Trauma and Bodywork

A Conversation with Peter Levine

By Til Luchau

Key Point 

• Bodyworkers and hands-on therapists can play an important role in recognizing and addressing trauma. 

Dr. Peter Levine is known for his significant impact on our understanding of the nervous system and trauma. With doctorates in biophysics and psychology, he has influenced thinkers and practitioners in many fields, including psychology, medicine, and bodywork. The developer of Somatic Experiencing, he is the author of several bestselling books on trauma, including Waking the Tiger and the upcoming An Autobiography of Trauma: A Healing Journey. What is less well known is that he also trained in and practices Rolfing structural integration. 

Dr. Levine, now in his 80s and whom I met in 1984, kindly took time to speak with me about his experience and advice for hands-on practitioners. This excerpt from a longer conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.1 

Til Luchau: I have two main questions for you today: How would we, as bodyworkers and hands-on practitioners, be likely to recognize trauma? And how can we, in that capacity, be most helpful?

Peter Levine: When I started developing the precursors of Somatic Experiencing in the late ’60s, I was fortunate enough to not know that trauma was supposedly an incurable brain disorder that could be best managed by medications and by helping people change their negative beliefs. 

TL: That was the common view at that point.

PL: Exactly. So, what happens when we’re frightened or feel overwhelmed or we see somebody’s been injured, is that we don’t exhale, right? We go [gasp]; we inhale, and we get stuck there. If we’re bracing against being hit, say by a caregiver, and that becomes chronic, then we start protecting ourselves like this [gasps and raises shoulders].

When we see injury, our guts go “yuck.” Actually, Darwin, in his book The Emotions in Man and Animals, first wrote about that nerve in the 1860s, and he called it the pneumogastric nerve, because it connects with the guts and connects with the lungs. That nerve . . . 

TL: Now better known as the vagus nerve.

PL: That nerve is the largest nerve in the body: it goes from the brain stem, down through the diaphragm, and connects to all of the visceral organs, and also to the heart and the lungs.

What’s not so well known is that 80 percent of its fibers are afferent. In other words, they’re going from the guts back up to the brain.

And if something happens, and we go “ugh” [in our guts] that signal gets registered as injury in the brain stem. Then, it goes down into the organs, but it gets sent back from the guts to the brain, where it becomes amplified. After a period of time, it becomes fixed as the symptoms of, for example, irritable bowel syndrome, which is very common for people who have had trauma histories. 

The key is to break these feedback loops so they’re not continuing to send messages back to the brain that say the threat is not over—to get a new signal from the guts.

A lot of my work initially was to find out what it takes to change that feedback loop from a positive feedback loop with negative consequences to sending back the all-clear signal. That was the beginning of my understanding. 

TL: This feedback loop, you said, starts with the signal from the brain to the body, that escalates into a feeling that things are just not OK . . . With our clients, we are, in many ways, telling the body that things are OK—with our hands, with our voice, with the environment.

PL: That’s right. With our hands, with our voice, with meeting their rhythm with our rhythm, connecting human to human, mammal to mammal.

TL: So, what’s the difference between healed and unhealed trauma?

PL: I think unhealed, untreated trauma has a profound effect on our health—not just on our mental health, but on our physical health. And trauma that’s been healed, that’s been transformed, often leaves people in high degrees of empathy and care and sensitivity. It’s ironic, because when it’s unhealed, it’s a completely destructive force. When it’s healed, it’s a completely constructive force. 

TL: Is having experienced a traumatic event itself the trauma, or is it the way we recover from trauma (or not)? Is that the injury?

PL: It’s not in the event. It’s in the body. It’s in the nervous system. Resilience is critical. Can we help our clients who have been traumatized restore resilience to come back with more compassion to self and others? These are the things that are the positive side of trauma, only trauma that’s resolved. Because if it’s not, it leads to all kinds of physical and emotional problems. 

TL: Trauma has the potential to open us up and add meaning.

PL: To open us up, or to shut us down. 

TL: If we can get really practical, what advice would you give to bodyworkers about signs or situations where they want to put on their trauma lens? Is that a fair question?

PL: It is. It’s not necessarily trivial to answer. But the body is a snapshot of what has happened to us in the past. That was actually one of the things that Ida Rolf taught. But it’s a snapshot of responses that got stuck. So, I’ve gone back to that first example. If we were hit as a child, for example, our shoulders would start to go up and protect themselves. They’d stay there until they get a message that it’s OK to let them down. Now, one of the things I think is especially important for Rolfers is that sometimes we maybe push on the muscles, and maybe push on the muscles too hard, because the body needs to know it’s safe again. So, it’s essential to be gentle, to take time to let the body speak to you.

TL: You were describing a trauma response of the shoulders going up. Maybe if I’m just thinking physical level, maybe I’m going to push the shoulders down.

PL: Talk to the shoulders with your touch to say, “Here I am. I’m with you. I’m just going to stay here and support you so you can let go.” That’s the type of message we want to convey in our hands to the other person’s body.

TL: You were creating waves at the Rolf Institute when I was first teaching there with these ideas. They’re not such radical ideas, but they’re fundamental, and you were questioning our explanations. I remember at some point—tell me if this is a false attribution—but someone said Peter Levine has some calculations that show that the force we use couldn’t possibly change fascia in the way we think we are, and that the changes must be due to something else. And this started a number of us on an inquiry, including Robert Schleip, my mentor there, on this big fascia inquiry.

PL: Right. Actually, in the last few years, I think that Ida Rolf was largely correct about the fascia. But again, the question is how to approach the body, including the fascia. When we’ve been protecting ourselves for a long period of time, it would be nonconductive for the economy of the body to keep the shoulders up, and to use neuromuscular energy to do that. So arguably, what the fascia does is it shortens itself. And so when it’s shortening, then it’s going to need to be lengthened again. But again, the question is “how” and “when.” 

TL: When you say that you’re thinking now she was correct in ways that maybe you weren’t thinking before, is that what you’re talking about, that there is a role for the physical part of the body in reinforcing these shapes and patterns?

PL: Yes, indeed, of the fascia itself. But we have to also be aware of the body’s response, the nervous system response, the neuromuscular response.

TL: How can we as bodyworkers be most helpful when we have clients who may be dealing with unresolved trauma?

PL: First, connect—that means first connect with ourselves and then connect with the other, and spend time together . . . You want to create the possibility of some degree of safety, because trauma is about the opposite of safety. It’s about threat, not about safety at all . . . Trauma isn’t just what happens to us, but trauma is what happens to us in the absence of the present, empathetic other. 

TL: OK, so you work with bodyworkers. You also work with a lot of psychotherapists. At what point might bodyworkers be out of their scope of practice around working   with trauma?

PL: Yeah, that’s an important one. I had such a difficult time saying this in the way I want to say it and convey it, but when we start probing and asking clients more and more about their traumas, I think that’s when we may go over the boundary as a bodyworker. Because you can’t say, “Well, we don’t address their traumas,” because somebody who’s touching the body is addressing the trauma, as it’s lodged in the body. And I think we have to keep it at that level, in that dimension.

TL: But there’s something in the probing, or when I’m inviting some sharing about the trauma, that might not be bodywork at that point.

PL: That’s right. But again, at the same time, when you’re with another person, with their body, you are working with the imprint of trauma as it is on the body. I think that’s the key. And that’s where I am comfortable in teaching both bodyworkers and therapists . . . many people who were bodyworkers after working with me, have decided to get a marriage and family therapist or licensed clinical social worker degree, or a psych degree.

When I was starting to teach Somatic Experiencing, one group of my students said it should only be taught to psychotherapists—the psychologists and psychiatrists. I thought that was a mistake, because they’re not the only ones who deal with trauma.

That was another thing with Ida Rolf. People were scared of her. I think there were two Rolfers in Big Sur at the time—Peter Melchior and Jan Sultan. So, we would buy them beers at the Esalen bar. In exchange, we would prod them: “What does the second hour look like,” so that when she said, “Well, what should I do,” we’d be ready. So, we came in, and the model stood up and she said, “What do you see?” And some of the people talked about not what they saw, but what they heard from Peter and Jan.

TL: How did that go?

PL: Well, I’ll tell you how it went: poorly. She became more and more impatient, and we were all getting scared. And we said, “Well, we need to work with the internal malleolus and the relationship to the shoulders.” And she said, “No, what do you see?”

TL: What is actually in front of you now?

PL: What’s actually in front of you. And that’s one of the greatest gifts I got from Dr. Rolf: How do you see it without your filters, without your thoughts, to really go to your inner knowing?

TL: Clients come in and want to tell us about their diagnoses, their histories, what other people have told them about their body. And there’s such therapeutic value in just asking, “What do you feel? What’s happening right now for you?”

PL: Yeah, you’re right. And how do you actually sense that? How do you know your shoulders are up high, your right shoulder is higher? How do you know that?

TL: I think I owe you even more than I realized in my own professional path, and my personal path as well, because everything you’re speaking of here was such a key influence and formative piece. Of course, I remember being quite disoriented after studying with you at first. What you were saying was a big mismatch from what I’d been hearing and learning elsewhere.

And at some point, after about a decade of chewing on that, I didn’t feel as jangled by it. I realize now I probably just assimilated it wholesale, and now I may even think it’s my own. I say those things too, but I probably got a lot of that from you, and people like Charlotte Selver and the people around, like Jan Sultan, Peter Melchior, and Bill Smythe.

PL: I think Ida Rolf left us with this legacy, this legacy to inform bodyworkers, and therapists to some degree, in a way that we all are in debt. I think Ida Rolf left in some ways one of the greatest legacies.

TL: I asked my Facebook followers what they wanted us to talk about. One of the things that came out was an enormous amount of appreciation for you and the impact you’ve had on the world, and our profession in particular. I just want to take a moment here at the end of our conversation to thank you personally, because I knew you were a big influence, but now in this conversation, I’m seeing all the ways that, in the 40 years since I first met you, you have planted many seeds.

PL: I like seeds, like Johnny Appleseed planting seeds wherever he went. 


1. This column is an excerpt from Episode 108 of The Thinking Practitioner podcast, 

Learn More

• Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing:

• Preorder Peter Levine’s upcoming book An Autobiography of Trauma: A Healing Journey at

 Til Luchau is the author of Advanced Myofascial Techniques (Handspring Publishing), a Certified Advanced Rolfer, and a member of the faculty, which offers online learning and in-person seminars throughout the United States and abroad. He and Whitney Lowe cohost the ABMP-sponsored Thinking Practitioner podcast. He invites questions or comments via and the Facebook page.