How Trauma-Informed Yoga Can Be Healing For Survivors Of Domestic & Sexual Violence
When you picture a typical yoga class, you probably envision a room full of flexible folks being taught and having their form corrected by a very hands-on instructor while some ambient music plays in the background... but at an Exhale to Inhale yoga class, things look a little different. Why? Because Exhale to Inhale — currently operating in NYC and LA — isn't your average yoga class: ETI teaches trauma-informed yoga, with a methodology developed specifically to help survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
The founder of this empowering and inspiring organization is 28-year-old Zoë LePage, who tells Bustle that she first formulated the idea for ETI when she was studying at Barnard College in 2013. She'd been practicing yoga on her own since high school and later became certified and started teaching it to her fellow college students, so it makes sense that when she was tasked with creating a social action project that would change the world, her mind immediately jumped to yoga. But it wasn't just her love of yoga that inspired ETI: LePage says her own personal experiences with friends and family who are survivors of DV and sexual assault motivated her to create ETI — and now more than 2,000 survivors have experienced healing through yoga.
"I have a family member and a few friends who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence [and] I saw how trauma impacted my loved ones," LePage says. "Yoga always helped me feel strong and safe in my body and so I intuitively felt that practicing yoga could be a tool of empowerment for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. I started cold calling shelters and began interviewing yoga teachers and five years later, here we are."
What's Different About Trauma-Informed Yoga
Although ETI is not the only organization that teaches trauma-informed (also called trauma-sensitive) yoga, its methodology is nonetheless extremely innovative and unique. There are many aspects of a typical yoga class that you might not even realize can be harmful or triggering for survivors of DV and sexual assault — like facing away from the room's entrance/exit or having an instructor circling around the room and touching you to correct your form without warning — and ETI strives to minimize the potential for those triggers.
"Over the last five years, Exhale to Inhale has developed its own methodology rooted in safety, simplicity, and choice making," LePage says. "Our practice looks quite different than what you would encounter in your open level yoga studio. In an Exhale to Inhale class: the lights remain on, we don’t use music (music can be a vehicle for dissociation), the yoga teacher teaches from her own mat (a teacher walking around the room can trigger hyper-vigilance), and we don’t make any physical adjustments (we want our students to have complete agency over their own bodies)."
"We tell our students that no matter their experience, it’s OK. Even lack of sensation in a pose, which is sometimes the experience of individuals who have been through trauma, is OK."
But one of the most notable differences between a typical yoga class and an ETI class is the focus it places on "invitational language," meaning the students are never told they have to do anything, only invited to do so — thereby giving them a sense of autonomy and control over their own bodies, which is understandably super important for survivors. "Our teachers are trained to invite choice making [and] all of our language is invitational — 'I invite you to,' 'if you are curious,'" LePage says. "We offer two options for each form, making it clear that the students can also choose not to do any of it."
For someone who's been through trauma like domestic or sexual violence, simply feeling like they have a choice over what to do with their body in a class like ETI can be extremely healing. LePage also says that ETI teachers make sure to emphasize that it's OK if a certain move or pose *doesn't* feel good, compared to traditional classes where a teacher might talk about how amazing every move should feel.
"We also normalize our students' experience," LePage says. "For many individuals, particularly individuals who have been through trauma, the yoga practice can be uncomfortable at times. It is not easy to be present in your body, it doesn’t always feel good. In a normal regular class, if that is your experience and your teacher is telling you how amazing this pose should feel, you can feel like you are doing it wrong, you can feel shame. We tell our students that no matter their experience, it’s OK. Even lack of sensation in a pose, which is sometimes the experience of individuals who have been through trauma, is OK."
How Yoga Is Healing For Some Survivors
So what is it about yoga — and specifically trauma-informed yoga — that can be such a powerful tool for healing? According to LePage, its power comes from the fact that it's a holistic form of healing: it addresses both the body and the mind.
"Trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder, can manifest in very physical ways — headaches, digestive issues, backaches, insomnia — [and] the movement and breath in the yoga practice have the potential to offer relief from these symptoms," LePage says. "Moreover, through the yoga practice, individuals have the opportunity to reconnect with and begin to feel their bodies again."
Above all else, ETI strives to be a safe space for survivors to reclaim agency over and reconnect with their bodies after experiencing trauma. According to Lindsay, a 27-year-old who's both a survivor of sexual assault as well as a yoga teacher at ETI, the focus on choice-making and the knowledge that each class is a small, safe community of survivors are what make ETI classes so uniquely healing.
"From a survivor's perspective, the simplicity of the ETI methodology gives students the ability to slowly build trust within their bodies and reclaim it as their own," Lindsay tells Bustle. "[E]TI's focus on making choices gives students the opportunity to reclaim their power and ability to make decisions, to take control of their bodies and movements, and to establish a sense of trust within themselves and their small classroom community."
Another ETI teacher and survivor, 30-year-old Rachel*, tells Bustle that one of the most valuable skills she's learned since practicing ETI yoga is the ability to find her breath and calm herself in moments of stress, panic, or anxiety — which is a skill that everyone, but particularly survivors, can benefit from having.
"Yoga, and ETI's methodology in particular, provides a different avenue for survivors to address their symptoms of trauma, by regulating the body and breath," Rachel says. "The sense of calm that I gain from my yoga practice allows me to live life more fully off the mat as well. In moments of panic, I am able to find my breath and remind myself that I am in control of my own body and my own decisions."
Of course, all of this healing doesn't happen overnight: for many survivors, it will naturally take time to feel comfortable relaxing and being present in their bodies — and it should be noted that yoga (even trauma-informed yoga) won't necessarily be helpful and healing for all survivors. Nonetheless, it's clear that LePage's original goal — to change the world through this project — is coming to fruition... or at the very least, it's changing her world.
"This work is changing me," LePage says. "It gives me perspective. It reminds me of the strength and resilience of the human spirit. I continue to be inspired by our students — by their willingness to show up and try something new, by their courage to work on behalf of their own healing."
*Name has been changed