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Integrating Polyvagal Theory into EMDR and Yoga: A Holistic Approach to Healing Trauma

Updated: Jan 16

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Holistic Approaches to Healing Trauma

In a recent podcast EMDR Trainer and Author Rebecca Kase comments "Polyvagal Theory is a love letter to your nervous system." She has written a book called Polyvagal Theory and EMDR along with numerous articles on yoga, holistic approaches in healing trauma. When we

lovingly begin to understand our nervous system it opens our ability for self-compassion, self-care and self-regulation.

Our autonomic nervous system is our body's system of protection and connection. It is constantly surveilling our inner, outer and relational environments looking for cues of danger and cues of safety. This surveillance action is called neuroception. Neuroception is our perception without awareness. It is the neural platform of our biological experience. Through neuroception, we stay alive. However, without an understanding or practice of working with our neuroceptive cues, we can often find ourselves in stuck in the states of protection, or defensiveness (called dysregulation) even when we desire states of connection. As we begin to understand our nervous system and bring awareness to our neuroceptive cues we can help restore the fluidity of the system.

Polyvagal Theory and The 8 Limbs of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient system of health and well-being. We often translate the meaning of yoga as "yoke" or "union" (mind-body-spirit and higher consciousness). There are many research studies supporting the benefits of yoga in overall health and as an adjunct of trauma therapy and recovery. Among the many benefits identified is specifically the ability to improve interoceptive awareness, perceptual awareness of the inner landscape of the body and felt sense.

Yoga is also a system of 8 limbs of practices. However most people are not familiar with all of these.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga:

A woman seated crossed legged on a sunlit living room floor breathing and meditating
Yoga includes practices of mindfulness, breathwork, moral and ethical observances.
  1. Yamas - moral disciplines

  2. Niyamas - positive observances

  3. Asana- postures

  4. Pranayama - breathing techniques

  5. Pratyahara - sense withdrawal

  6. Dharana - focused concentration

  7. Dhyana - meditative absorption

  8. Samadhi- bliss or enlightenment.

While neuroception could be discussed within each of the limbs, today I'm highlighting the Yamas, which are the principles of moral guidance. Ahimsa, the first yama, is the moral virtue of nonviolence and compassion for all living beings, including ourselves.

All living things are also designed for survival. So how do we honor our staying alive while also moving fluidly through states of protection and connection? From the lens of ahimsa, we engage in our own self-compassionate inquiry of neuroceptive cues and respond to self-regulation. This is the practice of be able to offer co-regulation with others. Subsequently, as we tend to the role of neuroception within the therapy environment, we use the language of invitation. We approach clients, others, with an invitation to connect, explore, learn a skill and practice it if they'd like to and so forth.

Polyvagal Theory and the 8 phases of EMDR

Somewhat similar to yoga, EMDR is a theoretical orientation of therapy. It is an evidence-based therapy in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD) and widely applied in a number of other clinical presentations. EMDR is comprised of 8 phases.

The 8 Phases of EMDR

  1. History Taking

  2. Preparation & Extended Preparation

  3. Assessment

  4. Desensitization

  5. Installation of Positive Cognition

  6. Body Scan

  7. Closure

  8. Re-Evaluation

Neuroception is very core of therapy. The one thing we know about effectiveness in therapy is the quality of the therapeutic relationship, ie our neuroceptive cues are aligned. Neuroceptive mis-matches can occur, both in the therapy room as well as what the client may have experienced in the adversities they are processing.

As EMDR therapists, I'd like us to broadly consider the impact of neuroception.

  • Co-regulation is the predecessor to self-regulation.

  • Inviting attendance and care for each client to the neuroceptive cues of safety and danger in orienting within our therapeutic space?

  • How are we assisting clients in preparation in understanding the neurobiology of trauma and recovery?

  • As we move into desensitization, how can aid in anchoring cues of safety in the midst of reprocessing?

  • As we move into phase 6 body scan, are can incorporate neuroceptive cues?

  • As we come to a close of session, (phase 7) how can we support transition from the therapeutic container toward resumption of daily responsibilities?

  • In phase 8, are we seeing shifts in felt sense along with trait changes?

And finally, as healers, how have given love, and embraced ahimsa for our own nervous system? Is there a supportive space that can compassionately be with your nervous system?


If you are interested in further EMDR consultation incorporating yoga, embodiment, and somatic regulation and the 8 phases.

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Trauma Healing from a Holistic Lens


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