Healing After Sexual Violence with Body-Inclusive & Trauma-Sensitive Therapies
Healing After Sexual Violence with Body-Inclusive & Trauma-Sensitive Therapies
Increasing accessibility for survivors of sexual violence to discover and explore healing is essential in order to enhance the opportunities for survivors to return to, or begin to create, a life in which they can thrive. Bringing the body into the healing space, and importantly, making the space safe enough for the survivor to begin to explore and notice – however slowly – the experience of inhabiting their own shape and the experience of embodiment, may facilitate a more integrated, empowering and sustainable process of healing. While there remain barriers (financial, cultural, social, and more) to survivors receiving the kind of care that enables them to identify and address the impact of sexual trauma on their body, their minds and their spirits (along with, importantly, their own innate healing capacity and inner resources) there are an increasing amount of healing arts professionals that value and prioritize building a practice that speaks to the unique needs, identities and desires of our diverse survivor community.
In this conversation with Lara Veon, a body-inclusive psychotherapist and a certified yoga instructor, we discuss how she brings the body, and truly the whole person, into the healing space. Lara describes how she utilizes various expressive arts and trauma-sensitive yoga in her work with survivors, her belief that access to healing is an “essential right” for all human beings, and how she supports other practitioners by offering self-care workshops, along with her commitment to her own sustainability and wellness through her practice of yoga and meditation.
The Breathe Network: Let’s get started by learning more about what it means to identify as a “body-inclusive therapist”. Can you describe what that means to you and your intentions, as well as perhaps the need, to clearly define your approach in that way?
Lara Veon: I, as well as all the therapists that comprise the Bodymind Integrative Program at the Center for Contextual Change, identify as “body-inclusive therapists”. We believe there are multiple pathways that can guide one back to a wise, compassionate and empowered self, and as such, we have immersed in additional training in a variety of somatic therapies with the intention of helping our clients access their own internal resources in a way that goes beyond traditional talk therapy.
I personally identify as a body-inclusive therapist because I feel it is important to clearly define I work within a holistic, integrated theoretical framework that focuses on the interrelation of the mind, body, emotions, and spirit as paramount to healing.
TBN: For those who may not know, I am curious if you could share more with us about what the practices and skills of “Becoming Safely Embodied” look like and how this serves your work with survivors of sexual violence?
LV: Survivors of sexual trauma experience a disconnection that makes it challenging and often unsafe to live in their bodies. “Becoming Safely Embodied” (BSE) is a skills-based approach created by Deirdre Fay, MSW, LICSW to help support those who are healing from trauma and experiencing this feeling of alienation, as well as the inability to be in the present moment. When using BSE in my practice with clients, I use the Collaborative Stage Model to create a context for safety and change and incorporate the following eight foundational skills of BSE: Belongingness; Meditation (mindfulness and concentration practices); Internal Information Flow; Facts/Feelings & Interpretations; Parallel Lives; Soothing Parts; Carving Out a New Path; and, Telling & Retelling.
The experiential process can look different depending on the client or group’s needs, and because I don’t necessarily identify as a “purist” with any theory or approach, in addition to BSE skills, I integrate a variety of other techniques that are congruent to where a client or group might be in their healing process.
TBN: In addition to being a psychotherapist, you are also a certified yoga instructor and integrate yoga into your work with clients which is so powerful to be able to offer a variety of “entry points” if you will, into the healing of trauma. Yoga is increasingly being recognized as a huge tool for trauma-survivors, can you talk your experience introducing and utilizing it with clients, perhaps touching on what it means to teach “trauma sensitive yoga”?
LV: Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma researcher, has often described how a traumatic experience essentially “booby-traps” the body’s self-protective capacity through forced immobilization and helplessness and how it is re-enacted through invasive and intolerable bodily sensations and somatic responses long after the experience has ended.
Neuroscience is now supporting what yogis have known for centuries: our sense of self is rooted in how we interpret our inner sensory experience. Given that, if trauma transforms the external violence into an internal enemy that then contributes to an inability to feel safe inside and causes negative beliefs about the self and one’s capacity for tolerating the present, the healing treatment must include opportunities for reparative connections with the body.
A fundamental premise in yoga is to reduce suffering. In my practice, I have continually witnessed yoga as one of the most accessible and profound tools for the healing of sexual trauma. Because yoga is a subjective practice modified to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the individual, it becomes an amazing tool for the treatment of trauma. Physically, through asana (yoga postures) it offers an organic opportunity for processing and neutralizing the traumatic sensory experiences that often cause intense disregulation. Since our society focuses so often solely on the physical practice of yoga, I feel it’s important for me to emphasize the impact of yoga philosophy on healing, as well. On a philosophical level, yoga can help clients recognize and reconnect to their wholeness. The practice provides a way to reinterpret, rebuild and recreate new connections and patterns.
Whether in session with a client or teaching a yoga class, my framework is always “trauma sensitive” or “trauma informed” (I use these terms interchangeably). In order for yoga to be accessible, I’ve found it useful to pay attention to the pace, which can be challenging in a group. By tuning into the energy in the room and the client/students’ responses, I can ascertain whether it is necessary to slow down or increase the pace of instruction. Because physical adjustments may trigger a trauma response, I simply choose not to use them. In addition, I minimize “surprises” in the sequence by outlining what will happen, always encourage compassionate curiosity, try to provide choices via modifications, and use language that makes it clear it is always acceptable to choose not to do a pose. Because trauma survivors are triggered all the time in their daily lives, it is impossible to inoculate a session from all potential triggers; however, I try to minimize the possibilities to the best of my capacity.
TBN: In your bio you mention your belief that “access to healing from trauma is an essential right, not simply a privilege” – can you describe how you put that belief into practice and the importance of increasing accessibility to healing?
LV: It is my fundamental belief that our socio/political system has made access to healing from sexual violence a privilege when every human being has a right to access treatment. This is further perpetuated in rising insurance costs, the prison industrial complex, institutionalized “isms” and the continued marginalization of populations of color and LGBTQ survivors. Whether it’s through sharing education and resources in classroom and community environments, teaching trauma-sensitive yoga to survivors in prison, workshops with rape victim advocacy groups or working individually via a sliding scale, I try to diversify my practice by providing as many opportunities for survivors to access healing as I can. It is only once we recognize the right of – and provide treatment for – each survivor to heal that we can impact the trauma reaction that continues to ripple through the collective.
TBN: I am really interested in your work with the expressive arts, and the workshops you have offered on “Soul Painting” – can you tell me more about the expressive arts, or perhaps specifically Soul Painting and how making art supports the healing journey?
LV: Healing can be enjoyable. I think we often forget that!
I co-facilitate “Soul Painting” workshops with my colleague at the Center for Contextual Change, Dee Crowley. Much like yoga, these “Soul Painting” workshops allow participants to access a part of the brain that transcends language. Because the area of the brain that processes and comprehends language is not accessible during trauma; it is important to incorporate modalities that do not solely depend on language as a means for expression when processing trauma. Through active participation and creative expression – be it the “Soul Painting” workshop, dance, music, writing, or art – clients tap into their imagination, their felt sense and can experience deep healing as a result. Also, it is ridiculously exciting to explore and recognize we are all artists!
TBN: Your modalities include psychotherapy, mindfulness, yoga, expressive arts, guided imagery and more. Do you have any one modality you prefer or find most effective with clients that are survivors of sexual violence?
LV: Trauma is a complex and subjective experience, and as such each client’s treatment plan is complex and individualized. Various techniques and modalities might be more appropriate than others depending on what stage of treatment a client might be in, and this is determined collaboratively in the context of a safe therapeutic relationship. With that being said, I do have a soft spot for yoga-centered therapy and the depth at which it facilitates healing.
TBN: I know you work with clients individually, facilitate groups, and recently I learned that you offer Self Care workshops for organizations that want to better support their staff or as part of a staff retreat, what might a Self-Care workshop look like with a group of folks who bring you in for the day?
LV: Yes! The Self-Care workshops are one of my favorite workshops to provide. It’s important to recognize that the cumulative effects of stress manifest in very similar ways in our nervous system as trauma does. And I don’t know a work environment that doesn’t experience stress!
The Self-Care workshops are individualized based on the needs of the staff or group. They are always experiential in nature. While I do provide education on stress and self-care, I feel it is incredibly beneficial for participants to have tangible “take-aways” they can use after the session. With that in mind, the workshop is an engaging blend of education, mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and opportunities to create individual self-care plans.
TBN: Lara, you are involved in so many amazing projects in addition to your practice, including Yoga for Recovery, Mindful Practices, and your anti-racist parenting work – can you tell us how you balance all of your professional and volunteer roles and responsibilities, not to mention your personal life raising a daughter and a young, energetic German Shepherd? How do you manage your own self-care practice?
LV: My life is very active indeed, and sometimes self-care can be a challenge! It is paramount to being a helper and healer, however. After all, how can I encourage my clients, students and daughter to trust me with their energy if I am not doing everything possible to take care of my own? Self-care allows me to be fully present. Its importance is not to be minimized. I feel such gratitude that I’m steeped in an array of work and projects that are my life’s passion and also, that I have a beloved community of like-minded colleagues, friends and family who support and inspire me. Community matters! Perhaps most tangible to my self-care, though, is my daily yoga and meditation practice.
TBN: Thank you so much Lara for sharing your compassionate and holistic vision not only for supporting survivors of sexual violence along their healing journey, but also for the work you do to support practitioners in the field in offering sustainability through self-care workshops! To learn more about Lara Veon’s work with individuals and groups, or to contact her about self-care workshop offerings for organizations, visit her practitioner page here.