First it was her mother. Then it was a friend in college. And another friend. And another friend. As each person told Zoë LePage her experience of domestic or sexual violence, she was moved by the survivors. “I was furious that my loved ones had gone through this—that someone had violated them like this and made them feel less than. I wanted to create space for them and other individuals who had similar experiences, so they could do the work of healing,” she says.
Then, in her senior year of college, LePage’s women’s leadership–studies program tasked her with finding a way to change the world. She knew it needed to address trauma from sexual and domestic assaults.
LePage thought about how much yoga had helped her with anxiety and depression between high school and college. “Yoga gave me a sense of strength and stability that nothing else could provide,” says LePage, who completed her first yoga teacher training in 2009. Hoping yoga would have the same effect on survivors, LePage founded Exhale to Inhale (ETI) in 2013, to bring free yoga classes to people who’d experienced trauma.
The name of the nonprofit organization comes from a quote her yoga teacher Jodie Rufty would say: “Sometimes you need to let go of that which is no longer serving you in order to fill yourself back up.” LePage explains, “In my mind, that translated into, ‘You need to exhale in order to inhale.’”
ETI yoga instructors visit domestic and sexual violence shelters and rape crisis and community centers to teach free, trauma-informed yoga classes to the survivors and staff there. What a class looks like: The lights remain on, there is no music, everyone is oriented to face the entry and exit point of the room, and the instructor stays on her mat or in her chair. “Part of that method is so that the students have someone to copy, and part of it is easing the anxiety of students who may be hypervigilant. The idea of someone coming up behind them or there being someone they need to track as they walk around the room is a distraction,” she says.
Instructors also use invitational language. “We want our students to have the experience of noticing the sensations in their body and making choices based on that,” LePage says. So teachers use phrases like, “I invite you to try...” and “This is option A; this is option B. Or you can choose none of the above.”
This empowers students and helps them reconnect to their bodies in a positive way. “For someone who has experienced trauma, her body has been violated. You do not feel safe in it or you feel disconnected from it,” LePage says. “We hold space for people to be present in the moment, to connect to how their bodies move in space, and to recognize how those movements make them feel emotionally and physically. When our students begin to experience this, they may slowly incorporate that new way of being into their everyday lives so they can create the lives they want.”