Transcending the Trauma of Sexual Violence With Yoga

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Transcending the Trauma of Sexual Violence With Yoga

Sexual violence can impact every facet of a survivor’s life, including their physical, mental and spiritual health. Feminist philosopher Ann Cahill, PhD captures the pervasive, embodied nature of the trauma of rape in her book Rethinking Rape, explaining:

“As a traumatic, violent, embodied experience, rape does not merely attack the victim’s sexuality, or her sense of safety, or her physical being. It does all of this, and more. It cannot be assumed that there is one aspect of that person’s being that is untouched by the experience of rape. There is no pristine, untouched corner to which to retreat…the extent of the rapist’s influence is broad, but not infinite…the self that emerges from the process of healing will always be qualitatively and profoundly different from the self that existed prior to the assault. To know oneself as raped, is to become a different self.”

Healing after sexual assault requires intentionality, consistency and patience. The challenge of swimming against unexpected waves of physical, emotional and spiritual disturbance, combined with a cultural expectation that time heals all wounds, can leave survivors feeling disconnected from themselves and others, and unable to trust their ability to manage their inner experience. The nonlinear and often lifelong process that begets healing can cause survivors to question their own capacity for recovery.

Transcending the Trauma of Sexual Violence with Yoga

Yoga provides an accessible, personalized practice that can engage survivors in safely processing sensation and sustain them through multiple, ongoing stages of healing. Like healing, yoga is a lifelong practice, with ebbs and flows, breakthroughs and setbacks – all equally valuable and necessary. For a sexual assault survivor, an intentional yoga practice provides an accessible and self-directed space that serves to reintegrate their body, mind and spirit. As survivors explore layers of their being and allow sensation to gently emerge, pain and suffering can be alleviated. Simultaneously, more space becomes available for encountering the awesome experience of being alive. Yoga allows survivors to incrementally 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 these benefits serve as tangible reminders of one’s innate resilience.

In practicing yoga, we link movement with breath and a presence of mind, inviting an inner quieting and a release of tension that fosters expansion from the inside moving outwards. Yoga as a physical practice, scaffolded by an intellectual and spiritual philosophy, creates a unique environment where survivors can explore their internal environment – sensation, patterns, blockages, etc. – with inquisitiveness. It is here they can develop fresh attitudes that allow for compassionate responses to all that they might discover. This often begins in the body – making a conscious choice to adjust one’s position in a pose to make it more tolerable, or more pleasurable – which includes occasionally backing out of the pose completely and trying something totally different. There is a metaphor here that translates into how we approach our mental, emotional and spiritual states throughout our recovery – more sensitivity, curiosity and flexibility. The feedback of the body becomes a map that guides and informs our yoga and our healing journey.

Honoring the body as a sacred space after surviving the violation of sexual assault demands tremendous and consistent effort, but the integrated healing it provides remains unparalleled. Particularly meaningful for survivors is the way in which yoga allows for and can facilitate the radical transformation of one’s relationship to their body. In the throes of a traumatic event, and often for years or decades after, the body can feel like an enemy. We may feel like we are being held hostage within our own shape. It no longer feels like our own. Yet, through yoga (or other embodied practices) we get our bodies back! We become fluent in the language of our own physiology. We recognize the way the systems of our organism conspired for our survival. In time, the body is no longer frozen, no longer a container of fear and tension, but in fact, a powerful, highly intelligent and highly sensitive tool to move us both through and beyond the memory of the deepest manifestations of pain.

The belief that humans (and animals) contain an innate healing capacity – accessed through the body – is a guiding methodology in contemporary trauma treatment. Dr. Peter Levine, the creator of a body-inclusive, naturalistic approach to trauma called Somatic Experiencing (SE), describes how our “instincts to heal [and] self-regulate [are] engaged through the awareness of body sensations that contradict those of paralysis and helplessness, and which restore resilience, equilibrium and wholeness.” Levine’s method, which focuses on nervous system regulation and rebalancing “returns a sense of aliveness, relaxation and wholeness to traumatized individuals who have had these precious gifts taken away.” Pat Ogden, another trauma expert and founder of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, describes the concept of mindfulness, an integral part of her body-based psychotherapy practice, as “a state of consciousness in which one’s awareness is directed toward here-and-now internal experience, with the intention of simply observing rather than changing [the] experience.” With this body/mind oriented technique, Ogden eventually encourages individuals to “come out of a dissociated state and future or past-centered ideation and experience the present moment through the body” enabling a sense of rooting within their own shape. This gentle approach to embodied presence enables trauma survivors the possibility of self-regulation, reduces anxiety and opens up the own power to make choices.

Since sexual violence changes, and quite often damages a survivor’s connection with their body, such body-based therapeutic practices are invaluable. Discussing the layered impacts of trauma, which can both heighten negative sensations and hinder the ability to tolerate positive sensations, Pat Ogden describes how “fully experiencing sensations may be disconcerting or frightening, as intense physical experience may evoke feelings of being out of control or weak and helpless. On the other hand, traumatized individuals are often dissociated from body sensation, experiencing the body as numb or anesthetized.” Ogden’s holistic system brings “the body experience into the foreground” and offers the possibility for profound healing. The essential threads within these innovative and effective techniques, including body awareness, examining internal movement of feeling and sensation, practicing presence and bearing witness to one’s experience without judgment are vital qualities for survivors of sexual violence that may be experientially tapped though an intentional yoga practice.

A yoga practice that includes a range of physical postures and movements, breathing exercises and meditation can effectively reduce the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS), a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that was identified by Ann Wolbert Burgess and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom in 1974. RTS includes a wide range of symptoms and reactions experienced by many survivors during, immediately following, and for months or years after the assault. RTS can involve psychological, physical, behavioral, cognitive, and interpersonal disruptions including headaches, anxiety, inability to concentrate, chronic pain, sleeplessness, lethargy, anger, depression, mood irregularity, spiritual disconnection, hopelessness, fear/avoidance of intimacy, immune system challenges, disordered eating, self-injury and substance abuse. Survivors are challenged to navigate the external world amidst their own unpredictable internal landscape which may include hyper-arousal, numbness, hopelessness, paralyzing fear, intrusive images and vivid nightmares, causing a host of energetic imbalances while also disrupting many of the natural rhythms of the body.

Survivors may experience flashbacks upon some sort of sensory trigger in which they feel as if the assault is happening all over again. The physical and emotional responses to a trigger can be quite visceral, if not debilitating. We may find ourselves triggered during our yoga practice, which may also be a powerful place to utilize the tools we’ve developed through the practice and perhaps with the assistance of a highly attuned teacher, in order to ground, soothe and re-orient ourselves back into the here and now. As an embodied practice, yoga allows survivors to develop healthy coping mechanisms and orienting techniques that can disrupt a flashback and re-establish stability. This can be through movement, breath or perhaps guided imagery or affirming statements we say in our minds or aloud. Flashbacks may be catalyzed due to perceived or real threats, therefore the ability to track sensation, which helps survivors stay in the present reality and access their ability to take effective action – rather than reacting as if the past trauma were still occurring – becomes an essential tool to self-care, independence and personal safety.

Given the social, emotional, psychic, relational and personal challenges that individuals must brave after surviving sexual assault, it is clear that a comprehensive yoga practice involving organic movement, exploring sensation, intentional breathing and deep rest can enhance healing.

A survivor can benefit from the internal cleansing and liberating feeling of a vigorous vinyasa practice, as well as the profound comfort and spaciousness that accompanies a yin sequence. Since there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach to practicing yoga, survivors are able to explore and identify a style, a setting and a teacher that resonates for them. This is also part of the amazing journey to become closely attuned to one’s own changing nature. Depending on their needs, abilities and preferences, at any given point, the yoga practice can be tailored to a survivor’s sense of what will best support their process. How this looks may be dramatically different from one survivor to the next, or even from one day to the next. It is essential that we do not assume that someone who has survived trauma may be automatically triggered by a dynamic Ashtanga practice, nor that a restorative practice would be inherently soothing. It may in fact be quite the opposite! How we embark on a yoga practice (like our healing) has a lot to do with our unique physiology and may require some trial and error to find a practice that serves us – for today. This is another place we can develop our ability to listen within and follow our own internal compass.

Importantly, through the ancient and intrinsically holistic practice of yoga, survivors can channel the movements of their mind towards the act of discovering their true selves , their strength and their unchanging nature inside. Counter to the feeling of brokenness some survivors may experience, or feeling fragmented from within – yoga recognizes and offers us a system to experience our innate wholeness. This self-awareness is available to us through the eight limbs of yoga and can be tapped via the many forms and styles of yoga. Searching for a practice that serves us may take time, yet it is a worthy investment of our energy. It is something we necessarily have to discover on our own – what is healing, what is resourcing, what liberates us from the confines of our story, what exists beyond the trauma? The work of transcending the trauma of sexual violence with yoga becomes a practice that not only nourishes healing during the most difficult times, but also sustains and magnifies the gift of empowerment that the survivor may continually receive through dedicated practice.

When the poet Adrienne Rich wrote about the healing power of poetry, she described what to me feels like the mysterious and boundless gifts that yoga, like poetry or art, can bring into a survivor’s life:

“It has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, and remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”

At some core level we are all survivors of trauma, whether the shock and grief that comes from being assaulted, the terror of an accident, or the loss of a loved one. We carry with us the stories, sensations and scars – both visible and invisible – of the complex and most trying experiences of life. Some of those scars are still quite tender, yet the interconnecting systems of our body continue to repair these injuries both consciously and unconsciously. We learn how to remember that when our pain surfaces again, which it will, and we start to question our own resilience: there is no timeline for healing and our breakdowns are as much a part of the healing process as are our breakthroughs. The insights we gain in attending to our oldest wounds, can ultimately serve to enliven new and beautiful journeys in our relationships and within the everyday fabric of our lives. As we each trek along our unique path of recovery and growth, let us offer gratitude for the exquisite opportunity to discover our own sense of embodiment, feeling into the sensations held within our shape, tapping the innate resource of our own presence on this planet – the preciously simple and simultaneously profound offering that the practice of yoga returns to us one breath at a time.

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Transcending the Trauma of Sexual Violence With Yoga was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network and a trauma-informed yoga instructor in Portland, Oregon. Visit her practitioner page to learn about the path that lead her to create The Breathe Network, her work teaching trauma-informed yoga and her journey to become a Somatic Experiencing practitioner who synthesizes yoga and SE for holistic trauma resolution and support. 

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