Yoga in the era of #MeToo

By Mary Glen Hatcher

First, she asks them to breathe.

“Gently, softly,” she repeats, like the rain that trickles against the second floor window of Duke University’s dance studio — today’s yoga sanctuary.

A few dozen mats lay scattered across the concrete floor. Perched on each are educators, yoga instructors, activists and community leaders from across North Carolina.

Eyes closed, they listen intently to the rain, the sound of their collective breath, and to the voice of the woman they’ve traveled hours to hear — Zabie Yamasaki.

“Hands come to heart center,” Yamasaki continues. “Focus on your intention for being here.”

For many, that was simple: They are survivors of sexual assault.

They have come to help themselves, and others, heal.

Healing from #MeToo

This marks the fifth annual Embodied Learning Summit, a community event sponsored by researchers from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill that aims to share the health benefits of yoga with the public.

Through interactive workshops and discussions, the summit tackles a different social issue each year and the ways in which yoga and mindfulness techniques can be used to address it.

This year’s theme: #MeToo.

After a conversation with a young sexual assault victim in 1997 left her speechless, activist Tarana Burke crafted a campaign around the simple, empathetic phrase, “me too,” to raise awareness for sexual and gender-based violence.

The message has since grown into a global movement as individuals share stories of abuse, solidarity and survival on social media using “#MeToo.” In 2017, the topic garnered more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions on Facebook in a single day.

Not only has #MeToo changed the conversation around sexual assault, it is also changing the way we think about the impact of sexual trauma on the body and the healing process.

“I think there’s really a hunger to have a space to talk about and to make some of these connections in the yoga community,” said Michele Berger, a women’s and gender studies professor at UNC-CH and lead organizer of the summit.

Every survivor experiences trauma and heals in different ways, Berger said, but yoga and mindfulness practices have the potential to be an effective form of therapy for survivors of sexual violence.

A 2017 report from Georgetown Law confirms this, citing that yoga practice in young girls who have experienced trauma can “restore neurological pathways in a region of the brain that processes emotion awareness,” leading to greater levels of self-compassion, self-esteem and general well-being.

“Even simple breathing techniques can help regulate your stress levels, your emotions and really improve your quality of life,” Berger said. “We know there are communities that could benefit from these resources, and we really want to just give them these tools.”

Taking back your body

“Now, if you feel comfortable, we’ll introduce some movement into the body,” Yamasaki said.

With eyes closed, she leads the class through a vinyasa flow — from a plank position, to a back-bending cobra, to a downward dog. The movement is notable for its smooth transitions between poses and the anchoring connection of the body to the breath.

To Yamasaki, the flow represents a physical, mental and spiritual connection to the body — one she never thought she’d regain after she was sexually assaulted during her senior year of college.

“I never imagined the years of disconnect I would feel from my own body,” Yamasaki said. “I wasn’t prepared for the way my past experiences of trauma would sneak up on me and manifest in various areas of my skin.”

Flashbacks and anxiety attacks pushed her to try therapy, but the thought of vocalizing some of her most painful memories made her symptoms worse. She needed something tangible, something that would allow her to regain power and control of her body.

When nothing else made sense, yoga did, Yamasaki said.

“I finally had an outlet to process the unsafe feelings that were residing inside of me, in a form of self-expression that really moved beyond trying to find the words to articulate what I was feeling,” she said.

Without having to speak a single word about her assault, Yamasaki began to heal from her own trauma by reconnecting with her physical body through yoga — discovering a new kind of energy and power within.

“Despite all the ways trauma makes it easy to feel small, yoga reminded me each and every day that I am more than the darkness that was done to me,” she said.

Now, as the founder of Transcending Sexual Trauma Through Yoga, an organization that offers yoga and therapeutic programming for survivors of sexual assault, Yamasaki hopes her teachings can empower other students as they navigate what is often a lifelong journey of healing.

Students like Emma Hayes.

Over the past few years, Hayes has put most of her time and energy into her studies at UNC-CH in hopes of becoming a therapist. She wants to give others the help she needed after she was sexually assaulted, she said.

“But I realized I’ve neglected my own body and my own healing process doing that,” Hayes said. “I’ve been so focused on everybody else that I’ve been ignoring my own needs.”

Attending the summit opened her eyes to how she can help herself heal through the practice of yoga, while also nurturing her body and her passion for helping others.

“It’s been a good reminder that I’m also deserving of love, I’m also in that group of people,” she said.

The ‘potential for change’

Outside the studio windows, the rain continues to fall. It has grown louder, heavier, steadier, but is drowned out by a voice inside.

Kratu! Kratu! Kratu!

Professor Keval Khalsa, a dance instructor from Duke, leads the group in a Sanskrit chant and dance exalting the “seed of inspiration” to end the day.

“What has it planted in you?” she asks.

Some women shared they felt empowered to talk to someone about their assault — their friends, their therapist, their campus Title IX office. Others said the summit introduced them to a new path of self-love and acceptance, finding stability and strength in their own bodies.

Almost all of them cried.

“There are many gifts that yoga can offer to trauma survivors,” Naomi Ardea, a licensed massage therapist in Chapel Hill, said during an earlier workshop on self-care. It can offer movement for strengthening, flexibility, balance, a space for inner awareness and an opportunity for spiritual connection, she explained.

“But throughout the practice, there’s always this potential for change,” she said.

Just as trauma can change the brain, Ardea explained that healing care can change it back toward health and wellness.

“It may not be back to 100 percent where you used to be, and maybe you put the pieces back together a little differently than before, but you can shift things,” she said.

Edited by: Madeleine Fraley