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Trauma-Sensitive Yoga for Survivors of Sexual Assault

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This is an interview with Caitlin Lanier, who has pioneered several trauma-sensitive yoga programs in the Boise, Idaho area -- including one at a domestic violence shelter, and two at local universities for survivors of sexual assault (Boise State and College of Idaho). She also trains local yoga teachers on the neuroscience of trauma, and how to integrate trauma-sensitive practices into their teaching. She has woven breathing techniques and mindfulness into a weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence that she co-leads with a licensed clinical social worker.

Rob: How has the awareness gained practicing yoga guided you to seek deeper healing?

Caitlin: During my freshman year of college, I was sexually assaulted. Those assaults led to issues with anorexia, cutting, and trying to numb my uncomfortable feelings. And those were just outward manifestations. Inside, I felt broken, ugly, lost, like I couldn't trust anyone, and so sad.

Eventually, I found my way to yoga, and the concept of ahimsa (non-violence) started to take hold. I vowed to try to stop hurting my body, to stop seeing my body as the enemy, and to take small steps toward health. I started trying to eat healthily and take care of myself in the best way possible, and then I started trail running. I started to be able to sit with uncomfortable emotions, like sadness and despair. I learned that it's normal to feel those things, and I explored various yoga forms and learned breathing techniques to help care for myself.

Later on, while working a high-stress job as a technical writer, I kept coming back to the nourishing effects of yoga. When that job was eliminated, I decided to complete a yoga teacher training and then a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training. As a grad student, I've started a yoga program at Boise State University called "Healing Breath Trauma-Sensitive Yoga" for survivors of sexual assault. Since I personally know the transformative effects of yoga, and how it helped me befriend my body, I'm eager to share and help others.

What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Following my experience with trauma in 2004, I joined a support group for fellow survivors of sexual assault, and went to a counselor. This counselor forced me to tell him exact details of what had happened during my experiences of sexual assault. I noticed that instead of feeling better, I felt worse -- it was re-traumatizing.

The reason I started with this work was because of my experience with trauma, and feeling a lack of options for healing, given my experience with the counselor. I understand the trauma experience and aim to hold safe, healthy spaces for individuals to start or continue the healing process.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

Before I started working with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, I believed that trauma survivors are extremely vulnerable and I was scared to death of unintentionally triggering someone. What I've found is that, yes, some survivors are extremely vulnerable and can be triggered easily, but they are also extremely resilient, and their very act of stepping into a yoga class is very brave.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

Two distinctions are in language, and respect for participants' physical space.

I utilize invitational language, such as "I invite you, if you'd like, etc." My use of language is intentional, as I want to convey the idea that the participants are in control of their bodies, and it is their choice to move however and whenever they want. I also use interoceptive language, such as "notice, investigate," etc., intended for participants to experience what's happening in their bodies in the present moment.

I do not offer physical assists. My intention when teaching is to simply offer options, not to command poses and correct supposed imperfections. I view all yoga poses in the class as optional; perfection is not the goal, but rather each pose is an opportunity to explore the body.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

One piece of teaching yoga that I find to be especially challenging is the one-size-fits-all model that is the West's interpretation of group yoga classes. Yoga was originally taught one-on-one with a student reporting to the teacher various ailments that he/she was experiencing, and the teacher/guru working with that individual to design a yoga practice that would specifically benefit him/her. So, add that into work with trauma survivors, and it's all really tricky. Two especially helpful things are built into the trauma-sensitive protocol: from the beginning I let students know that they are free and welcome to do any pose they want at any time, and also that they are in control and the experts of their own bodies.

I have many friends and family who have given me support, whether monetarily to pay for yoga mats, or through verbal encouragement; and I hope anyone teaching this population can find the same. By the same token, my students are supported by their friends/family, who volunteer to babysit their kids or make them dinner so that they can take the class and continue their healing process.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

Get the appropriate training (i.e., Dave Emerson's 40-hour trauma-sensitive yoga teacher training at Kripalu), partner with licensed mental health practitioners, put yourself in the shoes of your participants, be mindful and open to feedback, and trust yourself.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

My hope is that more studios will offer free classes to make yoga accessible to the whole community. I also hope that NIMH will fund more research studies on yoga for trauma treatment, as well as other disorders (i.e., depression and anxiety). We are increasingly aware that yoga and mindfulness work an as ancillary treatment for these disorders, but my hope is we can gain more understanding as to how and precisely which of these yoga exercises works most effectively. I hope for more randomized control trials with large sample sizes to empirically show what works best, and what doesn't.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

I used to think of service as a one-way road -- one person giving, and another person receiving. Now I see it as a round-about where I'm giving my yoga teaching and also learning from my students.

My definition and practice of yoga has changed, too. I used to be into a physically active practice and strove to do everything the teacher instructed. Now I see yoga as a scientific wellness system for mind, body, and spirit, and I listen to my body and heed its messages. If I'm feeling worn down, I'll aim for a practice with slow movements and more restorative postures. Additionally, when I attend classes, I often "disobey" the teacher and do what pose feels best to me.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Need help? In the U.S., callNeed help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-DONTCUT for the S.A.F.E. Alternatives hotline.