December 12, 2019

What I’ve Learned from Teaching Yoga to Survivors of Sexual Assault & Trauma.



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Up until a few years ago, my yoga practice was about contorting my body like a pretzel and sweating on a cold February morning in an Ashtanga yoga studio in New York City.

There was definitely discipline, but there was also a lot of ego about how bendy I could get. On some days, not being able to meet my preconceived mental image and perception of grace on the yoga mat would frustrate me.

I noticed that the less accepting I became of where I was in my daily yoga practice, the more annoyed I got when my writing disappointed me. The distance between me and compassion started to increase.

A lot of my writing is centered around wellness and women’s empowerment and drawing a correlation between the impact of wellness on our overall creativity, productivity, and relationships. While it was humbling that women trusted me with their stories and asked me to give them a voice, I wondered if there was a way to help them heal their wounds.

Storytelling and writing stories about trauma can be healing but they can also hurt a lot at first. Without yoga, there were raw and tender stories and voices floating around in the world, not knowing how to manage the pain. How could I help?

As the wise say, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. As I battled my inner conundrum, I came across an organization called Exhale to Inhale (ETI). Founded by Zoë LePage, ETI brings the healing power of yoga to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, especially those who could benefit from the practice, yet might not otherwise have access to it. Using yoga as a foundation, Exhale to Inhale employs movement, breath work, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques to empower survivors to heal.

I was initially nervous; I am not a survivor, and would that make me a real yoga teacher for survivors of trauma? I couldn’t have been further from wrong. I have learned that just the way you don’t need to get a degree in writing to call yourself a writer, similarly, you don’t need to be a survivor to help other survivors and empower them. Good intention and dedication trump everything.

Statistics say that in the United States alone, one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. The more of us come together, the more we can help.

After the training and interview process with ETI, I started to teach yoga to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Here is what I’ve learned as a writer (and person):

Watch your words.

When I started teaching yoga for ETI, one of the most memorable lessons for me was to eliminate the word “relax” from my vocabulary. How many times have you found yourself using this otherwise simple sounding word with your family, friends, and colleagues in a passive-aggressive way—probably even without realizing?

If you watch TV shows like “Law & Order SVU” and “Criminal Minds,” you might have seen that many of the survivors are told by their perpetrators that if they relax, they wouldn’t hurt them. Seldom is that the case.

Simple words can make a big difference to not just survivors but also us writers. How you talk to yourself and others influences how you talk to your characters.

Being wounded and tender is okay.

Writing, on some days, can feel like sandpapering a raw wound or peeling at the scabs. Being on the yoga mat, submitting to the discomfort, and finding your strength can feel arduous on some days. But yoga reminds us that it is okay to not be okay. It is okay feel vulnerable.

Regardless of what happened during the day or week, the survivors showed up to class and the yoga mat every week. That’s how the healing began. As a writer, when I applied the same logic to my writing, I saw the benefits of dedication, persistence, and authenticity despite lots of discomfort on some days. My editors started to notice that my relationship with words had begun to change.

Every day is different.

Ego can be an ugly quality in a writer and healer. Gratitude, on the other hand, can make difficult days full of procrastination, rejections, and writer’s block seem less mundane. On some days, you hit a blank wall; on other days, you might end up writing a 5,000-word essay. But most of us writers struggle with accepting the status quo, especially when it comes to unproductive days.

When survivors show up on the yoga mat, each week their experience is different. Sometimes the same asana might trigger them; on other days, they smile through it. They teach me to accept the present moment and not be attached to what could or should have been on a bad writing day. They remind me that just as with yoga, in writing, no two days are the same.

Be grateful.

Finding gratitude when you get a six-figure book deal or your two-week vacation to Europe gets approved is easy. But how do you find gratitude when the person closest to you endangers your safety? Where do you go looking for grace and gratefulness when an editor, agent, or publishing house turns down your work?

Rejections are a part of a creative life. Show me one writer who hasn’t received any rejections, and I will prove to you that they either haven’t tried hard enough or they are lying. No one’s work is so flawless that it’s never turned down. When I saw women on the yoga mat feeling grateful for breathing and being alive, I learned the meaning of gratitude.

Have gratitude for being a writer. Writing is such a gift—being able to express your emotions and share your stories and to give other people’s stories a voice. Not everyone is able to do that.

Reset expectations.

Yoga for trauma healing is very specific. It isn’t about Instagram-worthy shots in chic yoga leggings. You wear loose and comfortable yoga clothes and focus on non-trauma-inducing poses and stay away from most of the traditional asanas that could possibly trigger survivors.

Until I started to practice yoga with survivors of trauma, I didn’t realize that simple movement could be as relaxing and effective (if not more) as a headstand or Wheel pose. Sometimes, a few of the ladies who come into my yoga class spend the entire hour resting in savasana. They listen to what they need, not what their mind tells them, or what I suggest (in trauma yoga, we always offer options and suggest that the clients do what works best for them).

Yoga, much like writing, is a personal experience and can’t be driven by what others expect of us or what works for others. Go with what works for you, not what the world expects you to write.

In my latest novel Louisiana Catch, the female protagonist, Ahana, turns to yoga to heal and find her true voice. Writing Ahana’s character and experiences in a compassionate yet believable way was possible because of the work that I do with Exhale to Inhale.

The pure relationship that the students in my class share with their yoga practice has impacted how I approach writing—I am not bothered by what others are writing or expecting me to write or what’s selling in the market. I feel free to write stories that keep me up at night and nag me to be written.

At the book launch for Louisiana Catch, a woman walked up to me and whispered, “Thank you for referring to us as survivors, not victims. Being called a victim takes away the power.” That was the day I embraced on an even deeper level how much teaching yoga to survivors has helped me evolve as a writer and human being.

Honestly, I started to teach trauma yoga to help other women, but helping others is often how we heal and find ourselves.


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