Molly Boeder Harris
“Molly Boeder Harris (she/her) is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, and a trauma-informed yoga teacher and trainer. Her own experiences surviving sexual trauma catalyzed her to enter the trauma healing field in 2003, beginning with her work as a medical and legal advocate with children and adult survivors, a campus violence prevention educator and as a yoga teacher specializing in working with survivors. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Studies and her Master’s Certificate in Women’s & Gender Studies, which inform the way she holds both individual and collective forms of trauma and oppression close together in her work. Over the last 2 decades of her career and healing trajectory, she has found that the practices which recognize the whole person – body, mind and soul – and which also honor the ways in which trauma and resilience manifest physiologically, offer the greatest possibility for embodied justice and social change.”
About Molly Boeder Harris
Over the last two decades, Molly 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, directed a campus Women’s Center, and immersed herself in practice and study of body-inclusive trauma resolution. In 2012, Molly founded The Breathe Network: Building Resilience through Embodied Approaches To Healing in order to connect survivors to resources and education about the many powerful healing modalities available – both traditional and modern – that can facilitate the transformation of trauma. She recognized a lack of trauma-conscious competency among many healing professionals and aimed to co-create education and training for practitioners to enhance their capacity to offer trauma-informed care for sexual trauma survivors. 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 and online. 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 participated in additional study with Dr. Levine specifically on the topics of sexual trauma resiliency and SE-informed approaches to teaching yoga. She weaves the methods and techniques of this complementary system of healing into her instruction of yoga for survivors of trauma, into the trainings she offers for rape crisis centers, and as a stand alone healing practice. Molly’s writing has been featured in Medium, Origin Magazine, Rachel Grant Coaching and Illumine Chicago Yoga Magazine, along with multiple essays in elephant journal. Molly curates and writes content for the Breathe Blog and her poetry and artwork was published by Healing is an Art. She has been interviewed by The West Coast Trauma Project, Clapp with Jane, and the Red Elephant Foundation about her journey of surviving sexual trauma to becoming an advocate, a trauma-focused healing practitioner, and later, founding The Breathe Network.
My own experiences of sexual trauma catalyzed me to seek out community, activism and later, my vocation, within the movement to end sexual violence. 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. I trained in Children’s Advocacy to work 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 guidance of Claire Mark and Patti Quintero. I taught yoga for my colleagues within the various Chicagoland rape crisis centers to provide my community a way of moving through the impacts of vicarious trauma and the re-wounding that occurs while working in this field as a survivor. I also began teaching trauma-informed yoga classes and privates. 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 somatic (body-inclusive) practices for healing trauma and the necessity to infuse the anti-sexual violence movement with a somatic lens and practices to bolster sustainability 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 a “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 trauma. 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 my 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 Breathe Network sponsored NSAC’s “Wellness and Self-Care Track” in 2013 and I facilitated a workshop called Embody to Empower exploring the transformative individual and collective healing possibilities of holistically addressing sexual trauma which is our mission and vision.
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 – that each survivor must intuitively, often through trial and error, discover and create a healing system that works for 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. In my experience, the reality is that the process of healing is an ongoing, lifelong practice that requires intentionality, consistency, endurance, and ongoing support.
Repeatedly, survivors tell me about the disconnect they feel from their body, and ultimately, from themselves on a core level. This can be the result of the imprints of the physiological state of freeze that we experience in the acute moment of trauma which can then become a patterned way of responding to threat and overwhelm. There is also the unconscious ways we adapt and cope with the intensity of somatic memory by distancing ourself from the body. Still, the body (and the multidirectional relationship between brain and body) remains undervalued in its ability to offer a map for healing, while also being a key resource for the restoration of empowerment. We often forget that the while body may remember trauma, it may also remember the nourishing experiences, sensations, emotions, and healing relationships that counterbalance our pain.
We live in a culture where we are not encouraged to acknowledge our pain nor follow where our pain may lead deep within our bodies, our psyches, and our souls. Many of us miss the resource that honoring own wounds might offer to us – which can include guiding us towards our inherent wisdom around how we survived as well as how we will heal. In attending to our inner landscape, we create the space to remember and reclaim our wholeness as more expansive than the traumatic events, circumstances, or systems enacted upon us. Survivors have already endured the terror of sexual trauma 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 trauma’s wake. In this space, they can also witness the wellspring of their internal strength.
Trauma-informed yoga and Somatic Experiencing are accessible ways 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 thrive in their lives when they can connect with healing modalities that are meaningful to them – whether that is through yoga, acupuncture, massage, movement, art, energy work, equine therapy, or psychotherapy, etc. All of these approaches can support the re-integration of the physical, mental, emotional, and energetic aspects of their being and build a greater sense of embodied safety. We can take the sense of agency, trust, and sovereignty we cultivate within our own bodies and mobilize it for greater healing, safety, and connection with the wider world around us.
I teach trauma-informed vinyasa, hatha yoga and yin yoga. I am intentional about infusing components of a trauma-informed, 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 connection within the self and beyond. Yoga can be an amazing healing practice for trauma survivors because in the right environment it is very self-directed and can change day to day, depending on a person’s physical, psychological and spiritual state. Many survivors describe a general sense of disconnection or dissociation from their body – some recall a part of themselves exiting their physical body during the trauma. The experience of numbing and the loss of bodily control are hallmarks of the nervous system being in a state of freeze. Freeze is a last ditch survival response rooted within our physiology and it creates a dissociative quality (along with many other non-conscious responses). While it can often feel alarming – exiting the body, paralysis, no ability to vocalize, etc. – freeze is an incredible, primal, survival method that allows our system to withstand the overwhelming nature of assault – physically, mentally, energetically and spiritually. It is an evolutionarily selected for way to survive a close encounter with death. Still, 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 your body, yet also, it opens the possibility for the body to be a place where we start to tap into a sense of joy, ease, or pleasure simply by experiencing how it feels to be fully alive within our 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 stimulus 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 being in a body.
Like healing, yoga is a lifelong practice, with ebbs and flows, breakthroughs and setbacks, highs and lows – all of which encompass the journey of self-discovery, compassion and awakening. Utilizing a person-specific combination of physical postures and movements, breathing exercises, and meditation or mindfulness techniques, one can discover, appreciate and reclaim the many layers of their own being. Yoga enables survivors to build a sense of comfort and ease within their own shape, to non-verbally process experiences that transcend language, and to experientially cultivate gratitude towards their body – all of these elements serve as reminders 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, as well it is a stand-alone healing and resiliency building practice and truly, a lifestyle. Studying SE has been pivotal in refining my lens and approach with survivors, while better resourcing me in my own ongoing healing. SE has equipped me to support survivors as they gently explore the imprints of trauma in their bodies, while still, as my teacher says, “keeping one foot in the here and now”. 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 practice moves gently and incrementally, so as to not overwhelm the nervous system, but rather, to intentionally build resilience and tolerance for trauma’s residue to show itself and be transformed. I completed over 300 hours of training in this method, as well as over 40 hours of case consultations and client supervision, to receive my certification as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP) in September of 2019. I continue to receive ongoing supervision and case consultation from seasoned mentors who are SEPs, LCSWs, and yoga teachers which better ensures the container I offer my clients has multiple layers of support around it.
How My Practice Holistically Addresses the Impacts of Sexual Trauma
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 for many survivors.
Yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques can effectively reduce the symptoms of rape trauma response (RTR), a form of post-traumatic stress, that includes symptoms and reactions experienced by most survivors during, immediately following, and for months, years or decades 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 nightmares, which can cause a host of physiological imbalances and challenges. 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 some of the symptoms or reactions that arise as a response to trauma. The practice and practices themselves, give us a space to learn how to work with our own physiology though waves of activation and settling – our bodies have direct access to a number of internal and external resources that can aid us more safely through a difficult moment.
Importantly, and most tangibly, the somatic practice of yoga allows survivors to develop healthy coping and grounding techniques that can disrupt flashbacks and re-establish stability at a body level. Since flashbacks may also happen due to perceived or real threats, this ability to track body sensation, which helps survivors access present reality, is an essential tool for self-care, independence and personal safety. Given the challenges that individuals must brave after surviving sexual trauma, 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”). It is important to note that no one “channel” is better or less than another – they all contribute to the whole that is our somatic experience. Additionally, SIBAM offers a range of entry points into our work, which enables survivors to tap into different aspects of their own embodied experience, to notice the unique ways in which their system has held trauma residue and all that it has survived, and also, to appreciate all the ways our being experiences and interacts with the world. SE values and privileges the organic intelligence within each and every one of us that informs and guides the work between the practitioner and client. It is always shared from a place of invitation, consent and empowerment. In a guided, contained and nonjudgmental space, 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 body into a key 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 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 – choosing other postures, alternate breathing techniques, ways to rest, and also, how to signal to me, verbally and nonverbally, 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 help shift bodily anxiousness, while longer held, supported postures can facilitate deep rest and a release of body/mind bracing through a lessening of muscular tension. 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 focus the mind, soothe their nervous system when they feel overwhelmed, or strengthen their physical body, whereas others may be more drawn to learning meditation, breathing exercises, or exploring yoga philosophy and texts. 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/hands on 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 and control within the experience of practicing together.
I am receptive and inviting of client feedback which allows me to adapt my approach. I can provide referrals for other healing modalities that might complement and enhance our work together, or, modalities that may better serve the survivor’s needs. I truly believe we are our own best teachers and I am attentive to hearing and responding to the unique needs of my students – only they can truly know their experience. I am passionate about yoga and SE as methods for transforming trauma, and yet I also recognize they are not the only methods. I have a strong referral network of other trauma-informed healers (acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, naturopathy, EMDR, equine-assisted therapy, psychotherapy, massage, and energy work) that I can recommend. Importantly, I am dedicated to nourishing my personal yoga and SE practices, and deepening my studies as both a student and practitioner by receiving ongoing mentorship and case consultation from my teachers.
As a trauma renegotiation practice, Somatic Experiencing was designed to meet the specific needs of the individual. SE offers me a variety of ways to work with people – whether through exploration of sensation, imagery, meaning-making, behavior or emotion – 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 foggy. We are working to strengthen and create more balance through those channels of experience. SE can involve touch for the purposes of grounding or stabilizing a person, however, touch is not necessary. When touch is applied, it is a very simple contact that only occurs with the client’s full consent and understanding that they can withdraw consent at any time.
Ultimately, SE is a collaborative practice, as I believe all healing should be. I am not directing the experience, rather, I am curious about, tracking, and following the signals of the survivor. My own nervous system stability offers a container for the complexities of their bodily biography to emerge. Importantly, I draw awareness and attention to the client’s noticing of their own inbuilt resources, capacity, and wisdom.
I maintain a number of sliding-scale spots within my practice for yoga and Somatic Experiencing clients, and when those spots are full, I can refer people to my colleagues who also offer a sliding-scale. Within my trauma-informed yoga trainings and workshops, I reserve full and partial scholarships for BIPOC yoga teachers.
Learn more about Molly’s work with yoga for 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 Can Yoga Really Help Us Heal Trauma? explores the ways in which yoga can be an integral component of learning to re-inhabit one’s body in the wake of trauma. Her essay, Freeze Leads to Survival, provides a more in-depth introduction to Somatic Experiencing theory and practice and why it can be of such great benefit for sexual trauma recovery.