I had my own sexual trauma at thirteen. It took only a few minutes. I can’t remember it all, but can still feel the pebbles and grit embedded in my opened-up palms, see my ripped jeans, and taste the blood inside my mouth from where my face was shoved into the ground. I can still smell their boozed-up breath on my neck and feel their thick hands and fingers. It was a one time event, but my perpetrators went to school with me. I had to face all three of them for the next five years in classrooms and even at parties. I had no one to talk to, no therapy, no coping strategy.
I begged my parents and the male police officer, who spoke with me about it immediately afterwards, to drop it. I gave no details. Details would have made me cry.
“I’ll be fine.” I said.
What I wanted to say was, “Shut up. Shut up.”
And like a miracle, they did. My parents and the cop, they shut up. In a span of less than fifteen minutes, they were gone.
I was left alone with the sound of my body hitting the pavement hard and the boys laughing and squealing in my head. It was like taking a deep inhale, closing off your ears, eyes, nose and mouth, and never exhaling again. I failed to mention “the event” again until I was 30 and in therapy for self-hatred so thick, I could stir it. Thanks God for the panic attacks that led me to the office of a persistent and wise therapist. I had no idea my low self-esteem and carefully hidden self-destructive behaviors were linked to what happened at thirteen. All I knew was I had spiraled to a black bottom and couldn’t find my way back up.
When my colleague recently asked, “Would you teach yoga to a small group of teen girls with sexual trauma?” I was surprised at how fast I answered yes.
The first class I taught to the girls, I sat cross-legged in front of them. There were five of them. Someone had donated brand new Jade yoga mats. Expensive and you could smell the newly recycled rubber. Four of the girls were sitting upright, their upper backs rounded and chests slightly sunken. One girl, model tall with a striking afro, was curled up on her side. She was the youngest of the group.
These girls were beautiful, raw, scrubbed clean, and swallowed up in baggy sweats. They were black, white, and Latina and ranged in ages from 14 to 18. One wore the cursive name of a boyfriend in thick letters across her collarbones. Another had a homemade lotus tattoo inked between the top of her thumb and index finger.
Staff from the residential setting had to be in the room with the girls at all times. Something to do with the fact that some of them were in this residential treatment center because of a court-order. A few of the girls had acted out violently to get placed here. If they repeated their aggressive behavior, the next placement could be jail Some came into the program addicted to drugs, mostly heroin. I preferred knowing less about each girl’s personal background. To me, they were all girls with shame locked inside and whose authority over their own bodies had been taken away long before they arrived at the center. My job was to help them find a safe and compassionate place to go underneath their skin so they could find some comfort and begin the healing process in their bodies.
I wore my tie-dyed yoga pants. Not to be flashy but because I believed yoga helps us all to shimmer no matter how dim we’ve gotten. I didn’t want to be another dreary adult.
I’m so much older than these girls. Probably older than their mothers. I’m sure they think we have nothing in common. I saw the glazed looks. Their invisible hands cupped off their ears, eyes, nose and mouth to me. They’re not about to let another grown up in so easy, even if she’s wearing sparkly pants.
I was the grown up now with a yoga studio, husband, and kids. It’s a life I never would have believed I could have or deserved. When I was the same age as these girls, my story was I slimed everything that came within touching distance. I turned anything precious into shit. This was why boys would force their bodies onto me.
I was bad. My body was bad. The world was unsafe. But even worse, I was more so. If I was to let my true self out of her locked room then I would ruin everything. It was better to stay small and messed up and so I did by putting myself in unsafe situations with boys, flunking out of school, getting drunk, and hating my body. Shame and fear buried their faces into my cell tissues and climbed down into my bone matter. I was lucky to have found tools to excavate.
Therapy and yoga were my tools. Therapy started to unravel the event and showed me how I had gone through life operating through the lens of my trauma, distorting my self worth. In therapy, I began to try to widen my view but I just couldn’t seem to get it to stay open. It wasn’t until I practiced yoga that I could actually begin to let go of self-hatred and expand myself to feel high-quality feelings such as self-love and trust. I had needed to make the connections in my body. It was then that I began to grow.
Yoga walks us down the stairs and into the shut-down or painful places in our body. The skills a yoga teacher imparts upon their students are not just the alignment of the body. She teaches skills for how to “be” in our bodies. We learn how to be the witness to all that we clutch including our traumas. We learn how to open the fists that hold our past wounds and let them be released. The yoga teacher will guide the student to breathe, relax, feel, watch, and allow. Some poses bring up strong sensations, while other bring about soft openings.
The survivor of trauma should be led through each pose in small increments, meaning they participate in as much or as little of the pose as they want. For instance, I gave my students options to create movement and different sensations in a pose by exploring gentle movement or stillness. They are given the choice to either open their eyes or shut them. There is no right or wrong. Yoga becomes inquiry, an investigation into yourself, and into what feels safe, right, and true.
Survivors of trauma should be taught poses involving ease as well as poses requiring strength. They have come to yoga to heal and healing is not one-dimensional nor is it linear. It requires giving your body full access to its weaknesses and capabilities. We don’t want to be cut off from any aspects of ourselves. Yoga gives us back our lost instincts and feelings. Yoga with permission, self-observation, and non-judgement can be an important ingredient in the antidote for sexual trauma.
I’m 48 and just when I think I have dealt with all my shame and fear, something shifts, and fragments, blistered and charred, reveal themselves. Each time they do, I am more skilled at cleaning out my wounds in a healing way.
I’m working on being both vulnerable and self-empowered at the same time. I’m learning how to sit with difficult feelings instead of cutting myself off from them. To be with what makes me feel raw and uncomfortable is actual strength. Its still hard for me to identify what I feel and let myself fully feel it. There were so many years of denying. Any feeling can be too much for me- pleasure and anger are the hardest.
Sonny, the newest arrival to the program, and described by the staff as the girl with the most severe PTSD symptoms, looked up at me from the back of the room. She took me in, my middle-aged whiteness, my privilege, my tie-dyed pants, and then she gave me a smile which worked itself across her face, .
In that moment, I understood she was trying to make it easier for me and was sensitive to the emotions in the room. Sonny was a feeler of other people’s feelings and so was I. This a common trait for those of us who have gone through sexual trauma. We tune into other people’s guts for our own survival. Sonny was trying to care give me. I didn’t want her to but I decided to let her. It made her feel safe. I smiled back.
If there was one thing I could do, I would go back and tell my thirteen year old self that she was going to be OK. I would tell her that the trauma, which made her feel so damaged, would eventually transform her.
Each girl resonated with different aspects of the yoga. To say you should teach this to a girl with sexual trauma but not that doesn’t make any sense. One of the girls, who was dissociative and couldn’t feel most of her body, felt her belly for the first time after a few rounds of Kapalabhati, a breathing exercise where you do strong inhales and exhales through the nose and snap the belly back on the exhale. Its loud noisy breathing. For some, the sound of forceful breathing could be triggering, but to her it was healing.
She would request it each time.
When we were done with Kapalabhati, she would fold her body into child’s pose with her knees tucked into her belly and her forehead pressed onto her mat. She would often remain in this pose even though other poses were being taught. Eventually she would come out of child’s pose and join us in whatever we were doing, but sometimes when I looked at her slight body tucked into a cocoon like that, I saw invisible wings loosely pulsing like a heartbeat across her back.
One day she wasn’t in class. The staff reported she had run away. She returned a few days later. I was told bad things happened to her while she was on the streets. When the drugs and alcohol left her system, she came back to class. (I’m so grateful her therapists allowed her to rejoin the yoga class and didn’t restrict her-they could have.) After that, she stayed in child’s pose always, except at the very end, when the time came to sit up and put your hands on your heart and chant OM. I would look over and she would be right there, among the others, sitting up and paying attention, her head bowed as if in prayer.
On the last day of class, she gave me a pen which she had covered with red and pink duck tape. With her own hands, she had shaped the end of the duck tape covered pen into a flower. The petals were both open and sharp. The pen felt heavy in my hand. I turned the flower pen over in my palms and held it loosely.
Yoga makes room for damage. It doesn’t try to squeeze it. Yoga might churn you or soothe you, but it will never make any judgements.
Once the girls had been practicing regularly and were no longer beginners, I built in time at the end of each class for them to choose their own poses. This meant they could go into any pose and be guided by their own intuition. No pose was too “advanced” or too “easy” for them to experiment with. I would turn the music up and the sound would create a buffer between each girl, giving them some privacy and allowing them to move in their own unique way.
The girl with the lotus tattoo on her hand would go into headstand. She would also break out into laughter sometimes. My intuition told me not to stop her because each time she did it, it felt like an air-bubble popping.
When she turned upside down, she was quiet and determined. She began doing headstands outside of class, practicing them in her room. She said they calmed her. She said it helped her deal with her anger towards her mother.
She asked me if I ever thought she could become a yoga teacher.
“Yes. Yes. Yes.” I answered.
The world needs her. I need her.
In the last class Sonny held downward facing dog on the wall for at least a full minute. This is a pose that requires a high degree of upper body strength, core strength, and focus. Its not for the weak. The only way to master this pose is not to fight it but embrace it. Her dark curly hair was pulled up high on her head. Sweat dripped from her brow. Her yoga pants were a maze of bright colors. Sonny had at least another year in the residential program, but in that moment, upside down in a challenging bad ass pose, her future or her past were not what mattered.
Balanced on two arms, she raised one of her candy colored legs up to the ceiling and spread her toes. Her energy pulled itself upwards to the sky. Sonny was discovering what her body could do. The different ways it could hold her.
As I watched her, I could see was how strong she was and how alive. In that brief moment, I knew Sonny had found her own center, the place that will move her through the darkness and the unspeakable, and bring her out to the light. It might be fleeting for now, but her personal power was there, and once discovered, it can’t be forgotten.
Danna Faulds, a yoga teacher and poet, writes, “Choosing yoga is saying yes to life and yes to healing.” When we were abused, there was no choice. All of the girls in this yoga program have chosen yoga as part of their therapy. Besides being in the residential center for sexual trauma, saying yes to yoga was the only prerequisite.
My therapist told me it wasn’t the event which did the most damage, but the years afterwords where shame ruled me. I had no tools. I had been left outside without cover, to fend on my own.
Whenever we believe we are separate, we suffer. 75% of females are sexually abused in their lifetime. We are all impacted. There is no separation and suffering is real. Trauma is real. Healing doesn’t happen by repressing, ignoring, or transcending the suffering. Healing requires attention and love. Yoga is the practice of attention and love in our bodies.
Trauma humbles us. It transform us. In the end, if we give our wounds the love they need and deserve to be healed, it will bring out what matters the most.
Anne Falkowski has been teaching and practicing yoga for over 15 years. Currently she is obsessed with Forrest Yoga and can’t possibly relax her neck enough. She writes for her blog annefalkowski.com and owns a yoga studio in Connecticut. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image courtesy of adifansnet.