“Until we understand that traumatic symptoms are physiological as well as psychological, we will be woefully inadequate in our attempts to help them heal.”
–Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger and Healing Trauma
Survivors of sexual violence often hold their experiences of trauma as sensations in the body. Trauma manifests both physically and emotionally in a multitude of ways and layers and can leave the body feeling dis-regulated and unsafe. As a result, it is so essential to offer survivors an avenue to heal and process their trauma using their one innate resource: their body.
When I was sexually assaulted in 2007, I remember how scary it was to feel unsafe within my own body. My body had betrayed me and suddenly I didn’t know how to navigate my life when dealing with hyper vigilance and anxiety attacks. All of these somatic experiences felt completely unmanageable and the disconnection and fragmentation I felt from myself was painful. I had feelings of suffocation within the layers of my own skin with no outlet that felt authentic. These were all physiological symptoms and talking about them in therapy didn’t help me. It wasn’t until I took my first yoga class did I realize that through my breath, through the movement of my body, through the power of my choices…that I had everything I needed within myself to heal.
The spectrum of healing that took place after embracing yoga as a treatment for my trauma was life changing. The ways I could thoughtfully move through postures on my mat, while being in tune to what felt comfortable and safe within my body was beautiful. This was a powerful moment as it was the first time in a long time that I actually listened to what my body was communicating to me. I could breathe through any unpleasant experiences that came up and cultivate presence in the moment. This allowed me to develop tangible skills to support me in my everyday life especially when trying to navigate painful memories and triggers.
Through the practice of yoga, the body can build and connect the fragmented pieces back together through self-regulation, personal exploration of the postures, and natural breathing. Yoga gives survivors a way to express what they are feeling nonverbally and takes the pressure away of feeling that processing cognitively is the only way. Yoga offers the opportunity to move the trauma through the body and helps survivors take steps towards finding stability and safety within. Yoga offers a holistic approach that takes into account the variety of ways that trauma impacts and stays with people for their entire lives.
I have had the firsthand experience of teaching trauma-sensitive yoga to hundreds of survivors of sexual assault. In my eight years of experience working within the field of gender-based violence, I have not witnessed anything more powerful than the impact of yoga on the healing process.
Some of the benefits of trauma-sensitive yoga that have been self reported by survivors include:
- Stronger self-esteem and confidence
- Development of positive coping mechanisms
- Empowered to seek other resources (medical, counseling, reporting)
- Decreased binge eating
- Learned the importance of self-care
- Learned how to set boundaries and be assertive
- Felt more grounded and balanced
- Learned to trust self and others
- Gained courage, peace, and a strong community of support
- Gained the ability to be intimate again
- Understood they had choices
- Felt a strong sense of safety in the body
- The importance of trauma-informed yoga
To help illustrate what I mean by that I want to invite you for a moment to imagine what it might feel like for a survivor walking into a yoga studio or gym for the first time. Imagine what the impact of trauma might have on someone, anything ranging from flashbacks and dissociation to difficulty connecting with others or not being ready to be seen (Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Training 2012, Emerson). Imagine walking into an unfamiliar space and gazing around a dimly lit room to see other students perhaps dressed in minimal clothing. Imagine having to lie down only a few inches away from a perfect stranger or being in an uncomfortably hot and condensed space. What might it feel like to see straps hanging on the wall or to have a yoga teacher place their hands on you to offer a physical adjustment without permission? What if a teacher cued a posture that was triggering and you didn’t feel like there was another option?
I want to illustrate this experience because I think it is essential to understand the principles of trauma-sensitive yoga and how central they are to the treatment of trauma. Attending David Emerson and Jen Turner’s trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health changed my life and prepared me to hold space for survivors in the room. I co-wrote an article after the training with a dear friend and colleague, Alexis Marbach, titled The Journey to Heal: Understand Trauma-Sensitive Yoga.
The training taught me about empowerment-based language, the various options for breath, how to manage triggers in the room, the importance of seeing physical adjustments as a clinical issue, the intake process, and most importantly the powerful impact of yoga on the healing process. Next week’s blog post will explore trauma symptoms of survivors of sexual violence and specific yoga postures that can help in the healing process to offer tangible strategies for an at home practice.
If we think back to the roots of yoga, it started as a practice in India as a means to transcend suffering. This central core of yoga is what guides me in my teaching and purpose. Yoga changed my life and continues to be a part of my everyday healing. It has given me the strength to cultivate a safe space for so many survivors looking to deepen their healing and reclaim their bodies. Yoga helps survivors find their voice and most importantly offers an incredible gift: power and control.
For anyone looking for a trauma-sensitive yoga program or teacher in your area, The Breathe Network is an amazing place to start. This is an organization that connects survivors of sexual violence to healing arts practitioners that offer services on a sliding scale. Another excellent resource is “Overcoming Trauma through Yoga” by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, which is an engaging and research-based framework on how to safely and effectively incorporate yoga into the healing process.
Zabie received her BA in Psychology and Social Behavior and Education at UC Irvine and her MA in Higher Education Administration at The George Washington University, and is a certified trauma-sensitive yoga instructor offering workshops specifically designed for healing trauma. Zabie is the Violence Prevention Coordinator at UC Irvine and serves on Board of Directors for Stop Street Harassment and We Step into the Light. She is the founder of Transcending Sexual Violence through Yoga, an organization with a simple mission: empowering survivors to heal through yoga. She teaches trauma-sensitive yoga classes at Be the Change and the Center for Living Peace in Orange County, California.
Zabie has created a model therapeutic yoga program and curriculum being implemented throughout the U.S. Her work has been highlighted in the Huffington Post, OC Register, Pinterest, Elephant Journal, Breathe OC, Coast Magazine, and various OC publications and magazines.
Photo by Sargeant Creative