“Don’t worry about my black eye,” one yoga student assured her instructor. “I can see you out of my other eye just fine.”
The instructor, DK Dyson, has been teaching yoga for over 30 years, but the women she teaches through a program called Exhale to Inhale are, she says, “the strongest women I’ve ever taught in my life.”
Exhale to Inhale is a New York City-based nonprofit that brings free yoga classes to women in shelters and community centers in New York City, the Hudson Valley, Connecticut, and, most recently, Los Angeles. The classes, developed for survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, use a clinically supported trauma-informed yoga technique to bring relief, self-awareness, and empowerment.
Trained to look beyond physical symptoms of abuse, Exhale to Inhale instructors must be ready to react to the subtle signs of trauma that may surface during class.
“Physically, they’re strong,” DK explains. “They have a solidity about them that is palpable. They’ve gone through intense trauma…rapes, domestic violence, their children being hurt. That’s the only thing different about them than your average woman who has not gone through severe trauma. They know they’ve made it through.”
But their outer strength can mask an intense vulnerability, and Exhale to Inhale classes provide a safe space for students to face and slowly confront their fears.
Trauma occurs on a spectrum, DK believes, and whether teaching “regular” fast-paced or trauma-informed yoga, she’s always on the alert. In a regular class, trauma may surface as hesitation in a pose, shaking that’s not related to muscle fatigue, or shallow breathing that leads to crying. In Exhale to Inhale classes, signs are more intense. “Faces turn red. Hands go into fists. Someone starts blinking with fear or hyperventilating.”
That’s when DK’s training kicks in. “I have to offer a choice before they go there….I tell them, ‘You can move with us into the next position or not.’ If they think too hard about a certain pose or see a pose that triggers them, they’ll start to shake, almost run out of the room….It’s my job to let them dissociate for a minute and fight through it and come back. It’s very a fine line between interruption of someone’s development and strength, and bringing somebody back to safety.”
One in 3 women has been a victim of physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. (1) One in 5 women has been a victim of rape. (2)
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence informs us that sexual assault and rape by an intimate partner, “are used to intimidate, control, and demean.” (3)
It’s a spiritually destructive blow which the body holds onto over time.
Physical and emotional consequences of intimate partner assault range from chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, gynecological complications, and cervical cancer to depression, drug use, eating disorders, self-blame, avoidance of sex, PTSD, and attempted or completed suicide. (4)
The mission of Exhale to Inhale, founded in 2013 by Zoë LePage, then a senior in Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, is to bring the healing power of yoga to those affected by domestic violence and sexual assault – especially those who would most benefit and might not otherwise have access to it – to empower the survivors, transform their lives, and ultimately help them step out of the cycle of violence in their families and communities.
The name Exhale to Inhale refers to the need to let go in order to move forward. As over one-third of intimate assault survivors suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (5), and as recovery from PTSD depends on being able to endure one’s own sensations and memories long enough to process them, finding a way to let go is crucial.
Many survivors don’t get relief through talk therapy or “exposure” treatment because they can’t focus long enough to make progress.
Trauma-informed yoga represents a potential breakthrough.
A 10-week study, published by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, followed 64 women with PTSD that was not responding to traditional treatment. Half the women took a weekly 1-hour trauma-informed yoga class. The other half attended a weekly 1-hour women’s health education support group.
At the end of the 10 weeks, 52% of the women in the yoga group no longer suffered with PTSD, versus 21% in the control group. And while both groups improved, the yoga group maintained improvement to the end of the study, while those in the support group tended to relapse. (6)
Under the guidance of her instructor, a survivor learns to notice, tolerate, manage, and, finally, reinterpret her sensations. She becomes grounded in her body, empowered, and able to self-regulate. She can feel safe in the present.
To encourage a sense of safety, Exhale to Inhale classes are taught with lights on and no music. The teacher stays on her own mat. Students are encouraged to feel curious about their own bodily sensations and are guided with words like “notice” and “allow,” and invitational phrases like, “when you’re ready,” and “if you like.”
Says DK, “A student will tell me in a little girl’s voice, ‘I can’t do that,’ and I say, ‘You’ve been through so much more…this is nothing.’ Before you know it, they’re doing it.” Within a few months, they’re loving the pose and asking for challenges.
For many women, the time spent on their mat is the first time, possibly in years, they feel safe and can breathe freely.
“I love these classes because the students tend to talk back,” DK says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh hell yeah, I’m feeling it in my legs,” then ask each other, “Where do you feel it?’ I’ll say, ‘Make sure you feel at ease,” and someone will say, ‘Yes, sister DK, I’m feelin’ fuckin’ at ease now!’”
A student can also choose not to try a pose. “Most survivors have not been given a choice. Now they have a choice to say ‘No,’ and it’s perfectly ok. That’s a breakthrough in itself.”
DK, herself a survivor of rape and domestic violence, used yoga in the past to, “bring my sanity back, bring me back to function … to get up and give my daughter breakfast and get her to school after a night of being knocked around.”
Today yoga brings her what she calls “dignity of carriage” as well as physical strength.
“I can walk into any place and feel like I belong. Or, if I’m not comfortable, I have the strength of mind to say to myself, ‘No, let’s go.’ Yoga nourishes me…it literally saved my life on a daily basis. If I didn’t have yoga, as a professional musician, vocalist and composer, and coming from the deep ‘hood of Brooklyn, I would have been into serious heavy drugs, dead, or in jail. Yoga makes me feel like I belong. Across social strata, race, gender, culture, yoga gives me a solid place to be in the world. I belong here.”
Exhale to Inhale instructors are also counseled on ways to protect themselves emotionally when they teach.
“I’m aware, but I’m not going to baby them,” DK says. “I protect myself by not feeling sorry for anyone, including myself. I believe we all go through what we go through to be able to share the experience with someone else and perhaps once we heal to help somebody else heal.”
Since it was founded in spring of 2013, Exhale to Inhale has served over 1,200 survivors.
Exhale to Inhale is participating in the NO MORE Challenge, March 2nd to April 11th. This collective fundraising campaign benefits organizations focused on ending domestic violence and sexual assault. The organization that raises the most for their own group will win an additional $40,000 grant from Verizon. (Second place wins $30,000, third place wins $20,000.) Donate or volunteer here.
Please note: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In recognition, Exhale to Inhale has organized a national "Move for Meaning" campaign to gather studios, gyms, and active classes across the country – from yoga to boxing to spinning. Register here to host your own Move for Meaning fundraising event.
To learn more or get involved in Exhale to Inhale, visit exhaletoinhale.org.