How Yoga Helped One Rape Survivor Cope With the Kavanaugh Hearings

Here’s what you can learn from one writer’s path toward healing
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For one victim of sexual assault, rediscovering her yoga practice was the key to lasting healing.

For one victim of sexual assault, rediscovering her yoga practice was the key to lasting healing.

I’m lying flat on my back on the concrete outside a boutique hotel in downtown Portland, Oregon. I’m trying to quiet my thoughts—a battle I’ve been losing for most of the past week. Even with my eyes closed, I feel very aware of the man next to me, resting on his own yoga mat. I flicker back to Judge Kavanaugh, to the arguments and articles and accusations that have driven me to distraction, even at my busy desk job. Then, suddenly, it isn’t yesterday, or last night, or the news, or the stranger beside me. It’s eight years ago, another time I was flat on my back, unable to calm my panicked thoughts.

Clarissa, the yoga instructor, interupts what I have learned are flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the disassociation that’s made the past few days hazy and disorienting. She asks us to choose a mantra that we can repeat to ourselves throughout our yoga practice this morning. Mine rises to the surface, the way a candle starts to burn in the dark—a slow flicker at first, then steady and tall, the light spreading around it slow like honey.

See also Sarah Platt-Finger’s Self-Care Practice for Survivors of Sexual Assault

I am safe in my body. My body is a safe home for me.

This is the first yoga class I’ve taken since I moved to Portland seven months ago. It’s harder than I anticipated. I’m out of shape. I shake in basics like Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana), tremble through Lizard Pose (Utthan Pristhasana), and have to sink back into Child’s Pose (Balasana) more than once when the flow catches up to me. Eight years ago, though, I spent every spare cent on yoga classes, my solace rooted in movement in a way it had never been before and never has been since.

I was lean and strong and excited to see what my body could do. I also couldn’t sleep at night without a worrisome blend of wine, melatonin, Benadryl, and Nyquil. I can’t remember when I really committed to yoga exactly, because so much from that year is a murky mess of lost memories and jumbled timelines—the kind that would have certainly be held against me if I’d ever gone to court over what happened to me.

What I do remember is this: a kundalini yoga workshop at my local belly dance studio. I left feeling alive and powerful and sexy after a morning of yoga in a room full of other women. My then-boyfriend was still in my bed when I got home, disinterested. A few days, a few weeks, was it a month later? The chronology doesn’t matter. The end result was the same. Not long after we broke up, he raped me in my room—no doubt, to him, one last round of breakup sex.

It took five years to name what happened that afternoon for what it was. In that time, I immersed myself in my yoga practice. It was the sticky, sweet end to another Tennessee summer when I tried paddleboard yoga on a whim. By fall I learned how to stand on my head while floating in the placid waters of a cove just off Lake Nickajack, balancing over a deep black ocean of feeling I was incapable of processing. Next, I enrolled in a yoga teacher training, motivated, I thought, by a way out of my dead end job at a bookstore. I was the weakest, newest student there, but I was determined not to fail. Now I know what I was trying to prove—the mantra that would come to me during that yoga class years later in Portland.

See also #TimesUp: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Yoga Community

I am safe in my body. My body is a safe home for me.

When the denial set in, when the trauma was no longer as fresh, when I stopped losing time and drinking so much cheap wine, I started to slack off on my yoga. I got my first full-time job. I started to date again. I only brought up the assault sometimes at the end of the night, tipsy at bars with my girlfriends, trying to sort out the gap between what I knew to be true and what I could manage in the light of day.

I took the occasional yoga class but it became too hard to be present in my body. I gave up bellydance, too, which I’d loved since high school. The warmups before dance class had been my introduction to yoga. Now, though, any kind of meditative movement made me burst into tears. It was easier to stand still, literally and figuratively, than to cope with the way I’d been wounded.

Over the years I’d come back to yoga occasionally, but for the most part it was too much of an emotional risk to maintain with any regularity. Yet here I am, at a yoga class in a new city, on the edge of age 32, almost a decade after I was raped. I keep my eyes locked on the beautiful ferns and moss around me in this outdoor practice, feel the first chill of autumn in the air, and try to relax my jaw, unclench my fists, and work my way back to that mantra.

See also 10 Prominent Yoga Teachers Share Their #MeToo Stories

I am safe in my body. My body is a safe home for me.

Reader, it worked. My body is no longer strong and lean the way it was when I was 24. Eight years of denial and reckoning and retraumatization and the usual slog of your mid-to-late twenties have taken their toll. But my mind is sharp and clear. Three years ago I named what was done to me, and I have slowly begun to heal.

I can’t stand on my head on a paddleboard these days, but I can perform emotional headstands that once felt impossible without falling into a deep cenote of grief. My arms quake with inertia and early arthritis in Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), but for the first time, I find myself floating on the surface of my anger and pain, no longer drowning in victimhood, but buoyed by my own survival.

Meghan O'Dea

Meghan O'Dea

Laying here on the concrete in our final Savasana (Corpse Pose), I inhale deep into my hips, through which my ligaments and tendons and muscles are wound like so much magnetic tape strung through a cassette. My trauma is recorded there, indelible, though it’s surrounded by the static that is implicitly understood by survivors, yet still questioned by the law, the justice system, and those lucky enough to have never been harmed this way. Still, there is room on this analog recording for other stories now, for narratives of my own choosing.

There is space for this moment, this morning hour. Space for reaching up into the air with my heart forward and feeling a full breath fill the depths of me, the seat of all my love and agony and personhood.

Here I am, exhaling the wrong done to me and other women, a hurt that can never be made right. Even in the face of a man not unlike my rapist teetering on the edge of maximum judicial power. Eight years on, I have the capacity to breathe in more than smoke and wine and anguish. Instead, I am nourished by hope born of the knowledge that if we have endured all this, we will continue to survive, thrive, and revive one another.

About the Author
Meghan O’Dea is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. Learn more at meghanodea.com.