“I first fell in love with Yoga when I was 17, when I opted out of mandatory physical education in high school to take a new hybrid class called “Piloga” (Pilates + Yoga). Although I would not have used the same vocabulary at the time, it was my first exposure to the healing effects of a consistent Yoga practice; coming to my mat taught me how to show up for and love my body. In 2015, seven years later, I completed my 200 hour Yoga teacher training program. I was driven to do Yoga teacher training because of the immense impact Yoga has had on my own healing journey, and a deep desire to share what has been given to me with other people.”
About Em Kianka
Since 2015, I have also been a student at Starr King School for the Ministry, pursuing a Master of Divinity and ordination through the Unitarian Universalist Association, a very progressive, social justice-centered liberal religion. My training in spiritual leadership has given me invaluable tools as a Yoga teacher; as a teacher, I am skilled at and passionate about holding safe, sacred space for healing. I am greatly attuned to other people, and I am trained and practiced in compassionate and empathic listening. I am also very grounded in my own practices of self-care and healing. Although my 200-hour yoga teacher training did not specifically address trauma and Yoga as a healing modality, I have supplemented with my own extensive research and additional training, including a graduate-level class about trauma and two advanced 11-hour trainings about trauma-informed Yoga. Since completing my teacher training, I have taught community classes and both Vinyasa and Yin/Restorative classes at a studio in Berkeley, CA.
The majority of my formal experience working with survivors of sexual violence and/or trauma was when I served as an admissions counselor at a residential substance abuse treatment program for teenagers, most of whom were dealing with trauma, whether interpersonal trauma or the systemic trauma of racism and poverty. As part of the admissions staff, I helped evaluate and admit new clients, and served as a point of contact with their families. I also regularly attended and participated in the group therapy sessions for the female clients—many of whom were survivors of sexual trauma. Additionally, I recently worked as a literacy intervention tutor with 3rd-5th graders, many of whom grappled with trauma. I also have a great deal of more informal, interpersonal experience with many people in my life who are survivors.
My Interest in Working with Survivors
I have experienced Yoga as profoundly healing in a way that has been life-changing for me. Yoga has served as a way to befriend myself, to exercise compassion for myself, treat my body, mind, heart, and spirit with love and care, and heal. Holding space for others to experience these healing effects is profoundly meaningful for me. I feel called to give to others what I have received through my practice, and to help expand the options for economically accessible modes of care and healing.
My Approach to Trauma-Informed Care
Providing trauma-informed care, for me, means working closely with each individual to develop a plan that is tailored to their specific preferences and needs. It means listening to and honoring the needs of each survivor, which can vary drastically, and being aware of what brings healing and supports the integration of the survivor’s body, mind, and heart, and what does not. Providing trauma-informed care also involves recognizing that healing is a nonlinear journey, and often a survivor’s needs and preferences may shift. For this reason, it’s important to practice open and consistent communication, emphasize the power of choice and compassionate boundary-setting, and practice deep attenuation to the shifting nature of a trauma-informed Yoga practice.
My treatment modality is through Yoga – mainly, asana, the physical postures often referred to as “Yoga”, pranayama, or breathwork, and some guided mindfulness exercises. My own personal practice is a combination and blend of many different styles of Yoga, including Vinyasa (in which the practitioner flows through postures, matching breath to movement), Yin (slow-paced, gentle-to-moderate stretching), and Restorative (long-held, relaxing postures with very little to no muscle activation). My Vinyasa practice empowers me to feel physically strong— something that I believe can be really healing for many survivors. My Yin/Restorative practice strengthens and supports my parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that tells the body to rest and digest, and thus helps unwind recurring patterns of stress that the body holds. Building parasympathetic fitness is often very healing for survivors, whose sympathetic nervous system—the part that initiates fight, flight, or freeze—is often understandably overactive. As a practitioner, I work with you to determine what elements of these modalities you would like to explore in your healing journey, and create an individualized care plan that works for you.
How My Practice Holistically Addresses the Impacts of Sexual Violence
I believe there are a couple of layers to how Yoga addresses the impacts of sexual violence and/or traumatic responses commonly experienced by survivors. For so many survivors, the body receives the brunt of trauma. As a result, being a survivor of trauma can result in disconnection from one’s body – it is ultimately a form of self-preservation that can result in significant alienation. Asana, or the postures of Yoga, and paying attention to breath, can support the survivor in gently and mindfully establishing a healing relationship with their body through practicing staying present to and curious about physical and emotional sensations in a safe and supportive environment. Also, integral to the experience of any kind of trauma is a fundamental lack of choice about what happened. A Yoga practice offers an experimental space for a survivor to compassionately explore making choices and setting boundaries that both feel healthy and honor their needs and authentic sense of self – something that I believe is significantly empowering and healing for so many survivors.
I modify Yoga to be trauma-informed through several ways. Firstly, I never assume that I can provide physical assists and adjustments to a student without asking for their consent. Secondly, I ground my teaching in invitational language and provide many options and/or modifications, (e.g. “Invitation to close your eyes or to soften your gaze”). I also use language of inquiry, which emphasizes safe and gentle ways for a practitioner to remain present to and curious about physical, mental, and emotional sensations (e.g. “Explore shifting your arms forward and back in Warrior II, staying curious about what it feels like in your body to find some gentle movement in this pose). Lastly, I remain very cognizant of the power of many Yoga poses, and which postures may be very charged or intense for a survivor, especially poses that involve a lot of physical opening. I understand that for some individuals, those poses may feel like a huge release, while for others, they are very triggering. I work with each individual to collaboratively assess what will and will not work for them, and recognize that what feels accessible for one person may look very different for another.
I am able to offer a sliding-scale.