Introducing Holistic Healing Arts at the National Sexual Assault Conference 2013 – Part 4

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Introducing Holistic Healing Arts at the National Sexual Assault Conference 2013 – Part 4

Introducing Holistic Healing Arts at the National Sexual Assault Conference 2013 - Part 4

In this 4 part series, The Breathe Network interviewed each of our 4 practitioners who presented on the many benefits of a range of holistic healing arts for survivors of sexual violence at the National Sexual Assault Conference in Los Angeles, California this past August. In our final installment of “Introducing Holistic Healing Arts at the National Sexual Assault Conference 2013 – Part 4” our founder, Molly Boeder Harris reflects on how integrating embodied practices for survivors is central to sustainability, her motivation for introducing breathing techniques, meditation and yoga into her session, highlights from other workshops, what the feedback from participants might tell us about the role of holistic healing arts in future sexual violence movement organizing, and how we can be the heroes in our own journey to heal. We hope you enjoy!

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The Breathe Network: The themes for this year’s National Sexual Assault Conference were – Inspire a Movement, Invest in Change and Imagine – can you describe how your modality and/or your vision related to any or all of those topics?

Molly Boeder Harris: My intention was to touch on all of the conference themes within my presentation “Embody to Empower – Building Resilience through Embodied Approaches to Healing” by structuring the session to include a balance of personal exploration and reflection through sensing the body, breath and mind, sharing empowering, accessible insights about healing from some of my favorite trauma experts and finally by weaving my personal testimony of struggle and survival into the workshop.

Inspire a Movement Within the session we explored and identified what our unique experience of embodiment felt like, what embodiment meant to us, and how we track and sense ourselves on the physical, emotional, mental, energetic and spiritual planes. I focused on the importance of learning to notice our embodied experience not only for the sake of that rich experience, but also as a tool to intervene or practice more self-care when we catch ourselves moving out of alignment with our center. For me, empowering practitioners and survivors (who often occupy both identities) to truly make the space and effort to notice and commit to themselves holistically and to offer the freedom for healers and survivors to listen, respond and trust their “organism” feels to me like the inspiration for a movement. I can envision the strength of a movement that emerges from a group of people fully connected to themselves, and therefore, better equipped to connect compassionately with others and the world around them.

Invest in Change We know that people experience sexual violence in ways that are very unique to each individual and we see that creating a healing system that is sustainable and accessible to any given survivor requires that we offer increased options for healing. Survivors come to us at various stages along their healing journey, from a magnificently diverse range of backgrounds, identities and locations, and our resources need to reflect and respond to that diversity. There is a constantly growing wealth of information about the impact of trauma on our bodies, minds and spirits, and survivors are more publicly discussing their unique healing path to empower others and all of this information has captured the attention of rape crisis centers, counselors, survivors and funders looking to invest in something innovative and sustainable. It feels like the perfect time to intentionally connect the sexual violence movement with the healing arts community and explore ways to make the healing arts financially, geographically and culturally accessible to survivors across the country. This focus on sharing the benefits of holistic healing for survivors, increasing the resources to research the impacts of holistic modalities, and most importantly, making them increasingly accessible, is how we can invest in change.

Imagine I drew upon my personal testimony navigating my journey with the support of the holistic healing arts to exemplify that not only are these modalities useful for a wide variety of specific manifestations of trauma, but that the insights, self-connection, resilience and passion for life that I gained through the process of interacting with practitioners in those modalities (including acupuncture, chiropractic, EMDR, massage, psychotherapy, reiki, yoga and more) is something I would not trade. The philosophy of the holistic healing arts recognizes that our beings naturally gravitate towards balance, and for me personally, instead of seeing symptoms, struggle, and my own body as an enemy working against me – I learned to slow down, to listen to the language of my body and was eventually able to integrate and connect with myself physically, mentally and spiritually in a way I didn’t know was possible before. Imagine if all survivors had the opportunity to utilize the holistic healing arts not only to survive the wounds of our trauma, but also, to draw upon those skills, resources and insights to be able to thrive and be sustainable in their lives, careers, relationships and communities long beyond the crisis. Imagine if they could take the insights they gained in healing on the physical, mental and spiritual plane and bring that into another survivor’s life to offer hope when hope seems lost?

TBN: Can you tell us about your decision to integrate experiential practices, including breathing techniques, guided meditation, and movement – into your workshop? 

MBH: I chose to include breathing, yoga and meditation into my session for multiple reasons, one of which was to offer people a “felt experience” of what it was I was presenting during the session. Another was to help bring people into the space, into their bodies and to develop a connection to the people around them. One of the attendees commented on how listening to the sound of the whole group practicing breathing together felt soothing and supportive. In my past experience at conferences, I have found that a lot of emotion and sensation builds unconsciously within me as I absorb the content of each session and since we are mostly sitting and listening throughout such an event, eventually it is too much for my body to hold. Not having had the space to discharge that energy in the moment, there would be a surge of emotion that would catch me by surprise and at that point it would be much harder to ground myself – I might actually leave the conference feeling worse.

An example was at last year’s NSAC conference in Chicago, my hometown, I walked out of The Invisible War screening (a must see documentary film on military sexual trauma) overloaded with grief and headed to the train to return home. I didn’t notice my disorientation until the landscape didn’t look right and it occurred to me that I had taken the wrong train in the wrong direction – twice! Having finally realized what was happening, I immediately jumped off the train a few miles from where I was staying knowing that to feel grounded, I had to literally be on the ground. I sensed that I needed to use my muscular energy and increase my circulation if I was going to “land” safely and be able to re-orient myself in both my body and the surrounding environment.

I hoped by introducing very tangible and effective techniques to notice oneself, to practice embodiment, or to simply scan the body/mind/spirit, that this might help others stay connected and grounded while at the conference. In addition, I thought these would be readily accessible tools for individuals to draw upon should they feel triggered or overloaded by the conference topics. As a presenter, I will say, it was pretty special to have these moments within the workshop to connect inside, to let go of my mind and to simply breathe within the somewhat formal format of presenting – while also soothing the nerves that can come along with that!

TBN: Can you tell us about a few workshops that stood out for you, and perhaps, share an insight from something you learned or were reminded of during a workshop you attended?

MBH: I was so impressed and deeply moved by each of the other presenters from The Breathe Network. Eugenie, Lisa and Zabie all brought their hearts, minds and wide range of expertise into the space. The information and personal insights they shared were powerful and easily to integrate as survivors, practitioners and educators. I felt honored that they had chosen to join The Breathe Network and grateful for the work they are doing with individuals and organizations, as well such great confidence for their role in supporting survivors who are exploring embodied healing practices through trauma-sensitive yoga, meditation & energy healing and biofeedback as they shared in their presentations.

I was in awe of the presenters from A Long Walk Home, Girl/Friends whose very raw and real testimonies of violence and survival, I felt in my core. I met the Girl/Friends group years ago during a yoga self-care session in Chicago and recalling the energy and vitality in that space, I am not surprised that they have had such an impact in their community and beyond. I also deeply respect the sustainable and community-based approach they bring to healing, justice and education in which the youth and their school and local community are empowered to take an active role in the delivery and operation of programs and services. Therefore, communities develop a real sense of ownership and connection to ensuring the longevity of the program.

Santa Molina-Marshall’s workshop on “The Neurobiology of Trauma” described in detail how Somatic Experiencing (SE), a trauma treatment developed by Peter Levine, works to facilitate deep healing for survivors, and her workshop was pivotal for me at the conference. I came across Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger accidentally in a bookstore just one month after surviving my assault, and it gave wings to the trajectory of the journey I had recently begun. Somatic Experiencing integrates a nuanced, organic understanding of healing with a belief that healing is innate within all of us. This capacity to heal is reflected in witnessing how animals in the wild, who have not given up their innate way of healing, can thrive after traumatic events. Levine’s approach, so well embodied and articulated by Ms. Molina-Marshall, serves as a tangible, visceral reminder of our own deep resilience.

Santa’s insights felt affirming to me as a survivor, having navigated various approaches to healing, as she stated so beautifully, “healing requires balancing sensations with resources.” Her workshop also validated my belief (that I share with many others) of the value in healing holistically – by bringing the body, the breath and sensation into the foreground of that process. Somatic Experiencing recognizes that telling your story is just one among many parts and aspects of the healing process, and that our own physiology is designed to help us transcend trauma. In addition to the clear and powerful content she delivered, her ability to remain present with and attentive to her audience left me feeling connected and fully cognizant of my own resources for healing.

TBN: How has having attended and presented at NSAC, along with fielding many questions from those working in various capacities within the sexual violence movement changed, influenced, or impacted how you see your modality or your vision serving this population?

MBH: The feedback from participants in the session, along with individuals I met over the course of the 3 days tells me that many of us – practitioners, advocates, social workers and survivors, are longing for spaces to explore and discuss the mind-body-spirit impact of trauma, as well as accessible (financially, culturally, geographically) places to heal on those various levels.

For practitioners specifically, I see the approach of The Breathe Network as a tangible resource for ongoing self-care and wellness. Traditionally, our response systems for sexual trauma have been under-resourced and overworked. My experience as an advocate was that I was often operating at the edge of my threshold for what was healthy and sustainable. Collapsing, at some future point, felt imminent and unavoidable given the nature of the work and the schedule. I think this feeling of overload that I experienced happens for many in the field who feel a calling on a soul level to do this work: supporting survivors, offering options when none seem available, reflecting resilience for survivors who are in the throes of the murkiness of trauma – since many of us are also bearing and reacting to the changing weight of our own traumas. Due to our commitment to the cause and the folks we serve, we do not always know how to say, or rather, sometimes do not feel well supported in saying, “This is too much. I need a break.” As empathic people we worry about not showing up for our clients as well as increasing the burden our colleagues have to then carry.

Asking for what we need doesn’t always feel like an available option when you work in a field where crisis and emergencies are a constant. Many of our colleagues have been completely burnt out by this work. The physical, emotional and energetic toll it took on their bodies, relationships and spirits was too depleting, and they exited the movement. That for me feels like a tremendous loss that our movement needs to fully acknowledge and then proactively address. We promote self-care and self-compassion to the populations we serve, but have we fully empowered our staff (or ourselves) to identify what self-care looks like for them? In the way we have organized our non-profits, have we created systems and policies that empower our staffs’ choices to define and continually re-define, boundaries and pre-requisites that will allow them to be sustainable? How many exhausted advocates were told at some point that perhaps they were “too sensitive” to do this work when the vicarious trauma became too much for them? What kind of support do we offer to our executive leadership and directors to instill them with the inner resources to not only manage their own wellness, but to also be skillful in the additional responsibility of holding space for the dynamics of their staff’s ongoing and emerging needs?

People come to this movement with incredible sensitivity, passion and commitment, and we owe it to them and to the survivors we serve to find creative ways to utilize, focus and harness that great spirit. We need to designate time and energy to determine how we can nourish that original spark for this movement so that people and organizations can be sustainable both professionally and personally. We need to show our employees and our colleagues that we value them not just as professionals, but as people whose short and long-term wellness matters to us deeply. We must acknowledge that the movement can only be strong if our advocates, our first responders who work countless long days and nights responding to crisis calls, and our leadership teams actually feel strong.

What needs to change within the model as it currently exists? If we could tear it down and re-build it from the ground up, what systems and solutions to issues of burn out, vicarious trauma and resource challenges could we develop? Who else can we bring in to this visioning to help us create a sustainable, healthy and empowering work environment? Let’s think outside of the sexual violence advocacy movement and draw from the insights and expertise of our healing arts practitioners. Let’s examine other social justice movements and seek out best practices in creating safe, inclusive and sustainable practices where people can thrive. Can we turn towards our artists communities and organizations and identify ways to be more creative and more innovative – in our thinking, in our programming, in the way we address this complex issue?

We cannot forget that many of the staff and volunteers that are drawn to this work are survivors too, who are working through the ebbs and flows of their own journey and experiencing very real triggers in the work. How do we make space for that reality and the precious possibility of their healing through activism, while also fulfilling our obligations to those we serve? It is past time to attend to our staff’s emotional, physical and spiritual needs with as much care, commitment, patience and flexibility as we do for our clients.

I think devoting more time to ourselves and our unique wellness needs both within and outside of the work space will allow our movement to continue to evolve and feel more deeply rooted within a system that emphasizes sustainability – for the organizations and for the people working within them. This isn’t a new insight by any measure – the advocacy community has been talking about this for years! Since the primary focus of The Breathe Network is to build resilience through embodied approaches to healing, we are uniquely situated to provide leadership and share expertise in this area. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a professional space that is dedicated to connecting survivors (including practitioners, advocates and activists) with trauma-informed, sliding-scale, holistic healing arts practitioners who will support them in feeling seen, valued, and ultimately, empowered.

TBN: If you could add one last take away piece of information to your presentation, one more insight you want people to consider, what might that be?

MBH: Trust yourself and your healing journey – whatever it may be that you are healing from in this moment. There is no “correct” timeline for healing other than the one that arises innately within you. Your process of healing is unique to the whole of who you are and all that you are, and if you can slow down enough, pay attention, be sensitive to yourself and truly listen to yourself, you will inherently be guided along a path that is right for you.

I don’t think survivors can hear this message enough because as much as we may want to complete the journey, or feel weary from the process, healing does not happen overnight. For some, healing may become a daily practice that lasts a lifetime. There are days we will feel less strong, or not strong at all, and that too is part of our healing. There are moments or phases where we will feel less connected to a future where we can envision ourselves actually thriving and the pressure to heal can feel overwhelmingly impossible. It is important that we are gentle and honest with ourselves in managing our healing, not just in the immediate aftermath of sexual trauma, but for as long as the healing requires.

We can benefit from surrounding ourselves with healers and communities who affirm us in following our intuitive decision making process regarding how we choose to heal and what the notion of healing means to us personally – as survivors. Only we can define what healing looks like and feels like in our own bodies, minds and spirits. If we can learn to recognize our central role within our own healing journey, we can harness our own powerful ability to carve out the path ahead in a way that feels meaningful to us, while also learning how to respond – and that we can respond – when there is an obstruction, a detour, a “set back” along the way. This self-created process of healing, however painfully we found ourselves upon it, can open us up to the greatest wonders of the human experience. Within the inner journey to heal, we can discover all that we are, and all that we can share, experience and savor in this lifetime. We can become, from the inside out, the heroes of our own stories. As survivors of sexual violence we can inspire anyone who struggles from the physical, emotional and psychic scars of living on Earth – in our choosing to live another day, in our efforts to reclaim and reaffirm our right to be here, in our truth telling of tragic yet transcendent stories, in our commitment and our capacity to thrive after trauma, and in our beautiful ability to embody the bountiful courage to heal.

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To learn more about The Breathe Network’s mission, vision and team that is dedicated to bringing holistic healing to survivors of sexual violence visit our About Us page. You can also read more here about how Molly found her way to this movement, the experiences that inspired her to create The Breathe Network and her work and approach as a trauma-sensitive yoga instructor with both individuals and groups.

If you would like to read the other practitioner interviews in this 4 part series, please see Part 1 with Lisa Erickson (energy healing and meditation), Part 2 with Zabie Khorakiwala (trauma-sensitive yoga) and Part 3 with Dr. Eugunie Pabst (biofeedback)

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