Supporting Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma with Yoga – Guest Post by Alexis Marbach


Supporting Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma with Yoga – Guest Post by Alexis Marbach

Supporting Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma with Yoga

Veteran’s Day is an annual call to pause and give gratitude for the individuals who serve our country. On this holiday we, as citizens, military families, and veterans often spend our time posting Facebook comments thanking people for their service, attending parades, and putting flags in front of our homes. We thank them for serving us, but we oftentimes neglect to turn inward and ponder ways to serve them and support their reintegration into civilian life, especially when their bravest moment as a military service member happens away from the battlefield.

For survivors of military sexual violence, one of the most courageous acts they may take is reporting their assault.

While they share many of the same experiences and challenges as civilians, survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) have unique obstacles to face in their path to seeking justice and healing. MST survivors may have to face their attacker on a daily basis if this person is in their unit or on their base. MST survivors have to report their assault to someone that controls their immediate health and safety, and oftentimes their overall career. That person most likely is not trained as a first responder to sexual assault survivors or as an advocate, and their initial reaction of doubt, disbelief, or disregard can be emotionally crippling. This person could also be their attacker, but with strict regulations and chains of command, the commanding officer could be the only identified person that could assist you in filing an official complaint. This commanding officer also determines the next step of the case and unsurprisingly, given this scenario, only a minority of complaints are filed.

NPR recently reported, “The Department of Defense estimates there are about 19,000 sexual assaults in the military per year. But according to the latest Pentagon statistics, only 1,108 troops filed for an investigation during the most recent yearly reporting period. In that same period, 575 cases were processed — and of those, just 96 went to court-martial.” Many cases are disregarded or are “handled” internally. On top of the potential military justice proceedings, an MST survivor could develop severe emotional symptoms (such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that could render them ‘unfit for duty’, setting off a chain of events where the survivor could be discharged without benefits. (For more information about military sexual assault, please read the most recent Center for American Progress report, “Twice Betrayed: Bringing Justice to the U.S. Military’s Sexual Assault Problem” available here.

With all of these issues, on top of the emotional and physical risks of being an active duty service member, receiving the support and care to facilitate a healing process can be an extraordinary challenge.

What I find more extraordinary than that challenge is the number of soldiers who have to fight this battle.

According to a recent piece in the New York Times, “There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints reported to the Defense Department in the first three quarters of the fiscal year, from October 2012 through June, a nearly 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.” This increase could be attributed to growing attention paid to the issue and more survivors feeling comfortable coming forward, or to enhanced support systems to those who choose to come forward. Regardless of the reasons that survivors come forward, we, as advocates and supporters for survivors of sexual assault have received a call to action to support these individuals in their healing process. They have come forward seeking justice and care, and we have an obligation to meet them where they are at, and offer trauma sensitive healing modalities. One such modality is a yoga practice.

Yoga offers a powerful healing modality, as it helps survivors of sexual violence to rebuild the ability to make safe and empowering choices and to have control over their own bodies. Yoga can help to re-establish trust in oneself as well as build healthy and supportive relationships with other students and teachers. Asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques) learned during class can help to mitigate the distress that a survivor could experience in their day-to-day lives. As Zabie Khorakiwala of Transcending Sexual Violence Through Yoga writes, “Yoga provides survivors with a means of becoming reacquainted with their bodies, helps them become grounded in the present moment, supports their ability to regain control of their body, reminds them that they have choices, and allows them to explore the benefits of mindfulness as they flow breath to movement in trauma-informed practice.” Yoga facilitates a process where survivors can learn to manage the symptoms of fight or flight brought on by the sympathetic nervous system and elicit the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Incorporating a philosophical element from the yoga sutras such as ahimsa, non-harming, can help a student contemplate ways to nurture and nourish themselves (on and off the mat!).

This Veteran’s Day, I encourage all teachers to investigate one way that they could make their classes more sensitive to a survivor of military sexual trauma. Taking on a trauma-sensitive class can be daunting, and demands a great deal of preparation and training, but slight adjustments to can help a survivor feel safe in the hour an a half that they spend with you. The following suggestions are informed by the work of David Emerson and his colleagues at The Trauma Institute in Brookline, MA. In their book, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, David and Elizabeth Hopper, Ph.D. and Stephen Cope, M.S.W. with an introduction by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. David and Jenn Turner also co-facilitate a semi-annual trauma-sensitive yoga training hosted at Kripalu. While these suggestions may help to guide your efforts, they are not meant to be a replacement for training or deeper self-study with experts in the yoga and trauma field. My goal is to help you “dip your toe into the water” of this work, and hopefully inspire you to take the work to the next level with additional training and study.

The following are 10 key considerations* you can begin to integrate today to make your class a trauma-sensitive space:

1. Use language of inquiry, exploration, curiosity and wonder.

2. Explain/provide options for breathwork.

3. Stay off a student’s mat – take a break from physical assists.

4. Be open to feedback, be safe, be predictable, and be consistent.

5. Establish safety by staying in one place in the room, using a level voice, and affirming that you are there to facilitate a student’s practice, not dictate it.

6. Consider the qualities of your practice space.

7. Considerations for student participation – everyone, regardless of physical ability or emotional clarity, is welcome.

8. Collaborate with yoga therapists and sexual assault advocates.

9. Assess your program – ask for feedback and be open to modifications.

10. Take care of you!

* Full descriptions of each of these recommendations are available here

In order to truly thank a Veteran on this day, reflect on the way that you could better support healing in your class-space and considering making these subtle, yet significant, changes today!

To learn more about Alexis Marbach, visit her practitioner page here or visit her personal website here. For inquiries about joining, training with or learning more about The Breathe Network, please contact us at