Molly Boeder Harris
“Molly Boeder Harris’s role in the movement to end sexual violence and explore holistic healing modalities began in 2003. Initially, she served as a volunteer advocate for sexual assault survivors in 2006, and within a year, started working professionally as a Medical and Legal Advocate. In 2008, she trained specifically in child sexual abuse and advocacy to serve as a Children’s Bilingual (English + Spanish) Advocate. During this time, she also earned her 200-hour yoga certification with YogaWorks in Los Angeles and instructed yoga to colleagues at rape crisis centers to promote sustainability and self-care. Soon thereafter, she began teaching trauma-informed yoga for survivors of sexual violence. Ultimately, the combination of her personal and professional experiences inspired her to create The Breathe Network where her passions for anti-violence advocacy, holistic healing and trauma resilience have naturally aligned.”
About Molly Boeder Harris
Over the last decade, Molly Boeder Harris has worked in community-based rape crisis centers as a medical and legal advocate, provided crisis support and prevention education for students on college campuses, and directed a campus Women’s Center. Molly feels especially drawn to and inspired by the work to connect survivors to support systems that facilitate sustainable healing and embodiment after trauma. In 2012, Molly founded The Breathe Network: Building Resilience through Embodied Approaches To Healing in order to connect survivors to resources and information about the many powerful healing arts modalities that facilitate the transformation of trauma. She also wanted to build a network that would provide education and training for healing arts practitioners to can enhance their capacity to offer trauma-informed care. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Studies and a Master’s Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. Molly is also a certified yoga instructor offering public classes and private trauma-informed yoga instruction in Portland, Oregon. She teaches experiential workshops for groups and organizations across the United States and Canada focused on the benefits of healing trauma through yoga and facilitates trauma-informed teacher trainings for yoga instructors seeking to enhance their skills in teaching with a trauma-informed lens.
In 2015, Molly began her 3-year training in Somatic Experiencing®, a naturalistic and revolutionary trauma resolution method designed by Dr. Peter Levine. She has completed over 250 hours of training in pursuit of her SEP certification. She weaves the methods and techniques of this complementary system of healing into her instruction of yoga for survivors of trauma. Molly’s work and writing has been featured in Origin Magazine, Mommy Mystic, Life Potentials Net Blog Talk Radio and Illumine Chicago Yoga Magazine. She has had multiple essays published in elephant journal exploring the themes of trauma, sexual violence, holistic healing arts and resilience. Molly curates and writes the content for the Breathe Blog and has also had her poetry and artwork published with Healing is an Art. Most recently, she was interviewed by The West Coast Trauma Project and the Red Elephant Foundation about her journey from being sexually assaulted to becoming a trauma-informed yoga instructor and later, founding The Breathe Network.
My role in the movement to end sexual violence and explore holistic healing arts as tools for trauma recovery began in 2003 after surviving being raped while living abroad. Initially, I served as a volunteer medical advocate for sexual violence survivors, and within a year, I started working professionally as a full time Medical and Legal Advocate. In 2008, I trained in Children’s Advocacy to serve as a Children’s Bilingual Medical & Legal Advocate with Rape Victim Advocates in Chicago. During this time, I also earned my 200-hour certification as a yoga instructor with YogaWorks in Los Angeles under the expertise of Claire Mark and Patti Quintero. I instructed yoga for my colleagues within the various Chicagoland rape crisis centers to promote sustainability and self-care for those who are often impacted by vicarious trauma or the re-wounding that can occur while working in this field as a survivor. I also began to intentionally teach trauma-informed yoga classes for survivors. I completed my Master’s degree in International Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies with an emphasis in transnational feminism, exploring the relationship between anti-violence activism and embodiment. My Master’s thesis highlighted the importance of body-inclusive practices for healing trauma and the necessity to infuse the anti-sexual violence movement with more of these holistic practices to bring about sustainable healing for survivors and advocates alike.
For 3 years, I worked on colleges campuses addressing the epidemic of campus sexual violence – offering prevention education programming that emphasized consent and sexual health, crisis intervention services, and experiential workshops exploring trauma resilience, survivor activism and embodied approaches to healing – including my “Yoga for Survivors” series and “Navigating Sexuality and Intimacy After Sexual Abuse” workshop. In addition to offering public yoga classes, I teach specific classes for survivors to address the physical, emotional and spiritual impacts of sexual violence. I offer private instruction for students who seek a more personalized practice or perhaps a more confidential space. In 2010, I presented my findings on the benefits of yoga as a transformational way to address, reduce and resolve the symptoms of Rape Trauma Response at the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego, CA. I also shared this work and was invited to teach trauma-informed yoga classes for conference participants at the Sexual Violence Research Institute Forum in Cape Town, South Africa that same year. In 2012, I presented on the benefits of integrating trauma-informed yoga into traditional rape crisis response services at the National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) in Chicago. The following year, The Breathe Network sponsored NSAC’s “Wellness and Self-Care Track,” and I facilitated a workshop called Embody to Empower exploring the necessity to address sexual violence and trauma in a holistic way. This workshop demonstrated how a variety of different healing arts modalities can effectively address post-traumatic stress and trauma’s associated impacts, and the possibilities for integrated healing that mind-body-spirit oriented practices offer to survivors and members of our movement.
My Interest in Working with Survivors
I realized through my own unique process of navigating trauma and the way in which it pervaded every aspect of my life – personally, professionally, relationally and spiritually – that each survivor must intuitively, often through trial and error, discover and create a healing system that works for them and their individual experience. The nonlinear and often lifelong process that begets healing can cause many survivors to question their own capacity for resilience in a world that communicates an arbitrary timeline for how long we are allowed to grieve loss. In my experience, the reality is that the process of healing is an ongoing, lifelong practice that requires intentionality, consistency and endurance. Repeatedly, survivors tell me about the disconnect they feel from their body, and ultimately, from themselves on a core level. The body (and the mind-body-spirit connection) remains undervalued in its ability to facilitate integrated healing and whole being empowerment. Understandably, many survivors seek coping mechanisms to numb or distort their physical, emotional or spiritual reality because they have not had access to holistic resources that can adequately support them in the nuanced process of recovery.
We live in a culture where we are not encouraged to explore our pain, follow our pain, nor allow the wounds of these experiences to point towards our inherent wisdom and our innate wholeness. Survivors have already endured the terror of sexual violence and undoubtedly have the ability to travel to great depths within themselves where they can examine the residual feeling, emotion, sensation and stagnation that has been left in the wake of the trauma. In this space, they will also witness the wellspring of their internal strength. Yoga can be a safe and accessible way to utilize the body – the primary site of the trauma and all that it holds within – as a powerful vehicle for transformation. I believe that all survivors have the capacity to heal and truly thrive in their lives when they can connect with healing modalities that are meaningful to them – whether that is through yoga, acupuncture, massage, energy work, equine therapy or psychotherapy. All of these approaches can support the re-integration of the physical, mental, emotional and energetic aspects of their being and their return to balance.
I teach alignment-based vinyasa yoga, trauma-informed yoga, as well as yin and restorative yoga, although I am intentional about infusing components of a trauma-informed and survivor-inclusive lens within all of my yoga classes. Yoga involves a combination of physical movements that increase strength and flexibility in the body, breathing exercises that promote internal movement of energy and sensation while also enhancing and directing one’s focus, and meditation techniques that help to quiet the mind and calm the body, allowing for greater union within the self and beyond. Yoga is an amazing tool for trauma survivors because in the right environment it is very self-directed and can change day to day, depending on how a person is feeling. Many survivors describe a general sense of disconnection or dissociation from their body and some recalling a part of themselves exit their physical body during the violence. The experience of numbing and lack of control of one’s body comes when the nervous system enters into freeze. Freeze is a last ditch survival response rooted within our physiology and it creates a dissociative quality (along with other uncontrollable responses) that many survivors report as part of the assault. While it can often feel alarming – exiting the body, paralysis, no ability to vocalize, etc. is an incredible, primal, survival method that allows our system to withstand the overwhelming nature of assault – physically, mentally, energetically and spiritually. However, this separation or distance from our bodies, our breath, our sense of our own spirit, may over time, create barriers to our healing if we cannot find a way to rejoin with ourself on a fundamental level. Therefore, re-connecting with our own shape is crucial, as is having myriad ways to address all the different aspects of our healing be they psychological, somatic, or perhaps more subtle.
Yoga is not only a method for moving trauma through you, but also a place where eventually a survivor might start to tap into a sense of joy, ease, or pleasure just by experiencing how it feels to be fully alive within their own body again. This is so important because for many survivors it is not just negative feelings that can trigger post-traumatic stress reactions, but pleasurable sensations too – any type of sensation or stimulation can feel overwhelming or frightening, and yoga offers a supportive place to work with, and perhaps through, all of that over time. Additionally, I strive to support people in working with trauma at pace that is tolerable for their individual experience, constitution and strengths. In a sense, yoga allows the practitioner to learn how to feel deeply within themselves while trusting they can hold the immensity of the subtle and simultaneously profound experiences of embodiment.
Like healing, yoga is a lifelong practice, with ebbs and flows, breakthroughs and setbacks – all equally valuable and necessary, and all part of the journey of self-discovery, compassion and awakening. Utilizing the right combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques, one can explore many layers of their being. When applied in a therapeutic and intentional way, we may more safely invite sensation to emerge, pain and suffering may be alleviated, and more space may be created inside for encountering the awesome experience of simply being alive. Yoga allows survivors to regain a sense of comfort and ease within their own shape, to non-verbally process feelings that transcend language, and to experientially cultivate gratitude towards the body – all of which serve as an essential reminder of one’s resilience.
My training in Somatic Experiencing® (SE) has given me a wealth of new tools that naturally complement the work of healing trauma through yoga. Studying SE has been pivotal in refining my lens and approach with survivors, not to mention, it has enabled me to continue to work with and restore that within me which remains wounded. It has fortified my capacity to hold a safe and solid container for my clients while sensation, emotion, movement and insights surface, and are gently released. SE has equipped me to support survivors as they explore lingering trauma content while still, as my teacher says, “keeping one foot in the present moment”. This way of working with people reduces the likelihood of re-traumatization in the healing work and increases the possibility for unresolved or incomplete physiological processes to move through and out of their system. The work of healing trauma through Somatic Experiencing is done incrementally, so as to not overwhelm the nervous system, but rather, to gently build resilience and tolerance for trauma’s residue to show itself and be transformed. I have completed over 250 hours of training in this method, as well as additional hours of supervision, and will finish my Advanced Year of training in December of 2017 which allows me to pursue formal certification as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP).
How My Practice Holistically Addresses the Impacts of Sexual Violence
In practicing yoga, we link movement with breath and a presence of mind, offering a welcome inner quieting and release of tension that fosters expansion on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual/energetic level. Yoga creates a unique environment where survivors can explore inside themselves with a sense of kindness and inquisitiveness, as well as develop attitudes that allow for compassionate responses to challenges or difficulties they experience in their bodies and lives. An intrinsic part of the yoga practice includes honoring the body as a sacred space, and after surviving sexual violence, this practice demands tremendous and consistent effort, yet the integrated healing it provides remains unparalleled.
Yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques can effectively reduce the symptoms of rape trauma response (RTR), a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that includes symptoms and reactions experienced by most survivors during, immediately following, and for months or years after the assault. Rape trauma response 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 amid challenges such as hyper-arousal, numbness, and recurring vivid nightmares, which can cause 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. Through movement, breath and meditation, survivors can counterbalance many of the symptoms or reactions that can come up or perhaps feel stuck, and within the space of the practice can start to see symptoms as important messages from the body-mind-spirit, calling our attention to the places inside us that may still require or are now ready for a deeper level of healing.
Importantly, and most tangibly, the embodied practice of yoga allows survivors to develop healthy coping and grounding techniques that can disrupt flashbacks and re-establish 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, a comprehensive yoga practice involving organic movement, exploring sensation, intentional breathing, and deep rest can powerfully aid their healing. As there is no one response to being sexually assaulted, there too is no one way in which we heal and therefore the way a survivor engages in their yoga practice may vary dramatically. Some survivors benefit from the internal cleansing and liberating feeling of a fluid vinyasa practice, or alternately, they may seek out the profound comfort and spaciousness that accompanies a yin yoga practice. They may desire both. The yoga practice can be specifically tailored and is easily adapted to support and enhance a survivor’s needs, their sense of embodiment, integration and inner peace.
As a deeply personalized and holistic method of naturally resolving trauma, Somatic Experiencing is ideal for working with the trauma of sexual violence. The method incorporates a blend of working with a variety of channels of experience, including sensation, imagery, behavior, affect and meaning-making (SE refers to this as “SIBAM”). This range of entry points into the work allows survivors to tap into different aspects of their own experience and the unique ways in which their system has held the trauma residue. SE values and privileges the organic knowing within each and every one of us that informs and guides the work among the practitioner and the client. It is invitational, exploratory and gentle. In a guided, contained and nonjudgmental container, a person can more safely face and release beliefs, emotions, patterns of physical posturing and sensations that are blocking the natural flow of their own healing energy, transforming their total organism into an invaluable ally in healing.
Both yoga and Somatic Experiencing enable us to recognize that the body can be an amazing teacher, communicating with us through symptoms and calling us into the present moment to notice what is showing up and what needs our care. These practices allow survivors to cultivate the inner resources and tools that allow them to trust they can tolerate and transform challenges that arise. Through this work, they can build a sense of embodied justice from within, literally re-building a body, a nervous system and a spirit that has the capacity to hold their deepest losses alongside their greatest joys.
Essentially, every aspect of our work together is modified to suit your specific needs and comfort. This is a best practice in teaching yoga as well as a best practice in healing trauma. I work slowly and collaboratively with students so that the practice feels accessible, flexible, and that they are clear that they are always in control of the experience. The practice of yoga and SE can be a space to learn how to expand ways of managing sensation, painful and pleasurable, and to re-establish a sense of control – which includes ongoing communication between the instructor and the student. We utilize the techniques within the yoga practice, whether through the body, the breath, or the mind, as a way to establish a sense of presence within one’s immediate experience of the here and now. Within SE, we are using the present felt experience, images, thoughts and behaviors to continue coming back to the present moment in a way that is tolerable for the nervous system.
When I am teaching yoga, I am intentional about communicating up front and continuously, that the practice, the pace and in yoga, even the postures themselves, are invitations and not directives. If something starts to feel overwhelming during our time together, the student is clear about their many options – other postures, alternate breathing techniques, ways to rest, and how to signal to me, with words or other ways, that something in their experience needs attention or modification. Truly, a real sense of options, and ongoing encouragement to explore them in a way that makes sense and feels accessible to the student is essential in any kind of yoga class – whether or not we are intentionally teaching survivors. When I work one on one with a survivor, we can gauge together what is the proper balance of movement, breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation from practice to practice. Fluid and dynamic movement can churn stagnant energy through the body, while restorative and yin postures can facilitate deep relaxation and letting go through longer time spent in each posture and less muscular effort. The balance of effort and rest is unique to each person’s system and is not static. Some students may have a particular interest in movements or poses that can quiet the mind, calm the nervous system, or build internal heat, whereas others may be more drawn to learning meditation, breathing exercises or exploring yoga philosophy. There is space for all of this within the practice.
With the student’s participation, we can assess on an ongoing basis the student’s needs, which may change over time, such as frequency of meeting, space/physical location of where the class takes place, adjustments/physical assists in the poses, emphasizing or prioritizing physical movement, breathing exercises and meditation, etc. I will continually check in with the student within the class session and throughout our time working together to ensure they feel a sense of safety, control and comfort within the experience of practicing together. I can also adapt to unanticipated needs and requests of the survivor that would depend on their unique experience and who they are as individuals.
I am always receptive and welcoming of feedback, to modifying and changing my approach, to providing referrals for other healing arts modalities that might complement and enhance our work together, or modalities that may even better serve the survivor’s unique needs. I truly believe we are our own best teachers and I am attentive to and invested in hearing and responding to the unique needs of my students – only they can truly know their experience. I am passionate about yoga as a method for transforming trauma, and yet I also recognize it is not the only method. I have a strong referral network of other healers (acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, naturopathy, EMDR, equine-assisted therapy, psychotherapy, massage and energy work) that I can recommend as an alternate healing practice. Importantly, I am dedicated to nourishing my personal yoga practice and deepening my yoga studies as both a student and instructor by receiving ongoing mentorship and consulting from my teacher – which ultimately serves the individuals with whom I work.
What is particularly special about Somatic Experiencing (SE) is that it is a practice that is designed to specifically meet the needs of the individual. SE affords me a variety of ways to work with people, whether through exploration of sensation, imagery, meaning-making, behavior or emotion, always with a keen awareness of tracking how the person is experiencing their present time reality through these different channels. Some of us can clearly connect with sensation but have a harder time with imagery. Or perhaps we have done a lot of meaning-making of our experience yet our capacity to sense inside feels blurry. We are working to strengthen and create more balance through those channels of experience. It can involve touch for the purposes of grounding or stabilizing a person, however, touch is not necessary and when it is applied, it is most likely a very simple contact. SE is a collaborative healing practice. I am not directing the experience, rather, I am curious about, tracking and following the signals of the person I am with. I offer a solid container for the complexities of their history that may want to emerge or complete, and importantly, I am there to draw greater awareness and attention to their noticing of their own inbuilt resources. I can offer SE sessions over Skype which creates more accessibility.
I am able to offer sliding-scale yoga instruction and Somatic Experiencing sessions.
Learn more about Molly’s philosophy of holistic healing and the importance of addressing the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and energetic impacts of sexual trauma in her essay Transcending the Trauma of Sexual Violence with Yoga. Her essay Remembrance and Resilience through Yoga explores the insights about healing after sexual assault that have arisen through her deepening journey into the holistic practice of yoga.