Ashley Zimmerman on Bodies & Trauma Informed Yoga
Ashley Zimmerman is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist who offers counseling as well as trauma informed yoga classes.
Why are you an affiliate of NWFL?
I am an affiliate of NWFL because I respect the vision that Nancy Murphy has to create spaces of safety for survivors. When I was at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology I found that her class was so practical while simultaneously being an offering of hope to the hurting. I find that having a community of other professionals who are passionate about similar things allows for me to feel like I’m apart of something vaster than myself. Being a therapist and holding complex stories can sometimes feel isolating, that’s why it’s really valuable for me to have a community of healers that I can glean from too through supervision and consult.
Tell us about your love of bodies.
Bodies are complex, yet courageous healers; bearing the stories which are yet to be revealed. Bodies wear scars like badges of honor, marking resilience and mastery. I find bodies to be where the deepest most vibrant work can thrive if we are simply willing to reconnect with our body’s most ancient wisdom. The truth of what you’ve endured is woven in the fabric of your being. Connecting with every thread and color can take a lifetime of learning; it is never boring or dull.
Tell us about your observations of teens today being hungry to connect with their bodies.
I feel that “people” are hungry to connect with their bodies, but something I appreciate about teens is that they’re slightly more raw and real about their felt experience in the world. They might still have influences of societal pressures, but their neuroplasticity is so readily apparent and available. There is a visceral quality to their communication style. Developmentally and physically they are going through puberty, so naturally are in this unique state of change where all their drives are coming online. Something about my work with teens keeps me honest and attentive with my own inner teenager that needs to be seen and heard and tended to without judgment. We all have one; we need be more connected to those younger, more boisterous parts of ourselves.
When someone is trapped in a trauma response, how is it helpful to get connected with the body?
I believe if you can reconnect your awareness back to your hands and feet it can be a reminder of a sense of agency, even when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Some call the hands and feet “islands of safety.”
Deep, full breaths are also vital… When trapped in a trauma response you might notice tightness of chest, quick shallow breaths or even forgetting to breathe entirely. This is when it’s really important to access more mindfulness in the way you are utilizing breath. It’s essential for sustaining life and overall wellness.
Reorienting to space and time, being present. Hyper-vigilance is something that I see often when working with people who live in traumatized bodies. Scanning the room, darting eyes, it’s a fear response or survival instinct that’s meant to be preventative in nature but it ends up exhausting the nervous system and draining the adrenals. We’re human animals, we like to orient. So instead of telling someone to “stop that!” Rather, I invite them to re-orient looking at all the corners of the room, knowing where the exits or entrances are can be simple yet somewhat stabilizing. Even inviting people to walk around if they need to redistribute their energy or blood flow. No one is trapped in my therapy office and no one has to stay sitting down the entire session unless they want to. But sometimes when someone is locked in a hyper-vigilant response they might need a reminder that they have the agency to do what they need to feel safe in their body again. Often times after trauma the body feels a distrust and betrayal, “I couldn’t keep myself safe.”
TIPP is a DBT acronym that can easily be used when a person is trying to get grounded:
T: “Tip the temperature,” this will cue your mammalian driving reflex if you splash some cold water on your face or take a cold pack to rest near your eyes or cheeks to soothe or cool your body down. This reflex causes your body chemistry to shift, your heart rate decreases and it activates your parasympathetic nervous system to prompt your relaxation response. (water should stay above 50 degrees Fahrenheit) *I keep a cold pack in my office refrigerator if needed.
I: Intense exercise helps your body release negative energy that can sometimes get stored bodily when dealing with complex emotions or memories. You can redistribute this by: running, walking, hot yoga etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which can help manage anxiety or even reduce feelings of depression.
P: Paced breathing helps cue your parasympathetic nervous system to
remind your body that it’s safe. Boxed breathing is also a type of breath work that people like to try. I prefer slow expansive breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth taking a couple counts each inhale and exhale.
P: Paired muscle relaxation is a beautiful way to do a body scan, check
with yourself and being more attuned to introspection (what’s happening in your body). It helps you self-regulate. *Some yin yoga teachers offer this practice during their yoga classes and it’s a really valuable offering for survivors of trauma, or anyone really.
Tell us about your trauma informed yoga work.
Trauma informed simply means that “all bodies are welcome” and there is room for your process to look different from someone else’s. Consent is everything so the yoga facilitator offers postures as options to try on, remembering that you have the freedom to take or leave anything that doesn’t fit for you. Permission to make the practice something that works for where your body is, means if you need to linger in a shape longer because you’re feeling benefits or modify that posture so it is more comfortable for what you’re dealing with bodily (maybe injuries, different abilities, or trauma memories associated with curtain positions). The body holds a lot of memory and often times shame and distrust is correlated with reconnecting with the body, because one might remember more of what their body has endured.
Yoga in many ways is like a moving meditation, where you’re integrating the use of mind-body connection. There’s a sweet interplay and dance that happens as you reconnect and explore to your bodies edges through unique sensory-based forms of expression.
What are some of the different ways you see domestic violence present itself?
I’ve seen DV show up across the board, it does not discriminate against race, age, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. It’s when (emotional and physical) violence is an active component of the communication dynamic in close familial/relational bonds. It is when elements of power and control are used to disempower and manipulate another person’s sense of self or well-being. Arousal and degradation are often always fused. Safety becomes compromised and accessing one’s voice feels very frightening or risky. Over time this dynamic can move beyond traumatizing into a toxic abuse structure or cycle that becomes demoralizing. It’s difficult to get out of that loop or cycle of abuse because oftentimes when a sophisticated abuser had gained access to their victim, the victim takes on more ownership for the abuse than is healthy. In essence they bear the brunt of the brawl, in some twisted way buying into a lie that they “deserved this cruel and unpredictable mistreatment.
How can movement integration help work through PTSD or anxiety? Talk to us about preverbal states, or places where people stop having access to words.
Movement integration is valuable because it works with the body rather than against it. I like to think of my body as an ally and friend rather than fighting against its natural instincts or inclinations. That being said I’m aware that “the body has no narrative” so it has difficulty sometimes with reality testing, distinguishing between real and perceived threat(s). For example, if I were to see a cord that looked similar to a snake my “fear response” might kick-in and activate all the same hormones and chemical reactions in the body needed for the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to be engaged and ready to work to keep me safe. With PTSD it’s difficult to turn this off, because the body often lives in a hyper or hypo aroused state. What served you once might not always be serving you now. The ability to access language or cognitive functioning is almost impossible when you’re in lizard brain mentality and the hippocampus goes offline.
One simple thing I do if someone is in a dissociative or activated state is to pause because it’s not helpful to keep engaging story or narrative when someone is feeling trapped in one of the many “states of being” that trauma can activate. Instead, I work towards inviting them to engage their body differently. I have “thinking putty” if someone has busy hands and needs to mold something instead of moving towards self-harm or contempt. I sometimes invite them towards breath-work or even walking around mindfully being aware of their entire personhood from the feet all the way to the top of their head. It really depends on the moment or what the situation seems to be asking for. I’m simply there to hold space, be a witness and help co-regulate a person to get them back to the present moment at a pace that feels gentle yet still anchoring.
How people might ascribe to a core belief about themselves because of trauma?
It’s in those moments of suffering trauma that it’s easy to make inner vows subconsciously without even realizing it. That’s why the healing work of therapy is so important to engage well and consistently to better uncover these core beliefs that are in place. One example might be buying into the lie about one’s worth, value or capabilities. Maybe latching onto an idea like “I’m stupid.” I’ve worked with many people who know on a cognitive level that they’re capable and successful in x, y, z but on a core level might have a belief structure in place that’s primarily rooted in trauma narratives that may need to be addressed and more thoroughly engaged to find rest and comfort in a new realization. Until you start untangling some of these core belief systems that get embedded in the psyche, they often will creep in or play out in relationship because we manifest what we most deeply believe.
Talk to us about being an ally to one’s body, especially in places where one might feel shame or self-sooth in harmful ways. You work with many addictions that correlate to harm. Talk to us about empowering people to try something different.
I’m glad you asked, self-soothing in harmful ways might look like turning to an eating disorder, self-harm through cutting, patterns of addictions to codependent relationships or even substance abuse. All of these things function and serve a role but don’t always get at the core wound in a loving, nurturing way, many times it accentuates the problem instead of alleviating the issue (even if at times there is a felt sense of relief experienced, although short-lived).
You are your best advocate for knowing what you need, but you have to work with your body instead of against it. Meaning, numbing-out might seem preferential or appealing at times, when it actuality it disconnects you from what you really need or want in those vulnerable moments. Instead I invite you to pause, come into contact with a felt awareness what being curious with what is surfacing for you. Maybe feelings of sadness or grief might be bubbling up and are harder feelings to stay with. Find ways to love yourself with where you’re at instead of ignoring, shutting down or tuning out. Your body is your friend and ally, learn to trust it’s gentle nudges as a guide towards healing and soulful living. Make sure to do this work with someone who cares, finding a good fit with a therapist or healing community is essential. You don’t have to figure it out on your own, we’re wired for connection.
You can connect with Ashley here