With the help of modern-day science, we know better how to effectively heal sexual trauma. Sexual abuse victims are turning to a holistic approach, one that involves a yoga mat. Find out why yoga is becoming a prescribed therapy tool for sexual trauma victims.
What is Trauma-Sensitive Yoga for Sexual Assault Survivors?
A healing sexual trauma yoga class looks vastly different from your typical yoga class. The teacher never places his/her hands on the students and the yogis all share a similar eerie story that goes beyond their appreciation for yoga. They are, in fact, survivors of sexual abuse. Welcome to healing sexual trauma yoga therapy.
Healing sexual trauma yoga classes are specialized classes dedicated entirely to empowering sexual abuse victims. The yoga teachers are mental health professionals specifically trained to deal with participants who have been sexually abused. They themselves are often survivors of such crimes. This gives them a unique ability to empathize with their students.
Therapy helps participants gather the fragmented pieces of themselves post-trauma, and create an integrated whole of the self. This allows them to transition from victim to survivor.
What Does it Mean To Be a Sexual Trauma Victim?
Sexual violence comes in many shapes and sizes. The aftermath leaves the victim suffering from physical pain, as well as emotional and mental turmoil.
The wounds inflicted on them by the incident can be triggered at any one point. The suffering can be so intrusive that it becomes debilitating. Life and relationships with family members and others become increasingly difficult. They often shut down their sex life and have difficulty with any sexual contact.
A renowned study done by Dr. Lisa Fedina, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, shows a well-documented link between sexual abuse and detrimental physical and mental health.
It turns out that survivors of sexual assault are at much greater risk of developing mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, than women who haven’t been victimized.
Naturally, along with poor psychological health, a greater risk of poor physical health ensues. Lead author of a new study, Andrea L. Nicol, M.D., demonstrates an apparent relationship between pain severity and a history of traumatic events.
The study shows that victims of sexual offence have a higher chance of developing chronic illnesses. More and more studies are showcasing this undeniable link between deficient mental health and compromised physical health.
Isn’t a Therapy For That?
Sexual trauma victims most certainly benefit from seeing a professional trauma expert to discuss the abuse and the impact it has had on their lives. However, cognitive comprehension of such a horrendous event in one’s life is merely that – an intellectual understanding.
It is, therefore, considered useful to adopt physiological and holistic practices in addition to counseling. Each approach plays a different and much-needed part in one’s healing process.
To understand why trauma has a long-term effect on victims, one needs to look at the physiology of what’s happening to the body during and post the abusive experience.
The Body Stores Sexual Trauma
Present-day advancements in science and medicine have left us with no doubt in our minds that trauma impacts the functioning of the brain.
James S. Gordon, M.D., founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, explains how the human body physically reacts to trauma. “The primary response we often have to trauma is fight or flight… The other reaction we can have – often when the trauma is overwhelming and inescapable, as might be the case with rape or an ongoing abusive relationship – is to freeze, or go into kind of a detached state.”
Gordon goes on to describe: “Areas of the brain responsible for fear, anger, and emotion, particularly the amygdala, become much more active. While areas in the frontal cortex, responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful decision-making, human connection, and compassion, become less active.”
The medical journal, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, explains that our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” mode. When we face any form of danger, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and triggers all sorts of physio-biological reactions in our bodies.
Whilst we need this fight or flight function to survive in life (you don’t want your amygdala failing you when you need to swim away from shark-infested waters), the problem arises when our body is in an endless fight or flight mode – even when there is no reason for it.
Dr. Peter Levine, Ph.D., developer of Somatic Experiencing and NICABM, has shown through his vast research that traumatic memory is embedded in the nervous system. According to Levine, victims invariably maintain the same effects post-trauma as they did during the actual abuse.
Being in this perpetual state of tensity can lead to a state of debilitating physical health and mental issues including anxiety, substance abuse and more.
So How Does Yoga Help Overcome Sexual Trauma Exactly?
A study conducted in 2014 demonstrates that “Yoga may be an effective adjunctive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder”. More and more medical associations are urging their physicians to prescribe yoga to patients with long-term pain.
Dilek Seri, yoga teacher and holistic therapist, has had extensive experience in leading such classes. “Practicing yoga allows what is buried deep within us to rise to the surface. In this lies the opportunity to process trauma and ultimately transcend it. When we can sit with a difficult emotion without the need to esceape the discomfort, it has less hold over us. We can ultimately free ourselves from the suffering that comes from replaying the past as though it is in the now.”
Benefits of Attending Yoga Therapy
There are numerous benefits to trauma-sensitive yoga healing. Most importantly, it provides valuable self-regulatory tools which are frequently lost as a result of the abuse.
Here is a list of tools survivors of sexual trauma learn from yoga healing classes:
- A powerful sense of choice
Honoring their bodies and the space they’re in
- Choice-making with the things they can control (one’s body and breath)
- Self-regulation i.e., to be able to process, and come back to the present moment in the face of stressful triggers
- Self-awareness of how the body, mind, and soul feel in various moments
- Establish trust and connection with themselves and with others
- Inner peace and acceptance of the traumatic experience – letting go of shame associated with the abuse
- Feeling safe in their own body and become reacquainted with their physical self
- Unity of the fragmented self (body, mind, soul)
- Chronic stress patterns are relieved
- Respiration and energy levels are enhanced
- Empowered to reconnect with sex and sexual experiences
- Establish a strong network with other survivors in a safe place
What to Expect From Trauma Recovery Yoga Class
Whilst different teachers offer different programs, each healing process encompasses a guided therapy which is trauma-sensitive. Classes should provide participants with a supported environment in which they can explore the deeper meaning behind their pain and learn how to build up their strength.
According to Dr. Sherrie Campbell, psychologist and family therapist, trauma-informed yoga “can give the survivor a sense of mastery over their mind and body, which they may feel they lost at the time of the sexual assault.”
In sexual trauma therapy class you may encounter:
1. Asana (yoga poses)
Specific yoga poses which are designed to “unblock” various parts of the body where trauma and stress are stored.
In Yoga for Life: A Journey to Peace and Freedom, author and revered yogi, Colleen Saidman Yee, recounts how yoga helped her battle a heroin habit, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. She speaks of poses which help gain “freedom from the imprints and obstructions that are held in our bodies”.
For instance, our hamstrings are a vital part of our fight or flight mechanism. They help us to run away from situations which make us feel uncomfortable. They also play a role in dissociation and avoiding those difficult feelings and are often associated with grief. Poses which physically release hamstrings can help emotionally release the associated feelings.
2. Pranayama (breathing techniques)
Conscious breathwork activates the parasympathetic nervous system’s “rest and digest” response. Pranayama counterbalances the body by bringing it to a state where it can repair itself.
It is a common response for trauma victims to unconsciously hold their breath as a way of disassociating from their body. By practicing pranayama, they anchor their awareness back to the body and breath, which is essential for healing. By bringing focus on how and where one is breathing, one can calm their body down and activate this most useful mechanism.
Box Breathing is used by trauma victims as it is easy to learn and incredibly effective at relieving anxiety.
Trauma-sensitive meditation/mindfulness exercises bring about a state of awareness and the ability to be fully present in the now. This age-old practice triggers the body’s relaxation response and teaches participants how to reach a state of mental clarity and emotional calmness, but also allows the body to rest and repair.
Depending on the victim’s story and abuse, some meditation techniques may aggravate anxiety; therefore, mindfulness is the preferred option most schools go with.
Mindfulness techniques, such as transcendental meditation, help reduce stress levels and in some cases even reverse them. Trauma-sensitive guided imagery and affirming statements promote a state of relaxed awareness and healing.
4. Chakra work
Chakras, spiritual energy centers within the body, store memories and experiences. Chakra healing activates the body’s chakra systems to remove blocks present in body, mind, or spirit. It helps to bring tranquillity on both the physical and metaphysical plane.
Journaling provides trauma survivors with reflection. By keeping a therapeutic journal, they gain awareness of their situation and mental state. It gives the author empowerment with the language to put words to their experiences and to process them safely, hopefully leading them one step closer to having closure.
6. Art therapy
Art therapy is rooted in the notion that creative expression fosters mental well-being. Some victims of violence find it difficult to express themselves with movement or words, and thus turn to visual art media as a form of healing. Art creates a sense of self-expression, self-awareness and communication. It aids the artist in exploring their emotions, boosting their self-esteem and even works on their social skills.
Is Yoga Therapy a Cure-all for Sexual Trauma?
Recovering from any abuse is a lifelong and non-linear process. No one remedy provide sole healing and most certainly none offer a quick-fix solution.
What yoga does provide to the survivor is the incremental regain of comfort and control within themselves through the healing journey. Sometimes it is precisely these non-verbal processes, the ones that transcend language, which unlock the recognition of the body.
And that is the key; victims have endured and they have survived. Yoga therapy proves to be a tangible reminder of this incredibly strong resilience. Their body is still a sacred space after surviving the violation. Their mind is whole despite the destructive and repetitive thought patterns. They are not their thoughts, nor are they their trauma. They are so much more.
And by breaking through these physical, emotional and spiritual blocks, which the abuser forces on all his/her victims, the survivor learns self-love once again. Their inherent ability to self-heal is stimulated and homeostasis returns. The survivor is now free to go back to their true complete infinite source.
- Fedina, Lisa, Holmes, Jennifer Lynne, Backes, Bethany L. “Campus Sexual Assault: A Systematic Review of Prevalence Research from 2000 to 2015.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 19. 2018. Accessed October 2020. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1524838016631129
- Nicol, Andrea L., Sieberg, Christine B., Clauw, Daniel J., Hassett, Afton L., Moser, Stephanie E., Brummett, Chad M. “The Association Between a History of Lifetime Traumatic Events and Pain Severity, Physical Function, and Affective Distress in Patients With Chronic Pain.” 2016. Accessed October 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27641311/
- Patrick, Wendy L. “How Sexual Assault Victims Become Survivors: Culture Counts.” Psychology Today. June 2020. Accessed October 2020 https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/why-bad-looks-good/202007/how-sexual-assault-victims-become-survivors-culture-counts/
- Eckelkamp, Stephanie. “Can Trauma Really Be ‘Stored’ In The Body?” Mind Body Green. 2019. Accessed October 2020. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/can-trauma-be-stored-in-body
- Sherin, Jonathan E. “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: The Neurobiological Impact of Psychological Trauma.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. September 2011. Accessed October 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3182008
- Levine, Peter. “In an Unspoken Voice. How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.” 2011. Accessed October 2020. https://www.amazon.com/Unspoken-Voice-Releases-Restores-Goodness/dp/1556439431
- Liebschutz, Jane, Savetsky, Jacqueline B., Saitz, Richard, Horton, Nicholas J., Lloyd-Travaglini, Christine, Samet, Jeffrey H. “The Relationship Between Sexual and Physical Abuse and Substance Abuse Consequences.” 2002. Accessed October 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4861063/
- Mitchell, K., Dick, A. M., Street, A. “A Pilot Study of a Randomized Controlled Trial of Yoga as an Intervention for PTSM Symptoms in Women.” Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2014. Accessed October 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24668767/
- Marske, Cynthia, Shah, Samantha, Chavira, Aaron, Hedberg, Caleb, Fullmer, Raelin, Clark, Christopher James, Pipitone, Olivia, Kaiser, Paulina. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the Management of Chronic Pain and Its Comorbid Depression.” The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2020. Accessed 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32854117/’
Irena is a writer and yoga teacher well-versed in all-things yoga such as yoga therapy and yin yoga. She believes in the positive effects of meditation, yoga, and spirituality