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In yoga we say that we can’t always control our external circumstances, but we can control our reactions to them. That is true—unless you are a survivor of sexual assault.
If you are a yoga practitioner like I am and a trauma survivor (like I am), you are still susceptible to retraumatization in triggering situations. Activities like watching the news—especially this week, as allegations of sexual assault against a Supreme Court nominee are dissected on a national stage and shared on screens everywhere—can induce familiar feelings of fear, panic, rage, insecurity, and anxiety.
It has brought up all of that, and more, for me.
During my senior year of college, I was sexually assaulted. I was 21 years old. The perpetrator was technically my boss, who was married with children, and for years I blamed myself for it. I coped with the trauma through self-destructive behavior and did everything I could to abandon myself.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I am still in the process of healing.
It is important to know that the body stores trauma. That’s why the sympathetic nervous system responds to triggering situations as though the traumatic event is happening all over again. Physiologically, your heart rate speeds up, cortisol rushes your body, blood surges to your extremities, and your breath becomes short and erratic.
You may be feeling these fight-or-flight symptoms this week. It does not mean there is something wrong with you, or that you are not a seasoned yogi. It means that you have fought the fight, and you are surviving it. And you are doing the work you need to do in order to show up fully in the world.
Although there is still an element of shame that comes with sharing my story, now I know that I don’t have to run away from it. I have gained a sense of resilience from this experience. Through my personal yoga and meditation practice, I have learned how to live in, respond to, and honor the sensations of my body. No matter what arises, I have the capacity to hold space for it. It is in tolerance of our feelings that creates our ability to heal.
I return to my practice every day on my own mat, and I am fortunate enough to share the transformative tools of the ISHTA Yoga lineage to help others reclaim their sense of self, regardless of whether they have experienced trauma.
In addition, my service on the board of Exhale to Inhale has also given me the ability to help other survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault access the healing power of trauma-informed yoga. It has also empowered me with the language to put words to my experience, and to work through and process it as part of a safe, supported community.
Finally, I have learned that allowing yourself time for self-care helps you create a safe space in your body that brings you back to your true source, which is infinite and untethered.
A Self-Care Practice for Survivors of Sexual Assault
I created the following self-care sequence for survivors of trauma to help get through this week’s challenging news cycle with ease, self-compassion, and peace of mind. Through standing postures, you’ll establish your connection to the Earth, which enables a sense of steadiness and security in the present moment. The most important thing is that you feel safe and strong in your body.
As you move through the sequence, do what feels right for you in your body. These are all suggested postures, and you can modify them in any way to suit you.
Constructive Rest, variation
Begin on your back with your knees bent. Take slow, full, even breaths, paying particular attention to the exhalation as you relax the jaw, face, eyes, and eyebrows. Stay for 5 breaths.
Bridge Pose, moving with the breath
On your inhale, ground down evenly through your feet as you lift your hips up and your arms overhead. Pay particular attention to the connection between your feet and the earth. On your exhale, lower your hips to the floor as your arms float down alongside the body. Do this pose 4-6 times.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) with a strap
Remaining on your back, set your right foot on the floor with your knee bent or extend your leg straight. Place a strap around the sole of your left foot. Press through the ball of the foot, and peel the toes back. Engage through the left quadricep, so the leg remains steady. This posture is a great way to experience a sense of steadiness and ease at the same time. Relax the top of the shoulders, soften your jaw, and notice the areas of your body that tense up out of habit. Holding the pose helps show you where you feel sensation, along with your reaction to the sensation. Hold for 5-7 breaths, then switch sides.
Seated Shoulder Rolls
Roll up to a seated cross-legged position. There are accessory muscles that aid breath function in the neck, so neck and shoulder tension can contribute to the feeling of being unable to breathe. When this happens, it helps to relieve the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Inhale as you bring your shoulders forward and up to the ears; as you exhale, allow your shoulders to release back and down. Do this 3 times.
Drop the right ear to the right shoulder, hold, and come back to center; then drop the left ear to the left shoulder, hold, and come back to center.
Marjaryasana and Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Poses)
Come forward on all fours. Inhale and lift the center of the chest as your face looks up and sitting bones lift. On the exhale, draw your navel up to the spine as you round your spine and release your heart toward the floor. Do each set 4-6 times in concert with the breath, making sure that the length of the inhale and exhale is the same.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
From all fours, sit back onto your heels with your arms extended in front of you. Relax your forehead on a block or on the mat. Resting in this pose opens the back body, which relates to our ability to quiet the internal. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
From Child’s Pose, pay particular attention to your hands and feet, which connect you to the earth, and feel a sense of grounding as you tuck your toes and lift your hips into the pose. Stay here for 3-5 breaths.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Walk your feet all the way to your hands and soften your knees. Take hold of opposite elbows with your hands, and allow your head to hang. This pose helps release the diaphragm and encourages the exhalation, which helps us move away from anxiety and restlessness into relaxation. Stay for 3-5 breaths; halfway through, switch the crossing of your arms, and place the opposite arm on top. Come up to stand, with your lumbar spine supporting your abdominals.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Reconnect to your breath. Align your heels behind the widest part of your feet. In order to feel grounded, supported, and steady, imagine you are receiving the energy of the earth through the soles of your feet. Broaden your collarbones; relax your head and shoulders. Experience the power of standing and feeling present, without needing to move or run away. Stay for 3 breaths.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose) with the breath
As you inhale, bend your knees, reach your seat back, and stretch your arms out in front of you. As you exhale, straighten your legs and float your arms alongside the body. Do each flow 3-5 times.
Prasarita Padottanasana I (Wide-Legged Forward Bend)
Step your feet wide, about a leg’s-width apart, with your feet parallel. Bring your hands to your hips. As you inhale, lift your heart and gaze, and as you exhale, fold forward and take your hands to the floor, or to blocks, below your shoulders. Let go of your head and neck, and as you hold, continue to relax those muscles so they truly release. For a more supported variation (as shown), rest your head on a block and stretch your arms in front of you. Stay for 5 breaths.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Come halfway up into a flat back, slightly bend your knees, bring your hands to your hips, and slowly lift up with a flat back as you inhale. (You may also jump your feet back together.) Shift your weight to the left foot, bring the right foot off the floor, rotate your right thigh open, and place the right foot either above or below the knee joint. Focus your eyes on one point. Press your foot into your thigh as your thigh presses into your foot, creating a lift through your spine. Look at a point in front of you; Tree Pose helps you feel rooted so you can focus your mind. Bring your palms to touch in the center of your chest, or if it feels good for you, stretch the arms overhead. Stay up to 5 breaths. To come out of the pose, bring your hands to your hips, draw your right knee back in, and lower the foot down. Wiggle your feet, and switch sides.
Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Come to the floor on your hands and knees, and then lower onto your belly. Bring your arms alongside your body with your palms facing down. As you breathe in, lift your head, neck, chest, and arms off the floor. Inhale and exhale here for 3-5 breaths. When you’re ready, lower yourself to the floor. With your palms face up, relax your cheek to one side. Feel the support of the earth underneath you. Allow the breath to move into your back body. Switch the cheek resting on the floor.
Roll onto your back, and bend your knees. Lift your hips, and slide a block on its lowest height underneath your sacrum. If you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes. Let your arms float alongside your body, either palms up or down. Feel the support of the block underneath your sacrum. Soften your belly; relax your shoulders, your jaw, your eyes, and your eyebrows. Stay for up to 10 breaths, or as long as it feels good for you. To come out of the pose, lift the hips, slide the block out from underneath you, and slowly lower down, one vertebrae at a time.
Reclined Ankle-to-Knee Pose
Still on your back with your knees bent, cross the right ankle on top of your left thigh. Lift your left foot off the floor and interlace your fingers behind your left thigh. Breathe into the area where you feel sensation in your body. Stay here for 5-8 breaths. When you’re ready, release the left foot, uncross the right ankle, and switch sides.
Release both legs out in front of you. Adjust your body so you feel supported, and pay close attention to the areas of the body that are in contact with the floor. Rest here, softening the muscles of your face, feeling the support of the earth holding you up. Stay in Savasana as long as you would like. When you are ready to come out, roll to one side and slowly come up into a seated cross-legged position. Feel your seat rooting down into the floor, and your spine held tall from inside, like a rod. Your outer body is soft; your head and neck are easeful. Close your practice in this position.
About the Author
Sarah Finger is the co-founder of ISHTA Yoga and the private yoga teacher of Dr. Deepak Chopra. She teaches trainings, workshops, and retreats internationally with her husband, yoga master Alan Finger, and is a featured expert on the wellness platform, Jiyo. Sarah’s values of self-empowerment led her to join the Board of Directors for Exhale to Inhale, a non-profit organization that teaches yoga to survivors of domestic violence. Her daughter, Satya, inspires her to live a life based on love and unbound potential.