I started doing yoga in September of 2011. While it is true that I had taken a few classes here and there, I never ‘got into it.’ However, when I took my first class at Coronado Yoga and Wellness, something clicked. I will admit that during the first class, I thought, ‘this is so slow, I’m not sure I can do this.’ Then I admonished myself to relax and take it for what it was, that I didn’t have to go 100 miles an hour to benefit from something. That did it for me. I had had only 2, maybe 3 classes, when I was attacked. I kept going back, though, even as my body and mind were in shock, and I had to be around people, and at that point, I was afraid of all people, I kept going. I remember lying on the floor, wanting to cry and not being able to, going over and over in my mind what had happened and still not believing it had actually happened to me. And even though my body was hurting, I continued to show up. There is not a doubt in my mind that doing yoga was instrumental in my healing process.
I came upon this wonderful essay about just that and I emailed the author, Molly Boeder Harris, to ask if it was okay for me to reprint it here. She graciously agreed. She also has a web site that deals with sexual assault, www.thebreathenetwork.org.
Transcending the Trauma of Sexual Violence With Yoga
By Molly Boeder Harris
Photos by Michael Rioux
“Sexual violence can impact every facet of a survivor’s life, including her physical, mental, and spiritual health. Philosopher Ann Cahill captures the pervasive nature of the crime of rape in her book Rethinking Rape (2001), explaining, “As a traumatic, violent, embodied experience, rape…does not merely attack the victim’s sexuality, or her sense of safety, or her physical being. It does all of this, and more. It cannot be assumed that there is one aspect of that person’s being that is untouched by the experience of rape. There is no pristine, untouched corner to which to retreat…the extent of the rapist’s influence is broad, but not infinite…the self that emerges from the process of healing will always be qualitatively and profoundly different from the self that existed prior to the assault. To know oneself.as raped, is to become a different self.”
Healing after sexual assault requires intentionality, consistency, and patience. The challenge of swimming against unexpected waves of physical, emotional, or spiritual disturbance and depression, combined with a cultural expectation that time heals all wounds, can leave survivors feeling disconnected from themselves and others and unable to trust their ability to manage their inner experience. The nonlinear and often lifelong process that begets healing can cause survivors to question their capacity for resilience.
Yoga provides an accessible, personalized practice that can engage survivors in safely processing sensation and sustain them through multiple stages of healing. Like healing, yoga is a lifelong practice , with ebbs and flows, breakthroughs and setbacks–all equally valuable and necessary. For a sexual assault survivor, an intentional yoga practice provides a safe, accessible, and self-directed space that serves to reintegrate body, mind, and spirit. As survivors explore layers of their being and allow sensation to emerge, pain and suffering are alleviated, and more space is created for encountering the awesome experience of being alive. Yoga allows survivors to regain a sense of comfort and ease within their own shape, to process nonverbally feelings that transcend language, and to experientially cultivate gratitude towards the body, which serve as a reminder of one’s resilience.
In practicing yoga, we link movement with breath and a presence of mind, offering a welcome inner quieting and release of tension that foster expansion. Yoga creates a unique environment where survivors can explore inside with kindness and inquisitiveness and develop attitudes that allow for compassionate responses. Honoring the body as a sacred space after surviving the violation of rape demands tremendous, consistent effort, but the integrated healing it provides remains unparalleled.
The belief that humans (and animals) contain an innate healing capacity–accessed through the body–is a guiding methodology in contemporary trauma treatment. Dr. Peter Levine, creator of a “body-awareness approach to trauma” called Somatic Experiencing ® , describes how our “instinct to heal [and] self-regulate [are] engaged through the awareness of body sensations that contradict those of paralysis and helplessness, and which restore resilience, equilibrium and wholeness.” Levine’s body-based method ” returns a sense of aliveness, relaxation and wholeness to traumatized individuals who have had these precious gifts taken away.” Pat Ogden, another trauma expert, describes the value of mindfulness, an integral part of her body-based psychotherapy practice, as a “state of consciousness in which one’s awareness is directed toward here-and-now internal experience, with the intention of simply observing rather than changing [the] experience.” Ogden eventually encourages the individual to “come out of a dissociated state and future or past-centered ideation and experience the present moment through the body.” This holistic system brings ” the body experience into the foreground” and offers the possibility for profound healing. The essential threads within these innovative techniques, such as body awareness, examining internal movement of feeling and sensation, staying present in the “here and now,” and bearing witness to one’s experience without judgment are qualities that rape victims can weave into a balanced, intentional yoga practice.
Since sexual violence often damages the connection with the body, body-based therapeutic practices are invaluable. Discussing the layered impact of trauma, which can heighten negative sensation and hinder positive sensation, Ogden describes how ” fully experiencing sensations may be disconcerting or.frightening, as intense physical experience may evoke feelings of being out of control or.weak and helpless. On the other hand, traumatized individuals are often dissociated from body sensation, experiencing the body as numb or anesthetized.”
Yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques can effectively reduce the symptoms of rape trauma syndrome (RTS), a form of post traumatic stress disorder that was identified by Ann Wolbert Burgess and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom in 1974. RTS includes symptoms and reactions experienced by most survivors during, immediately following, and for months or years after the assault. RTS can involve psychological, physical, behavioral, cognitive, and interpersonal disruptions including headaches, anxiety, inability to concentrate/focus, sleeplessness, lethargy, anger, depression, mood irregularity, spiritual disconnection, hopelessness, fear/avoidance of intimacy and sexuality, eating disorders, self-injury, and substance abuse. Survivors navigate amidst hyperarousal, numbness, and vivid nightmares, causing a host of energetic imbalances and concerns.
Survivors may experience flashbacks upon some sort of sensory trigger, in which they feel as if the assault is happening all over again–and the physical and emotional responses can be quite visceral, if not debilitating. The embodied practice of yoga allows survivors to develop healthy coping and grounding techniques that can disrupt a flashback and reestablish stability. Since flashbacks may also happen due to perceived or real threats, this ability to track body sensation, which helps survivors experience present reality rather than reacting as if the trauma were still occurring is an essential tool to self-care, independence, and personal safety.
Given the challenges that individuals must brave after surviving sexual assault, it is clear that a comprehensive yoga practice involving organic movement, exploring sensation, intentional breathing, and deep rest can aid healing. A survivor benefits from the internal cleansing and freeing feeling of a vigorous vinyasa practice, as well as the profound comfort and spaciousness that accompanies a restorative sequence. The yoga practice can be tailored to support and enhance a survivor’s sense of embodiment, integration, and inner peace.
When the poet Adrienne Rich describes the healing power of poetry, it reminds me of the mysterious and boundless gifts that yoga can bring into a survivor’s life: “[I]t has al ways been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation” (“Defy the Space That Separates,” The Nation , October 7, 1996). W e are all essentially survivors, carrying the stories and scars of our Life’s path. Some of those scars still hurt us deeply, yet others have transformed us and informed new and beautiful journeys. As we trek along our paths of healing and growth, let us offer gratitude for the exquisite opportunity to discover embodiment, breath by breath, this precious and simple offering that the practice of yoga returns to us.”
I continue to do yoga 3-4 days a week, mostly yoga on the beach here in Coronado or outside on the grass in Pacific Beach. It has made me stronger in all ways and I will have a yoga practice for the rest of my life. I wish I had found it earlier in my life, but am incredibly grateful it came when it did. It contributed greatly to the healing of my mind, body and spirit.