ISSUE #015 - Jun 05, 2019
In the Aftermath of Sexual Assault, Yoga Provides Healing
The idea behind the practice is simple but revolutionary: What if recovery for psychological trauma begins not in the mind, but in the body?
Michelle Woo interview with Zabie Yamasaki
This article was originally published here: https://redditblog.com/2016/03/01/in-the-aftermath-of-sexual-assault-yoga-provides-healing/ and is reprinted with permission from Zabie Yamazaki and the author, Michelle Woo.”
In a university conference room, 10 women rest on yoga mats. One is laying flat on her back, her palms facing the ceiling. Another is sitting up with the soles of her feet pressed together. Curled in fetal position, one closes her eyes.
“Know that there is nothing left to do,” the instructor Zabie Yamasaki tells them, her voice bright and calming over the instrumental soundtrack. “You made it to your mat, and that’s the hardest part. Honor your body. Honor your breath. I invite you to drop into this moment.”
She guides them into the posture samastitihi, or standing in balance.
“I invite you to draw your palms together at heart center if that feels comfortable for you,” she says. “Maybe rub your palms together to allow the heat to radiate. If it feels okay, place those palms over your heart.”
As several follow her lead, she reads a quote by author Louise Hay:
“The past is over and done and has no power over me. I can begin to be free …”
There’s a cry in the room. Yamasaki acknowledges it as a sign of connection—a beautiful thing—and continues. She raises her arms upward for a sun salutation.
“Extend your energy and intention high to the sky,” she says.
The students move through a sequence of postures, and lower onto their knees. They make circles with their arms as Yamasaki reads another quote, this one by singer Leonard Cohen.
“There is a crack,” she says. “A crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.”
Zabie Yamasaki (Photo by Garrett Yamasaki Photography)
The group has gathered for a yoga session for survivors of sexual assault, a program that Yamasaki created and now runs at the University of California, Los Angeles. These classes, which have been adapted by college campuses across California, are a way for survivors to establish a sense of safety within themselves and “uncover layers of pain to get to the core of who they have always been.”
Students simply want to feel better. They come in with hazy hopes and batteries of ailments—muscle tension, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, or a repulsion or addiction to food.
A 23-year-old woman named Nicole Taylor, who had never done yoga before, says she entered the program “at a very low point,” addicted to being busy, not sleeping at night and struck with a twitch. When she first stepped onto her mat, she says, “I was kind of just done with the world and done with people.”
The philosophy behind the program is simple, yet in the treatment of trauma patients, profound—and possibly revolutionary. It is that the path to psychological healing begins not in the mind, but in the body, where memories gnaw and surface without warning.
For survivors of sexual assault, their bodies, so grossly violated, no longer feel like their own. There’s often a cloud of shame around them—survivors may wonder whether their bodies lured on the assault somehow, or if they could have fought harder to prevent it. These bodies now jump at shadows, jolt up during nightmares and turn away from lovers. These bodies often become numbed with drugs or alcohol.
For years, survivors were told they had to talk about what happened. Give us all the details, investigators would say. What were you wearing? Why were you there? Where did he touch you? Why didn’t you run?
Friends and family may not offer much more comfort. There’s a tendency for society to use “blaming language,” says the 31-year-old Yamasaki, who has eyes that seem to smile and an aura of gentleness. “When people don’t know how to support a survivor, they’re quick to want to fill in the gaps, asking questions like, ‘Why did you stay when you didn’t want to be there?’”
But when survivors try to recount the incident or express how they feel in the aftermath, words often evade them. As Yamasaki explains, the issue begins with a region in the brain called the amygdala, our emotional control center that plays a central role in processing fear. When trauma occurs, the amygdala kicks into overdrive, triggering a fight-or-flight response and identifying danger when none may be present. As this happens, the hippocampus, the part of the brain largely responsible for memory formation, gets flooded with the stress hormone cortisol.
“Imagine Post-It notes on your desk, arranged the way they’re supposed to be,” Yamasaki explains. “And then somebody comes over and wipes those notes away, crumples some, hides some in the drawers, throws some in the trash. That’s what’s happening to the memories survivors have associated with their trauma.”
Survivors may try to avoid this process and the pain it brings by slipping away from their bodies, or “dissociating.” As a result, talking about the assault, in therapist’s chair or police report, becomes a major challenge, so many don’t. An average of 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.
Yamasaki explains, “When somebody is in a total state of fight or flight and their nervous system is deregulated and their memories are fragmented, and then they’re trying to tell a police officer what happened, it’s no wonder why we don’t have a lot of cases that move forward to be successfully prosecuted.”
Yamasaki’s program of “trauma-informed yoga” aims to reacquaint survivors with their bodies.
“This practice is really about noticing.” Yamasaki says. “Where do you feel today? Where do you notice you might be carrying trauma in your body?” Acknowledging physical sensations, and knowing that they can and will dissolve, can allow survivors to become comfortable again in their skin.
Research support such practices. A study by the Trauma Center, founded by renowned psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, found that a short-term yoga program was associated with reduced trauma symptoms in women with PTSD. Yoga, the report states, “may act as a treatment bridge, increasing a sense of awareness, safety and mastery over one’s body while building skills to effectively interpret and tolerate physiological and affective states.”
Since 2011, when Yamasaki started five- or eight-week yoga series, she’s been astounded by the victories participants have shared. One woman said she stopped binge eating after the course. Others have been able to become intimate with a partner again. Some have even decided to report their assault to the police.
“So many people think, ‘Oh, yoga. It’s self-care. It’s relaxing,’” Yamasaki says. “But when you’re seeing it as a critical piece in trauma treatment, it’s a total reframe. If doctors could write a prescription for yoga therapy and if it was covered by medical insurance, we would see such a difference in the healing and health of our society.”
The classes look like traditional yoga sessions, though the differences are intentional, and important. They’re typically smaller so that students don’t feel claustrophobic. There are no straps hanging on the wall. The room is never heated. (While Yamasaki’s current class is all female, she stresses that men and transgender people who have survived sexual assault are also welcome to participate.)
Before the workshop, participants fill out a form and list the physical and emotional conditions they are experiencing. Yamasaki then tailors her classes to their needs. If several women are having flashbacks and nightmares, for example, she might move through yoga postures that will help them feel anchored in the present, such as a flow from mountain pose to tree pose. The act of balancing can be “incredibly grounding,” Yamasaki says.
Gastrointestinal symptoms are common for survivors of trauma, and to help those students experiencing them, Yamasaki might guide the class through twisting postures, which can massage internal organs, and help with digestion and promote detoxification. To address depression, Yamasaki might do a sequence of postures to activate the body—for instance, forward bends up to sun salutations and through warrior poses.
Certain postures are avoided, particularly ones that expose the pelvic area. “Happy baby” and “plow pose”— in which the back rests on the floor and the legs are lifted off the ground and into the air—can make a survivor feel vulnerable. Teachers will never walk up to a student and fix her posture, nor will they call out her name and remind her to relax her shoulders. Survivors may not be ready to be touched or seen.
There is also no cued breathing. Paced breathing tapes, ujjayi pranayama exercises or prompts such as “inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth” can be triggering for survivors who may have been choked during an assault or have flashbacks involving breath.
Language is critical. Trauma-informed yoga teachers use words that put survivors in control of their practice, empowered to choose whether they want their bodies to be still or explore.
Each phrase is a soft invitation: “I invite you to relax the jaw, relax the shoulders, lengthen the spine,” Yamasaki shares.
She reminds students that if they feel like simply laying on their mats and sleeping for an hour-and-a-half, they can and they should—because that’s what their body craves.
In one of her courses, an 11-year-old girl would come week after week and crumple into fetal position and sob. “I wanted to hold space for her,” Yamasaki says. “If you need this space to feel safe and cry for an hour and 15 minutes, then that’s what you do.”
Ishani Patel, a 22-year-old student, decided to take the course after trying talk therapy and “hitting a wall.” In her sessions, she’d always get to a point where she couldn’t talk anymore, and walking out the door, she never really felt better than when she first walked in. She then tried pretending the assault never happened.
“I didn’t want to deal with the emotions—the helplessness and anger and fear and sadness,” Patel says. “That was how I coped. I stopped myself from really feeling anything. I was operating in this sense of numbness.”
She came into the class with tension in her shoulders and base of her neck—her therapist told her these issues arose because she tried to make herself small. She would follow the movements until one day, “it hit me.”
In the middle of a posture, Yamasaki read a quote by poet Nayyirah Waheed: “‘I love myself.’ The quietest. Simplest. Most powerful. Revolution. Ever.”
“I was just laying on my back and feeling really relaxed, and it just sort of overwhelmed me and I just started crying,” Patel describes. “Normally, I wouldn’t allow myself to do that, to let tears flow down my face. I didn’t realize that I needed to release these emotions. But something connected, something unlocked.”
She explains that, intellectually, she always knew that an assault is never a survivor’s fault, but she could never quite affirm that in her own narrative. Hearing the words “I love myself” just “knocked me out.”
She adds, “I was crying because I don’t yet feel that way about myself. But I was also crying because I’m working my way towards feeling that way.”
Yamasaki was sexually assaulted by a stranger during her senior year of college at the University of California, Irvine. (She declines to share the details, believing that the aftermath is what’s important.) After the incident, her personality changed—she began sleeping in and not attending classes, staying in sweats all day and developing a complex relationship with food.
She started having horrible stomach problems and would experience sudden flashbacks any time she saw a person who resembled her perpetrator. If a friend touched her wrist to get her attention, she’d feel completely startled. Her wrists, she says, are a place where she holds her trauma.
Actively involved in school organizations, Yamasaki felt like she had become two completely different people, one who was “on” in public and numb while alone. She began seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants. “I was like, ‘I need something now. I’m a leader on campus. I’m president of my sorority. I’ve gotta get my shit together.’ When you experience trauma, in the beginning, you’ll try anything. You say, ‘What is gonna make me feel better? Because I wake up and everything just feels out of control.’”
After graduating, she moved to San Diego to start a fresh life. One day, while working at a nonprofit in San Diego, two of her coworkers invited her to a yoga class. She went, and afterwards, she felt differently. She felt better. So she went back again, and again. After each class, she’d walk out of the studio with a little more clarity than she had before.
Yoga, she says, was changing her.
“It was so much more than what was happening within the four corners of my mat,” she explains. “It was changing the way I treated myself. It was changing my relationships. People were like, ‘You’re glowing. You’re so calm.’”
It was hard, physically and emotionally. If she was in a downward-facing dog posture, for instance, memories would be activated, but she knew the uncomfortable sensations would come to an end. “I would think, ‘Maybe I’m being triggered right now, but I have all the tools I need inside my body to feel better,” she says. “It’s a frame of mind. I realized I am really fucking strong and resilient. I am so much more than my assault.”
Yamasaki went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. to earn a graduate degree in higher education administration and student affairs, and then returned to UC Irvine to work as the assistant director of a resource center for survivors of sexual assault, relationship abuse and stalking.
As other survivors started sharing their stories with her, she knew she wanted to help connect them with yoga. She started reading books on the intersection of yoga and psychological trauma—Emotional Yoga by Bija Bennet, Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, Yoga for Emotional Balance by Bo Forbes and later, Survivors on the Yoga Matby Becky Thompson.
She devoured materials on the effects of trauma on the brain and the body. “I turned every page, and it was like yes, yes, and it all makes sense.”
Zabie Yamasaki (Photo by Garrett Yamasaki Photography)
College survivors are leading the national dialogue on sexual assault. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz made headlines for carrying her mattress around campus in protest of the administration’s handling of her alleged rape. At the Academy Awards on Sunday night, Lady Gaga sang her piercing song “Til It Happens to You,” featured in The Hunting Ground, an Oscar-nominated documentary exploring sexual assault on college campuses.
Yamasaki developed a yoga curriculum that explores a different theme each week, such as safety, mindfulness, boundaries, assertiveness, strength, trust, and community. She intersperses the practice with quotes that move her, and adds activities such journaling and art therapy to each session. Her program has expanded into a yoga consulting business, Transcending Sexual Trauma through Yoga, through which she aims to work with not only more universities across the country, but rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, E.M.D.R. therapists and mental health professionals. She believes there is a critical need for body-based interventions as part of a multi-layered approach to psychological healing, which can be a lifelong process.
While the class isn’t about talking, participants often end up doing so anyway. There’s a shared understanding of they’re all there, Yamasaki says.
“We can breathe here and share energy here and share space here,” she adds. “There’s something so sacred about that bond.”
They’ll chat about their lives, their progress.
For Taylor, a breakthrough came one night as she was lying in bed. She was having a panic attack, again. They’d come on from time to time, a dark spiral of flashbacks from the assault, trapping her mind and body for hours.
But this time, something changed. She’d been taking Yamasaki’s classes for a few weeks, and had been practicing sitting and breathing.
“A lesson I learned in yoga was accepting things the way they are,” Taylor says. “I told myself, ‘I’m just going to accept this. This is a moment that’s going to pass. It’s not real. I am in charge of my body and myself.’ And eventually, after a few minutes, the panic attack stopped. It was amazing. I never thought I’d be able to do something like that.”
It is a practice. On her yoga mat, Yamasaki lays on her back, gazing upwards. The students do the same. Some hug their knees close to their chests. They breathe.
“Know that whatever is arising or coming up for you is okay,” she says. “Notice it, let it be, and let it go.”
Zabie Yamasaki: Having the opportunity to transform her own trauma through the practice of yoga, Zabie Yamasaki, truly believes in the healing power of asana practice. For years, Zabie’s unwavering support for survivors of sexual trauma has manifested itself in many forms. She has ultimately made it her life’s goal to help empower survivors of assault to regain their strength and self-worth. She is extremely passionate about yoga and its ability to help individuals connect to their emotions, be present on the mat, develop peace of mind, and take the necessary steps to become their most true, authentic self. www.zabieyamasaki.com
Michelle Woo: twitter @michellewoo
IN THIS ISSUE
- 1RE-PAIRING: Seven Principles for Enlightening Conversations
- 2The Yoga of Healthy Relationships: Using Embodied Communication to create deeper connections
- 3Three People in a Room: Dr. David Bullard on Couples in Therapy
- 4When Childhood Trauma Meets Healing Relationships
- 5Stressful Life Memories Relate to Ruminative Thoughts in Women With Sexual Violence History, Irrespective of PTSD
- 6MAP Training My Brain™: Meditation Plus Aerobic Exercise Lessens Trauma of Sexual Violence More Than Either Activity Alone
- 7In the Aftermath of Sexual Assault, Yoga Provides Healing
- 8Working the Land, Working the Self: Understanding Healing and Embodiment Through Diverse Traditions
- 9Somatic Practices and Dance: Global Influences,
- 10Mothering and Matriarchy
- 11Sonic Healing Through Vedic Chanting