasts, we may need to wait to obtain a full history (and this may not ever come to full fruition) and allow the conversation to be client directed. Though there are certain nuggets of information necessary to obtain to form a diagnosis and identify a treatment plan, it is more important for the wellbeing of our clients to practice Ahimsa by not asking for too much information too fast.
As we move into phase 2 of EMDR therapy, we can work with our clients to identify resources they can utilize throughout the therapeutic process and which embodies a way to direct our clients to practice Ahimsa. This can start as early as the first session as we explore the resources clients already have in place and can utilize in therapy. Exploring resources in addition to history taking can help counteract possible retraumatization in phase 1. The main purpose of resourcing is to help clients tolerate processing the traumas identified during history taking. During this phase of treatment, we can teach our clients coping skills and resources that will help them stay in their window of tolerance without self injury in thought or deed. Through guided visualizations of the Light Stream, the Calm Safe Place, and the Container Exercise installed with BLS, we strengthen our clients’ internal resources to enhance Ahimsa. As a further way to practice Ahimsa, we can also offer to install other individualized positive resources with bilateral stimulation, such as positive experiences, relationships, and achievements.
In phases 3-6 in EMDR therapy, we help clients practice Ahimsa by identifying targets to process and then engaging in bilateral stimulation to desensitize the memories and reprocess the associated negative beliefs. These beliefs perpetuate internal self-injury in the messages clients tell themselves and external self-injury in the form of harmful coping mechanisms, drug and alcohol abuse, and even cutting. Flooding and abreactions can occur during processing with clients who are extremely traumatized, pushing them outside their window of tolerance. Though we want to keep pushing forward to help clients move through these memories, we must practice Ahimsa to help them stay within the space of being comfortably uncomfortable. This can occur by drawing upon their previously installed positive resources, utilizing different cognitive interweaves, and knowing when to slow the processing train down. It also involves an understanding of when to integrate modifications into phases 3-6, such as having a client open their eyes during processing, integrating grounding techniques in between sets, and utilizing the container when clients are flooded by memories. By desensitizing these target memories, our clients practice Ahimsa by living peacefully in the present instead of through the lens of past traumas.
Traditionally, in the practice of Ahimsa, we tend to think of non-harming in the physical sense. This is certainly a reality for many of our clients who engage in physical self-harm through cutting, drug and alcohol addiction, and eating disorders. However, self-harm can present as an internal self-injury through negative self-talk. As clients desensitize their traumatic memories, the associated negative cognitions reprocess, allowing for the integration of positive cognitions, which is then installed with bilateral stimulation. This allows clients to let go of negative cognitions that do not serve them and minimizes negative self-talk and coincidental internal self-injury. Through this, our clients are actively practicing Ahimsa by listening to their positive internal voice.
A further practice of physical non-harming occurs in the body scan phase in EMDR therapy. We ask our clients to scan their body and notice any disturbances while thinking about the target memory and positive cognition. Any residual disturbances they may report can be lingering somatic experiences of the traumatic memories, and reprocessing these can lead to further healing. Though this phase of EMDR therapy may seem extraneous, it allows for some of the deepest processing due to trauma memories being stored at a very base body level. It is often the very last fibrous roots of trauma memories that need to be weeded out. The body scan offers an in-depth way to heal physically from the traumas, leading to a continued state of peace and calm in which to continue practicing Ahimsa.
EMDR therapy is based on the three pronged model of addressing and reprocessing past, present, and future targets to help clients reach optimal functioning. Reprocessing past and present targets offers a way for clients to heal. Installing a future template lays the groundwork for an ongoing mindset of practicing Ahimsa. By visualizing positive ways to handle related situations, clients automatically create an internal positive environment to respond to new and different situations. This is also a way to carry their installed positive cognitions into future scenarios to which they will respond. This will help them to strengthen their practice of Ahimsa as they continue to install and strengthen their positive cognitions and strengths.
As EMDR therapists, we hear trauma all day long. Reprocessing these memories leads to so much healing for our clients but can take a toll on us as therapists through countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout. It is imperative as clinicians to practice Ahimsa ourselves. This may manifest as taking a mental health day, limiting the number of clients seen back to back, making sure to take a quick break in between sessions to eat, drink water, and to answer the call of nature. It should also include a rigorous self-care routine outside of work in which you engage in activities that ground and replenish you. In sessions, staying grounded and mindful while practicing Ahimsa will help you to stay present with your clients without absorbing all of the emotions and energies they are outputting as they process their own trauma. Having a self-practice of Ahimsa will enhance your abilities as a clinician and assist in staying engaged with your clients.
Practicing Ahimsa guides us in living in a peaceful way within ourselves and within the world. Not only does non-harming refer to refraining from physically and verbally hurting someone else, it also applies to how we treat and speak to ourselves. As EMDR clinicians, we are teaching our clients to practice non-harming through reprocessing their traumas in the 8 phases and installing positive cognitions that inform how they live their lives moving forward. Through Ahimsa we discover the light within ourselves that directs us in our lives.
Almost all of us are seeking more contentment and happiness in our lives. Unfortunately, it seems, the more we seek this elusive happiness, the less we find it. However, the key to long standing happiness and contentment might be closer and easier than we would expect. Actually, the secret might be hiding in plain sight. According to almost all wisdom traditions, happiness will not be found anywhere but within us. These wisdom traditions also insist the key to discovering the happiness is through regular daily meditation practices. The question arises, “is there any scientific basis for these claims and evidence that could support the validity for these assertions?”
When I started meditating 35 years ago, I would not have dreamed of meditation becoming a mainstream therapeutic intervention within psychotherapy and psychology fields. All I knew, was the fact that I felt better when I meditated, and my friends noticed the difference, but within the last 20 years mindfulness meditation practices have become the most researched psychotherapeutic intervention through hard science and neuro-imaging techniques. Daniel Goleman, and Richard Davidson summarized their findings regarding their research in the neurobiology of meditation and mindfulness practices in their book "Altered Traits". Both of the authors of the book have been long term daily meditation practitioners and active researchers in psychology and neuroscience. They have published numerous scientific and neuro-imaging studies on the subject of psychological and neurological impacts of meditation and its long-term benefits. After reporting the summary published studies, they have concluded; long term regular practice of meditation will have a positive profound impact on people’s inner experience, and what we call happiness.
If indeed people can feel better by just "Meditating", and not necessity needing a better car or a bigger house, and if indeed the wisdom and ancient traditions were right, then what is it that we are supposed to do, and what is meditation in the first place? Unfortunately, a lot of people think meditation is only a religious practice, and they have to adopt to certain religious or cultural values in order to learn how to meditate effectively or even being allowed to attend a meditation session. Sam Harris, a radical atheist, and neuro-scientist philosopher, who has been a meditation practitioner builds a case for practicing some form of mindfulness practice. In his book "Waking Up”, he suggests that it is very possible for an atheist, such as himself, to develop a spiritual life without becoming religious. That is certainly true about myself. Although I am not an atheist and have practiced my own spiritual path for many years, I do not consider myself a religious person. Even though almost all meditative techniques were developed within certain religious or spiritual tradition or context, they do not have to remain within that context in order to produce beneficial results.
The realty is meditating as a basic technique is relatively easily. Even though there are hundreds of meditation techniques that are taught by different teachers, they all fit within 4 categories:
2- mindfulness presence practices
4- active/dynamic meditations.
Many people get confused about the difference between concentration practices and classical mindfulness practices, which many traditions consider true meditations. Concentration practices, as their name indicates is about focus on an external object that holds your attention, and examples could be a candle, river, ocean or even someone that you have positive feelings for. You can also concentrate on your own internal experiences such as; observing your breath, or different bodily sensations, or even your heart beat if you are able to feel your heartbeat. The key with these practices is not to get discouraged when your mind starts to go somewhere else or think about something else. In meditation circle, it is called monkey mind, because of our mind’s tendency to jump from one subject to another. Just gently bring your mind back to the subject of your attention. Like any other skill, the more you concentrate the better you get at it. These kinds of practices are great for people with attention, anxiety, or stress related issues. Practicing 15-20 minutes a couple times (when you just wake up in the morning, and right before going to bed) would be great. However, if these are too much, start what you can, and DO NOT make meditation another chore on the top of all your other daily chores. The object is to relax, and look forward to your practice, and do not feel you have to sit in a certain yogic posture to meditate. You can even lie down if works for you, and do not fall asleep.
Mindfulness meditations are slightly more challenging for a beginner practitioner. In these practices you pay attention to the totality of your practice at any given moment without judging the experience, and wanting more or less of it. This practice requires an open-minded, non-judgmental attitude toward that practice, and becoming an observer of your experience and thoughts from moment to moment without trying to intervene or changing them to something else than they are at any given moment. This practice tends to be beneficial with people who might be having depression or personality related issues.
The reality is, meditation is like medication. The reason there are hundreds of meditation techniques is exactly for the same reason that there are thousands of medications on the market. There is no single medication that is able to cure all ailments, and there is not one single meditation that is capable of responding to everybody' emotional or spiritual needs. If you are interested in learning more about meditation, Jon Kabat Zinn’s book “Mindfulness for Beginners” would be a good place to start. You can also try a few introductory meditation classes that are offered in different yoga studios or mediation centers around town. Please try several of these classes before you make up your mind about meditation and if meditation is really for you. Everybody can engage and benefit from some kind of meditation. If you are an active person who has a difficult time sitting still for more than a few minutes, some form of active or dynamic meditation might be very useful to begin with. Yoga, tai chi, dynamic dance, and walking meditation might be great places to start, and eventually progress to some form of sitting silent meditation. On the other hand, if you are someone who is essentially introverted and contemplative, starting with some form of breath-oriented meditation that requires focusing on your breath might be the place to start, and eventually balance your practices and life with an active meditation. walking meditation, yoga and Tai Chi would be great additions to your sitting practice. The key is having a balance between silent sitting meditations, and active/dynamic techniques. This combination tends to produce the best result for maximizing relaxation and over all emotional wellbeing.
Bear in mind, all of meditation classes have their own cultural flavor, and way of doing things that could be vastly different from each other. Do not think you have seen them all after going to a few studios, and not liking their method of their practice, or the way they do things. Your needs as a practitioner will also change as you progress and demands of your life change. This should impact your meditative practice as well. Hopefully by then you have found a competent teacher that can suggest some useful techniques. If after 3-6 months of regular practice, you are not seeing any benefits, it is time to consider changing your practice, and re-evaluate your desired goals. Sometimes what we are hoping to gain from a practice is not what we really need at that point in our life, and that creates unnecessary tension, sabotaging our progress. It is essential to choose practices that are designed to produce the kind of results we are looking for, and we should always approach the practice with an open mind. Be receptive to whatever experience presents itself without expecting immediate results and attaching to the outcome. Paradoxically the more you “try” to make it happen, the less it will happen. If you just allow the process and technique to work, you will eventually benefit the result you are looking for.
It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you.
People consistently show up for therapy thinking they are crazy, inadequate, damaged, abnormal, intrinsically flawed, incomplete, and deficient because they are innately defective. These beliefs are actually the result of adverse childhood experiences and traumatic events.
Changing this perspective from “what is wrong with you” to “what happened to you” changes the course of therapy and assists in externalizing negative experiences and cognitions. You are not innately defective. You believe these things about yourself because of a wide variety of adverse experiences that reinforce these beliefs.
CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. It scores the number of adverse childhood experiences a person experiences before the age of 18. There are 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are personal -- physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who's an alcoholic, a mother who's a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. The ACE Study reveals a relationship between the number of ACEs and severity of negative health and well-being outcomes across one’s life. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk of alcoholism and illicit drug addiction, depression, health-related quality of life, heart disease, liver disease, poor work performance, financial stress, risk for intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, suicide attempts, early initiation of sexual activity, adolescent pregnancy, risk for sexual violence, and poor academic achievement. In a nutshell, the adverse experiences present in childhood lead to so much stress on the body and mind creating a whole slew of negative health, mental health, and addiction diagnoses later in life.
Changing the focus of therapy from coping with symptoms to healing adverse childhood experience allows the present to be free from the influence of the past.
My two nephews and I were running around their tiny town, playing hide and seek, exploring, and talking to neighbors.
Henry, age six, found a deep pile of leaves in a church yard along a stone wall the boys were walking on and jumped in. Laughing, he kicked around in the leaves for a few minutes. When he climbed back over the wall, ants were crawling all over his calves and shins and into his socks. He panicked, swatting at his legs as tears welled in his eyes. We quickly removed his shoes and socks and brushed the ants off. His tears dried, and we resumed our journey in the direction of his parent’s small health food store where his mom was stationed behind the counter.
As I got a drink from the cooler, Henry checked in with his mom and the two boys ran upstairs to play. At the counter paying for my drink, and feeling slightly guilty for allowing her son to play in an anty pile of leaves, I told Emily, my sister in law, about the ants. Emily smiled and said she’d already heard the entire story. She slid coins into the cash drawer, closed it, and we too went on with our day.
But the Ant Incident stuck with me. It’s not about ants. It’s about attachment, the single most important parenting practice. More important than healthy food, organic toys, and appropriate pre-school placement.
Bonding with an infant is a known practice. Hospitals promote parent and infant contact after birth. Many people recognize the importance of attachment in a person’s first years. However, attachment is a process that continues throughout the life span. A parent who is able to attune themselves to the on-going emotional needs of their child provides a secure emotional base from which the child can explore the world, knowing they have a safe emotional place to return.
The connection Henry made with his mother after the Ant Incident is a perfect example of how parents can continue to provide secure attachment. After the Ant Incident Henry and his brother re-engaged and continued their jokes, ribs, and exploration back to their parents where Henry immediately sought his mother’s attention. He told her the story, she validated his fear and provided reassurance – all within a minute. He then ran off again with his older brother.
A healthy attachment experience exists inside this seconds-long interaction that provided security, safety, and assurance to Henry. And let me be clear – checking Henry’s legs for ant bites is the least important part of this interaction. The secure attachment between Henry and his mother is exemplified by Henry telling a story about a scary incident to his attachment figure, her listening, nodding in understanding, asking if he is okay, giving a quick hug and putting right to the world. It was focused attention, full engagement, and calm, kind words that happened in a matter of a minute on a typical day in this family’s life.
Anxiety, fear, worry, sadness, depression - difficult emotions that can be overwhelming. Focusing all the attention of all your senses on an orange can help lessen the immediate trouble of these emotions and leave your brain ready to move on to its next task.
Go to the kitchen, the grocery store, the corner store, your friend’s house and get an orange (you like lemons? Have at it).
Look at the orange. Notice the color - deep orange, orange becoming reddish purple in the case of a blood orange, or maybe light orange.
Notice the size and shape.
Hold the orange in your hand. Feel the size and weight of it. If it’s small it may lie perfectly in your palm. If it is large, as is often a navel orange, it may feel unruly.
Rub your thumb and fingers along the rind or skin. Probably it is cooler than room temperature. The skin is not smooth. How would you describe the texture of the skin? The color and texture may be indicative of the orange’s age.
On the top of the orange, the plant stalk or pedicel. It’s rough, green and brown. An umbilicus I suppose.
The bottom of the orange, opposite the pedicel, is what I’ll call the knot. What do you want to call it?
You’ve eaten an orange before. You can imagine the inside. Imagine the sinew of pith from the pedicel to the knot with the orange sections grown symmetrically side by side. Encased in the yellow white bitter pith.
Raise the orange to your nose and smell it. How do you describe the scent?
It’s time to open it up. How are you going to do that? You can push a finger nail inside the orange’s skin – tough? Thick? Thin?
Raise the orange to your nose and smell where you cut into the skin. Is the smell faint? Sweet? Or something else?
Start peeling the orange. Again, notice the thickness of the skin, the amount of pith. Experience the peeling. Explain the peeling – out loud or just in your head. .
Once the peel is removed, look at the pile of it on the table. Does it remind you of anything? Note mentally if it does and then return to your orange.
Now the pith. Pith that is thin usually sits tight on the orange and is difficult to remove. What is your experience? Is there pith under your fingernails?
Some people will just eat the orange without removing the pith. Hmmm. What do you do?
Look at, perhaps admire, your orange. What is the color now?
At this point you have probably noted whether it is a juicy or dry orange.
Put your thumbs into the hole at the top of your orange where the sections meet and pull them apart. Do the sections come apart easily or do they tear?
Notice the size of the cells in the sections. Maybe bigger cells have less taste? Just notice that. .
Put a section in your mouth. Notice all the different tastes and flavors – it’s probably not salty but likely has a mixture of sweet, sour, and bitter tastes. Notice what taste is most prominent.
Is the orange good? Do you want to finish eating it?
If not – trash, compost, side of the road.
If so – mouth. Of course you’re noticing how your teeth crushes and grinds the orange pieces moved into place by your tongue. Keep noticing the flavor, scent, sticky fingers, color.
Now the edible part of your orange is gone (though I’ve seen just one person eat the entire orange – peel and pith included). Look at your empty peel. What does it look like? . One of my pieces of pith looks like a jellyfish.
At this point you feel better. Your difficult emotions are at bay, and your brain is ready for work, learning, play.
Your orange experience doesn’t have to end yet. The peel will retain its smell for a while. Put it in a small baggie and take it with you. If you begin to have distressing emotions again (you probably will – who doesn’t?) take out the baggie and smell the peel – if you are in public it looks like you’re just having a snack. Notice if the smell has changed and recall experiencing your orange.