Yoga Postures to Support Healing for Survivors of Sexual Trauma

At-home Practice

by Zahabiyah Khorakiwala

 

Regardless of the nature of the traumatic incident, survivors may suffer from physical pain and emotional unrest after experiencing a trigger or as a chronic underpinning of their daily activities. There is no doubt that trauma impacts brain functioning. After experiencing trauma, the amygdala goes into over-drive and anticipates danger even when there is none. Trauma can leave the body feeling dis-regulated and unsafe. The practice of yoga can help survivors establish safety and resource their body in a way that feels authentic and manageable.

This information provides you with specific yoga postures and explanations to address a variety of struggles and symptoms that survivors may face. As you will see in the cues provided below, every posture is an invitation- an opportunity for you to personally explore your body in your own way.

Symptom: Dis-regulated breathing

Impact of yoga

Yoga focuses on conscious breathing and invites survivors to notice the natural rhythm of their breath. Trauma-sensitive breathing is performed in the context of a muscular and physical form to facilitate grounding and present moment experience (Emerson, 2012).

A trauma informed practice invites students to breathe in ways that feel natural and comfortable. Instructors use cues to encourage people to be aware of what is happening in their body in the present moment.

At home exercise

I invite you to come into a comfortable seated position whatever that looks like for you. Maybe something similar to the picture below or perhaps allowing your arms to fall by your sides, maybe the palms gently open.


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Seated meditation

I invite you to take a deep full inhale through your nose and open mouth exhale out your mouth. I invite you to let go of your day, let go of any distractions- allow this to be a gentle space for you, your body, and your breath. Come into a mindful breath. Maybe in this moment, identify a mantra: I am strong or I will live this day with grace. Choose something to focus your energy and attention. Breathe into it at your own pace.

Symptoms: Throat constriction, heightened anxiety and flashbacks

Impact of yoga

Yoga helps survivors maintain a sense of calmness by helping to regulate the body and sensations and by connecting breath and movement and re-establishing a sense of time inside.

When survivors experience hyper arousal; active postures that focus on cultivating breath to movement can be helpful to facilitate engagement and energy in the body. 

At home practice

Moving through sun salutations at your own pace and in your own way can be incredibly healing and conducive to cultivating presence and stability in the body.

I invite you to begin in mountain pose. Inviting the arms to extend high and fingertips to engage, maybe the palms face towards each other, rolling the pinkies inward. Find length through the spine and feel both feet grounded on the mat. Know that you are strong and supported. If you would like to add a small backbend, I invite you to draw the elbows back and let the heart shine towards the sky. On your next inhale, explore with drawing your arms back to mountain pose- noticing this breath to movement connection. When you are ready, feel free to draw your palms together overhead. On the exhale, I invite you to bring your palms through heart center into a forward fold, releasing your fingertips to the mat. Feel free to add any additional postures throughout your sun salutations and move your body only in ways that feel comfortable for you.


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki  

Mountain Pose

 

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Standing Meditation

Symptom: Uptight body posture

Impact of yoga

Yoga can help survivors find balance and promote open body posture. Yoga allows survivors to feel specific points of contact. I invite you for a moment to notice both feet on the ground and at the same time find length in your spine.

At home practice

Backbends allow you to find an opening in the heart and create an opportunity to release built up tension.

Other helpful backbends include: camel and cow pose.

 


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki

Baby Backbend

 

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Upward Facing Dog


Symptom: Lack of presence

Impact of yoga

Trauma-sensitive yoga focuses on experiencing the present moment, appreciating the body for whatever it wants to do that day, and most importantly understanding that there are always choices.

Trauma-sensitive yoga helps survivors notice and orient to the space and sense the position of their body.  I invite you to notice what happens when you disengage the muscles in the quads.

At home practice

Chair pose is an opportunity to cultivate strength in the body and find presence in your practice by noticing the changes in muscle engagement.

When you feel ready brings the feet together to touch. Bend the knees only as deeply as your body allows. I invite you to draw the arms up and tuck the tailbone. Invite length into your spine. Feel the strength of your body. Adjust as needed to increase your comfort.


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Chair Pose

 

Symptom: GI issues

Impact of yoga

Specific forms like warrior and twisting poses soothe abdominal distress and detoxify the stress in the belly organs.

At home practice

I invite you to come into seated or standing allowing your arms to fall by your sides. When you feel comfortable on your inhale, draw the arms up with the fingertips engaged. On the exhale turn to the right for a vertical twist, extending the arms in opposite directions (Repeat on left side).

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Seated Vertical Twist

From a downward facing dog posture, I invite you on the inhale to draw your right leg high. Maybe the heel is up and the toe faces down toward the mat. When you feel ready in your body, allow your exhale to draw the right foot between your palms. Spin the left heel to 45 degrees so it is parallel with the mat. Find grounding here and in your own time, extend your arms up, allowing the palms to face towards each other. If it feels okay in your body, actively draw the left hip forward and the right hip back for Warrior I (Repeat on left side).


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Warrior I

Symptom: Disassociation

Impact of yoga

Yoga postures that incorporate active forms and twists and that invite survivors to move slowly and mindfully from sitting to standing can help with experiences of disassociation.

Yoga allows survivors to practice mindfulness: the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are (The Mindful Way through Depression, 2007).

At home practice

I invite you to find connection and presence by cultivating a conscious, mindful connection of breath to movement. I invite you to ground down through your feet, drawing them about hip distance apart. When you feel ready, allow your fingertips to graze the mat in a forward fold posture. If it feels right in your body, interlace your arms and reach for opposite elbows. On your inhale, invite the body up in a circular motion. Invite a slow, mindful movement and notice the connection of your breath to your movement. When it feels right for you, on the exhale draw the arms down in a circle. Continue this at your own pace and reverse direction of the circles at any time.

 

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Arm Circles

Prayer twist is an active posture that can support this symptom as well. From chair pose, draw the palms together at heart center if that feels comfortable. On your inhale I invite you to hinge forward to find length in your spine. On your exhale, twist to the right, drawing the left elbow outside of the right knee. Feel free to twist only as deeply as your body feels comfortable (Repeat on left side).


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Prayer Twist

Symptoms: Difficulty with relationships and intimacy

Impact of yoga

People who experience trauma can become emotionally disconnected from themselves as well as other people. The trauma may induce a need to build walls and layers of protection (Brown, 2012).

Yoga can help survivors develop a strong connection to the body as well as trust of self and others. Transcending Sexual Violence through Yoga has allowed survivors to strengthen their relationships by allowing them to have greater self-awareness and a strong understanding of how to set boundaries and be assertive.

At-home practice

Even just taking time out of your day to find solitude and connection can be extremely beneficial to the healing process. We often times spend so much of our day neglecting the needs of our body. I invite you to come into a comfortable position laying on your back. If you would like to bring the soles of your feet together, please feel free to do so. If this creates too much tension in the hips, just allow your legs to extend forward. Notice the shoulders nestled into the mat, maybe sink down into this space a little deeper with each exhale. Find a cozy, comfortable position. You can use blocks or a blanket to increase your comfort and add support. I invite you to place the hands wherever feels comfortable. Maybe down by your sides or perhaps one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart. I invite you to listen to the sound of your own breath. There is nothing left to do but breathe and be.

 

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Supported Bridge

 

Symptoms: Self-esteem issues

Impact of yoga

Many survivors disclose that thinking about their past experiences with assault can consume and drain their energy and breed negativity which has a significant impact on their self-esteem and day to day functioning.

Yoga helps to clear the mind and increases the supply of oxygen to the body which in turn helps reduce stress, increase energy flow and ensure mental clarity.

Yoga can helps to awaken body posture and helps those who feel emotionally disconnected from themselves and others. In essence, yoga promotes self-love which is the core of well-being.

At-home practice

When I am in need of a pick me up and energizer, crescent moon helps me cultivate the balance I need in my body. From a downward facing dog posture, I invite you on the inhale to draw your right leg high. Maybe the heel is up and the toe faces down toward the mat. When you feel ready in your body, allow your exhale to draw the right foot between your palms. Feel free to release your left knee to the mat. When it feels good, extend your arms up allowing the palms to face each other. Feel free to draw the elbows back and let the heart shine to find a slight backbend. I invite you to bend into the right knee if deepening the stretch feels good for you. Always your body, your practice, your choice (Repeat on left side).


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Crescent Moon 

Symptom: Aches and pains

Impact of yoga

Several studies at Duke University Medical Center found yoga as an effective tool for chronic pain (Katz, 2011). Yoga postures help reduce joint pain, muscle stiffness, and overall physical discomfort while greatly improving flexibility, range of motion, muscle strength, and mental strength.

I invite you to practice gentle stretches in your body. From a seated position extend the right leg long and draw the sole of your left foot to you inner right thigh. As it feels right, gently extend your arms up. Rotate the hips towards your right leg and lengthen on the inhale extending your fingertips high. On your exhale, slowly fold forward. There are many variations to invite in the body here to increase your comfort. Perhaps resting your hands on your shins or inviting a slight bend into your right knee. Maybe reach the palms under the sole of the right foot drawing your forehead down. If you'd like you can stack blocks and melt your forehead into them for added support.

 

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

 

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Symptom: Depression

Impact of yoga

Yoga helps to stimulate and awaken the body and mind and help students connect to a deeper purpose in life, an inner sense of calm, and an opportunity to channel nervous energy.

Helpful postures include: deep, full inhalations and audible exhalations, repeated sun salutations, backbends, and arm balances

At-home practice

Child's pose is always available to you to cultivate centeredness and grounding and focus on your breath whenever you feel overwhelmed.

If you'd like you can draw your knees to the outside edges of your mat and bring your big toes to touch behind if that is available to you. I invite you to extend your arms forward, lengthening through the fingertips. Maybe massage your forehead into the mat. Breathe in and out in ways that feel natural and authentic for you. If you'd like you can draw your knees together, and let your arms fall by your sides. Find you own personal variation, do what feels good in your body.


Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Child's pose

Symptom: Chronic sleep problems

Impact of yoga

Several studies discuss yoga's impact on reducing insomnia. In one study, researchers found that the participants had significantly improved sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency, and wake time after sleep onset at the end of treatment compared with before the treatment (Harvard study, 2009).

Yoga is an effective treatment because it addresses insomnia's physical and psychological aspects (Sat Bir Khalsa, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate neuroscientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital)

At-home practice

Winding down your practice with a reclining twist is a great way to un-wind and detoxify and prepare for meditation. I invite you to lay on your back. When it feels comfortable, gently hug the right knee in to the right under arm. On the inhale gently hug the knee in, on your exhale, guide the right knee over to the left side of your body. On each inhale I invite you to notice the length of your spine, on each exhale, feel free to deepen the stretch in your knee. If you'd like you can place a block under your knee for added support. (Repeat on left side).

 

Photograph Garrett Yamasaki 

Reclining twist

Special thanks to Alexis Marbach for her contribution to this information.

For more information on Transcending Sexual Violence through Yoga contact Zabie:  zkhoraki@gmail.com.