At a domestic violence emergency shelter in the Bronx, seven women enter the room dressed in jeans, T-shirts and/or the most comfortable clothes they have. Certified yoga instructor Tara Tonini hands each a mat. Then she crosses the room to deadbolt the door.
For the next hour, she guides the women through a series of sun salutations, downward dog poses, a brief centering and meditation and pranayama (breathing practices). The 60-minute class culminates in a guided, deep relaxation.
The women have sought refuge and safety at the shelter, fleeing homes where they've been victims of abuse. Many have left with only the clothes on their backs. But, thanks to Exhale to Inhale, a New York City-based non-profit, for one hour a week, the shelter offers yoga instruction and provides babysitting services for their children so that they can find relaxation and center themselves.
The classes underscore a growing trend across the country in which yoga studios are offering yoga classes to underserved and vulnerable populations, and in some cases taking them to the shelters to help women who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault to heal and reclaim their lives.
The need certainly is there. One in four women will experience domestic violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. About 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States.
Launched in 2013, Exhale to Inhale currently offers yoga instruction and teacher training at five shelters located throughout New York City, (Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn) and Westchester County to women affected by trauma. Classes average between five to 12 women, says Tonini, and the program reaches about 30 women each week.
Its goal is to help participants obtain trauma relief and serenity through yoga, which has been found to reduce the lingering anxiety and depression, which often strikes people who have been victims of domestic violence and other stressful experiences, experts claim. The yoga classes at The Good Shepherd Shelter, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, are offered in corporation with a non-profit organization called The Boulevard Zen Foundation Inc. The aim of the program is to improve the lives of the many women and children at this shelter and be a model for future programs.
Exhale to Inhale got its start on a college campus. College grad and passionate yoga practitioner and instructor Zoe LePage, a student at Barnard College at the time, brainstormed the idea for part of a social action project she was conducting through the college's Athena Center for Leadership.
"The project's mandate was 'to go affect change in the world,'" says LePage, who now works full-time as an organizational consultant. "I knew I wanted to do something with yoga because of how much it made me feel strong and safe and beautiful in my body. I had a family member who was a domestic violence survivor and a few friends, and I was so shocked by the horrible things that were done to these women I loved the most. I realized it could happen to anyone and this just seemed an opportunity to give back from what yoga had done for me."
LePage reached out to fellow yoga instructors at Yoga Works in Irvington, New York and before long, yoga instructors from throughout Westchester County and New York city were signing up to offer classes. All teachers volunteer their time, she says.
Now program director for Exhale to Inhale, teacher trainer and a substitute trainer, Tonini was one of the first to raise her hand to volunteer. She is no stranger to the heightened states of anxiety, sleep disturbances and isolation that linger for survivors of domestic violence.
A Texas native, Tonini, then 26, discovered yoga as a means of recovery from a violent relationship. "I was in a terrible relationship where eventually he went to jail," she says. "Through the process of all the court appearances, I discovered the practice of yoga and its healing power to make me whole again. I was so numb, I had completely checked out. I had to learn how to breathe. I had no concept how I was holding in every aspect of my life including breathing. Yoga was my lifeline."
Today, four years later, she says: "It is a privilege to see how nourished these women are by yoga," says Tonini. "We create a clear, quiet space for women who basically have left their old lives and are at the shelter seeking to establish a new life. The shelters are places of high risk. We lock the door and for one hour, they are safe."
"I was so grateful for the healing toolbox yoga gave me, I wanted to help other women," she says. Though, she admits witnessing domestic violence survivors who are just coming out of the situation and beginning their healing journey, "has been much more traumatic than I thought. I have to work hard to stay centered in the safe place I am now."
Ultimately, Exhale to Inhale's goal is to help women survivors of domestic violence "embark on a path to heal," says Kate Mitchell, co-director and board secretary, who also is a certified yoga instructor.
"In structuring our yoga classes, we want to provide a well-balanced flow for our students that leaves them feeling grounded, strong, and relaxed at the end of the class," says Mitchell. "Our intention is to create a sense of grounding, empowerment, ease, and ultimately a sense of trust and connection to one's own body."
Mitchell says the process involves asking students to experience the sensations in the body when they are fully breathing in each posture. She adds: "The postures we choose are of course important but more important is how we guide our students into and out of the postures. It is crucial that we integrate the breath into each posture. We also focus on the energetic elements of each posture."
Harlem Yoga Studio on 125th Street in New York has held the teacher training programs for yoga instructors, along with donation-based classes to raise funds to support the Exhale to Inhale.
"The cause is so incredible, so organized and so thoughtful," says Erica Barth, co-owner of Harlem Yoga Studio. "We reached out to help because our mission is to support the physical and mental well-being of women in Harlem and to offer yoga to women who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Whatever we can do to help them offering caring for women survivors in a caring, safe way, we want to provide that space."
What lies ahead for Exhale to Inhale?
Founder LePage says the goal is to build Exhale to Inhale slowly focusing on the quality and content of the healing practices shared with domestic violence survivors, not the quantity of studios offering this tailored yoga practice. She adds that prominent trauma yoga practitioner Victoria Ramos also has trained Exhale to Inhale yoga instructors.
"Our goal is to refine the process and develop training manuals for teachers. We've just added a monthly support meeting for teachers to help them feel more connected," says LePage. "We're here to help women shift their perspective from victim to strong survivor. We tell them, 'You are still here. You are strong and you are beautiful."
And though she's only been teaching the yoga for domestic violence survivors for several months, Tonini says the benefits are fast becoming apparent. "One of the teachers told me that she had a student who walked in with a cane," says Tonini. "She came to the yoga classes for about five weeks, and on the sixth week, walked in without her cane. Women who have been hurt by abuse have no idea how hurt they are on all levels. We give them hope to heal."
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
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This article was written with Mary Beth Sammons, an award-winning journalist and author who writes about the ups and downs of handling life, health and wellness, and reinventing your life with grace and gusto.