Thoughts from Cath

The Body Keeps the Score - being inspired by Dr Bessel Van der Kolk

Catherine Kelleher

19th May 2017

I’ve been on a little adventure to London-town this week to meet one of my heroes, Dr Bessel Van der Kolk…

A 2 Day Conference with Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk
THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE – Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma

Just over a year ago, 2 Yoga students came away on one of my weekend retreats and we ended up talking about their work in the field of PTSD. They run a theatre production company in Cardiff and had been doing some outstanding work with war veterans. One of them suggested that I might want to read a book by Dr Bessel Van der Kolk called, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’. They suggested that some of the topics and language used in my teaching over the weekend were reflected in the book.

As is often the case, the teacher learnt as much if not more than the student that weekend and I am very grateful for their recommendation. This book deeply resonated with me and has had a huge impact on my teaching.

Dr Bessel Van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist based in Boston specialising in complex trauma such as PTSD and childhood abuse. His body of work is enormous, made more impressive by the research he undertakes in addition to his clinical work. I had never expected to see Dr Bessel speak in person but I have just had the absolutely pleasure of spending 2 days at his workshop at the Breath of Life Conference in London.

We all have experienced trauma in our lives. Without a doubt, the body remembers that trauma. Yoga is one of many ways (others include martial arts, qi gong, dancing, singing, making music the list goes on) that we can start to release trauma from the body.
Did you know that when we experience trauma, the language part of the brain shuts down? We cannot verbalise what has happened to us. This makes talking therapies very difficult as the first port of call following a traumatic event. We also start to dissociate with the body for fear that sensation will overwhelm us. Yoga can play a key role in helping us sit with sensation after trauma so that we can then begin to open up and talk about what has happened to us. It is also a tool of empowerment; teaching us to self-regulate and hold our own space.

Dr Bessel’s work is research based. He is a scientist and seeks clinical research rather than anecdotal evidence for his work. The work he has undertaken on Yoga as a therapy in his clinic has given us much needed research where before there was only anecdotal evidence.

What I found extremely interesting was the range of people in the 400-strong audience at the conference. Clinicians, body workers, naturopaths, social workers, GPs, nurses, occupational therapists. Specialisms that are often seen as opposing sides of the line (medical vs alternative) coming together to discuss their experiences.

We are at a very exciting time in health care. The NHS needs to find cheaper ways than handing out drugs to everyone that comes through the door which means there is more scope for the introduction of ‘alternative’ cheaper therapies. We are also living through a time when the medical model is moving away from seeing the human being as a bunch of separate systems (nervous, digestive, skeletal, etc) and seeing a coming together of the different disciplines to look at the person as a whole. It is a gradual process which will take decades if not centuries but pioneers in the field such as Dr Bessel Van der Kolk and Dr Chaterjee are leading the way.

I have come away feeling hopeful, inspired and eager to learn. After all, we can always learn more. But mostly I was taken with Dr Bessel’s talk around compassion. At the crux of this work lies compassion. We are social creatures and we need support systems to heal; we need others to help with our pain. We need one another. We need feedback from one another and synchronicity to feel part of society. Connection and compassion are key. It is a theme that keeps popping up in my studies and my work. And that is what Dr Bessel has re-enforced for me these last 2 days and I will carry that with me as I return to the hut.

Cath x