Molly Boeder Harris
Over the last two decades, 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, 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 health and healing professionals and aimed to co-create education and training for practitioners to enhance their capacity to offer trauma-informed care for survivors. As a certified yoga instructor, Molly offers private, semi-private and group 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.
Molly is also trained as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner®, 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 as well as SE-informed approaches to teaching yoga. She weaves the philosophy and methodology of this complementary system of healing within her teaching, the trainings she offers for rape crisis centers and trauma healing centers, as a stand alone, healing practice. SE gives her a framework and a resource for how she navigates her daily life as a survivor, partner, colleague, and mother. She maintains close involvement with Somatic Experiencing International as the training coordinator for the Portland, Oregon training cohorts where she has also had the honor to guest teach about the intersection of sexual trauma and Somatic Experiencing.
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. 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 only national nonprofit organization with a central focus to support sexual trauma survivors in their healing.
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.
My yoga teaching focuses on 3 of the 8 limbs of yoga: asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), and dhyana (meditation) involving a combination of physical movements that increase strength and flexibility, 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 bring ease toward the body. Together, these practices allow for greater connection with oneself and the surrounding world. Yoga can be an amazing healing practice for trauma survivors because in the right environment it is 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 from their body and feelings of overwhelm when they try to connect with sensation. The experience of numbing or immobility is the hallmark of the nervous system being in a state of freeze. Freeze is a last ditch survival response rooted within our physiology which due to the flooding of specific hormones, creates a dissociative quality (along with many other non-conscious responses). While it can often feel alarming – exiting the body, temporary paralysis, no ability to vocalize, etc. – freeze is an incredible, primal, survival method that allows our being to withstand the shattering nature of sexual assault. 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. 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 spiritual.
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 shape. This is 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 learn how to hold all of that over time. Yoga allows survivors 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. I am committed to supporting people in exploring the somatic practice of yoga at a pace that is tolerable for their specific experience, constitution, and strengths. This is fundamental to trauma-informed yoga.
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. For me, it is a relational, holistic, healing philosophy that I choose to infuse within every area of my personal and professional life. Studying SE has been pivotal in refining my lens and approach with survivors and my colleagues, 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 nervous system. The practice moves gently and incrementally, so as to not overwhelm the nervous system which would otherwise recreate the conditions of trauma, but rather, to intentionally build resilience and tolerance for trauma’s residue to show itself and be metabolized. I completed over 300 hours of training in this method, as well as over 40 hours of case consultations and client supervision in order 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 including Somatic Experiencing Practitioners, bodyworkers, and yoga teachers which better ensures the container I offer my clients has multiple layers of support around it as I have multiple layers of support around me.
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 working one-on-one with survivors. My primary teacher, influence, and mentor in how I integrate yoga within my teaching and personal life is Kristin Laak whose practice is based in Sebastopol, California and who is a student of Dr. Shankaranarayana Jois. 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 (of the body) practices for healing trauma and the necessity to infuse the anti-sexual violence movement with somatic practices to bolster survivor/advocate sustainability and increase the integrity of how we show up for this work.
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.
In addition to public yoga classes, I teach classes for survivors to address the physical, psychological, and spiritual impacts of sexual trauma. I offer private instruction for those who seek a more personalized practice or perhaps a more confidential space. In 2010, I first presented my findings on the benefits of yoga as a transformational way to address, reduce, and resolve the symptoms of Rape Trauma Response (RTR) 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 following year, The Breathe Network sponsored NSAC’s “Wellness and Self-Care Track” where I facilitated a workshop called Embody to Empower exploring the transformative individual and collective healing possibilities of holistically addressing sexual trauma. I continue to present and keynote at state and national conferences on the topics of Somatic Experiencing, trauma-informed care, holistic sexual assault recovery, embodied justice, and transforming trauma.
I am passionate about creating training material to educate health and healing professionals on the social context and individual complexities of sexual trauma to create a more upstream-oriented impact on survivors’ lives. In the last few years, I have designed the curriculum and curated all of the content for two courses offered by The Breathe Network, including Embodied Healing: Trauma-Informed Yoga and Meditation for Sexual Assault Survivors and Healing Sexual Trauma: A Professional Training in Trauma-Informed Care. I am in the midst of completing the design and recording our newest and most comprehensive professional training, Holding A Healing Space, which will launch in the winter of 2021. Like much of our work at The Breathe Network, these trainings are unconventional and necessary. It is through our relational and embodied way of teaching about the impacts of sexual trauma and best practices in holding healing spaces as providers within these courses that we are shifting the way our culture responds to the trauma of sexual violence and expanding the pathways and opportunities for whole-person healing.
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 create a flexible map of healing that supports 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 sources of 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 imprint of the physiological state of freeze that survivors 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 survivors adapt and cope with the intensity of somatic memory by distancing themselves from the body. Our body (and the multidirectional relationship between our brain and body) is integral within trauma healing, as well, re-establishing a relationship with our body is a key resource for the restoration of empowerment. In our conversations about how the body stores trauma, we tend to underestimate how our bodies also archive the nourishing experiences, sensations, emotions, and relationships which can ultimately counterbalance and transform how we experience the pain of trauma.
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 have the capacity 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 engage the body – the primary site of the trauma and all that it holds within – as a powerful resource 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, dance, art, energy work, equine therapy, or psychotherapy, etc. All of these approaches can support the integration of the physical, psychological, emotional, and energetic aspects of their being and build a greater sense of embodied safety. We can then take the sense of agency, trust, and sovereignty we cultivate within our own bodies and mobilize it in service of creating more healing, safety, belonging, and interconnection in the world around us.
My Approach to Trauma-Informed Care
For me, a trauma-informed approach to care is an approach that centers safety. The healing that unfolds through the modality is the result of having taken the time to establish a foundation of embodied and relational safety with my clients. It takes time to build therapeutic trust. I will be in a place of trust building with a client in an ongoing manner. I prioritize embodied and informed consent, choice, agency, and collaboration in my work which serve as a counterbalance to the experiences of trauma. Supporting the client in developing their own somatic vocabulary to observe and describe their experience is an integral part of my practice. This can be an essential tool in beginning to feel more embodied, access grounding resources, notice and attend to activation, and increase their capacity to communicate with me (and others) about their experience. In sessions I am also tracking my own physiology and making micro-adjustments as needed to be in a space of presence and ease with my clients, and outside of sessions, I seek regular consultation from seasoned clinicians to create an extra container of support around me and my clients. Woven together, these elements create a framework that allows me to hold a strong and flexible container for my clients.
How My Practice Holistically Addresses the Impacts of Sexual Trauma
In yoga, we have the opportunity to link movement with breath through the focused relationship of mind and body. This synthesis offers an inner quieting and release of tension (to any degree) that fosters ease, clarity, and expansion on a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. Yoga creates a unique environment where survivors can explore inside themselves with kindness and curiosity, as well as develop attitudes that allow for compassionate responses to challenges or difficulties they encounter within their bodies and lives.
I draw primarily on 3 of the 8 limbs of the yoga practice - asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breathing techniques) and dhyana (meditation) which can tangibly reduce the symptoms of rape trauma response (RTR), a form of post-traumatic stress. RTR 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-harm, and substance misuse. 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 naturally arise as a response to trauma. Yoga gives us a space to learn how to work with our own physiology though waves of activation and settling and cultivate practices to nourish a stress response cycle that is more reliable and increasingly adaptive.
Importantly, the somatic practice of yoga allows survivors to develop healthy coping and grounding techniques that can disrupt triggers and 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 rhythmic 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 adapted to support and enhance a survivor’s needs, their sense of embodiment, integration, and peace.
As a deeply personalized, holistic, and nervous-system centered method of addressing trauma, Somatic Experiencing is ideal for working with the trauma of sexual violence. SE incorporates a blend of working with a variety of channels of experience, including: sensation, imagery, behavior, affect/emotion, 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 makes up our “somatic experience”. SIBAM offers survivors range of entry points into our work, and for some survivors, sensation may be the last channel of experience they can comfortably explore. Survivors are reminded that they can tap into various aspects of their own embodied experience beyond sensation, notice the unique ways in which their being has encoded trauma, and also, to appreciate all the ways their 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. The client leads and the practitioner shares SE from a place of invitation, consent, and empowerment. In a guided, contained, and nonjudgmental space, survivors can more safely explore and release beliefs, emotions, and patterns of physical posturing and sensations that may have served in survival, and yet are now inhibiting the flow of their own healing energy. The way their body has supported them thus far is honored, and what the body is choosing next is invited into the space. In time, survivors can transform an adversarial relationship with their body, where the body may become a key ally in their 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 within us is needing care. These practices allow survivors to cultivate inner resources that allow them to trust they can tolerate and transform what arises in their body and life. 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.
Modifications for Survivors
Essentially, every aspect of our work together is modified to suit the survivor’s 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 use felt experience, images, thoughts, and behaviors to track and nurture what is wanting to move through the nervous system.
When I teach 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 knowingly 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 anxiety, 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 guided meditation, breathing exercises, or exploring yoga philosophy and foundational yogic texts. There is space for all of this within the practice and I will point students towards places of more specific or advanced yogic study when appropriate.
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, how we prioritize 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 embodied 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, modalities that may better serve the survivor’s needs, or other yoga teachers who may be a better match. I truly believe we are our own best teachers and I am attentive in listening and responding to the unique needs of my students – only they can truly know their experience. While I am passionate about yoga and SE as methods for transforming trauma, 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, energy work, etc.) that I often 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 yoga and SE 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 co-regulatory 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 embodied 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. I am dedicated to nurturing my own nervous system stability, flexibility, and capacity as it offers a container for the complexities of my clients' bodily biography to emerge. Importantly, I draw awareness to the client’s noticing of their own inbuilt resources, capacity, and wisdom and we spend time truly valorizing the brilliance of their being and recognizing them as the primary healer in the space.
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 health and healing practitioners.
Learn more about Molly’s work with yoga for addressing the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and energetic impacts of sexual trauma in her essay Transcending the Trauma of Sexual Violence with Yoga, as well as her essay Can Yoga Really Help Us Heal Trauma? which 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 why this practice can be of profound benefit for sexual trauma recovery. For a more in-depth exploration as to the physiology of how the body survives and heals after sexual trauma as understood through SE, along with the complexities that survivors are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic, you can read The Imprints of Sexual Trauma: How the Covid-19 Pandemic May Trigger Survivors. In Practicing Embodied Boundaries she describes the challenges and resources survivors encounter in claiming their rights to their own, unique physical, psychological, and energetic space as well as somatic tools for boundary support.
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