Photography by Kelly Kimball
With an old gym bag in one hand and a rolled-up yoga mat in another, I was about to embark on an adventure of self-discovery through trauma-sensitive yoga. The small studio in Irvine, California is warm and inviting, adorned with teal, maroon and gold paintings inspired by eastern culture, electric with the aroma of scented oils and wax candles. I am greeted with bright and tender smiles before stepping with bare feet into one of three studio rooms to begin my 90-minute yoga session. My first class has officially begun.
Regular yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga have some differences. The former focuses on the aerobic benefits of each pose, often allowing instructors to adjust the bodies of their students while exercising so that they receive the best fitness results. Trauma-sensitive yoga, however, allows the student to move at their own pace without the touch of an instructor. This is particularly beneficial for yoga programs geared toward students who may have experienced trauma such as sexual violence. According to the research of David Emerson and Jenn Turner on yoga therapy and practice, “Placing your hands on a survivor [of trauma] can be incredibly triggering and takes away from the practice being their own.” This allows students to create and re-affirm their own sense of space – to be a beneficiary of their own giving.
“Learn to do everything lightly. Feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them…throw away your baggage and go forward,” recited a calm voice.
Yoga instructor Zabie Khorakiwala trailed on with a soothing narrative from a passage in her yoga journal as students engaged in stretches from “Child’s Pose” to “Warrior.” Each movement dictated an aspect of vinyasa (meaning “to place thoughtfully”) that connected breath to movement. Deep and relaxed breaths filled the dimly-lit room like a liberated choir to the sound of gentle acoustic music and exotic instrumentals. Zabie then invited students to think about an intention – something they feel was lacking in their present life, such as love, gratitude or confidence. Students were then invited to breathe into each pose as if fulfilling that intention, one movement at a time.
Intention is the crux of trauma-sensitive yoga practice. Indeed, it has helped students transcend even the darkest of times.
“It’s not so much about the yoga,” states Heather, a sexual assault survivor and participant in an 8-week trauma-sensitive yoga program at the University of California, Irvine. For Heather, it was about the companionship with other yoga students and the affirmation that she was not alone on this journey to overcome her obstacles. Achieving self-wellness and validation once again was a long yet beneficial process, one that she continues to this day. She recalls something that Zabie said to her class that changed her life.
“[Zabie] said, ‘At this moment, you are enough. Right now, you need no more and no less from yourself. You are enough right now.’”
The poetic phrase resonated with Heather for reasons even she cannot explain. From that evening and onward, she noticed profound growth in her healing process. She was able to approach daily stressors with less anxiety and more grace. Using it as constant mantra, Heather was able to approach school work with utter confidence after initially dropping out of classes during her Fall quarter due to her personal obstacles with trauma.
“I’m not sure if this is too personal to say,” She proceeded, “But [before this program] I would be overly intimate with too many people. Since yoga has started, I haven’t been [this way] at all. It’s a huge change for me, because I am okay with who I am now.”
At that moment, Heather started to cry.
“I’m not crying because I feel bad,” she explained apologetically. “I’m crying because it’s crazy how different I am now.” As a survivor of sexual assault, yoga has taught her how to not only survive, but to thrive.
Before hearing about the benefits of trauma-sensitive yoga, Brigit found that her past trauma prevented her from focusing in school. However, through her specialized yoga program, she found that she could understand and interpret her feelings better and, as a result, learn to be gentle with herself in the midst of life’s obstacles.
“I was falling to pieces. I was confused and didn’t know who to talk to. But now it’s easier to express what I am feeling. I can take the skills I learned from yoga and take a moment to see a better result instead of suppressing [negative] feelings. The fact that I’m okay now is extremely beneficial.”
Back in the quiet studio at Be the Change, I tried my best to concentrate on my intention in the presence of five other peace-seeking yoga students: enthusiasm. I needed a little bit more enthusiasm in my life. Through the ache of unconditioned muscles, I breathed into every stretch with the intention to fulfill a bit more of my enthusiasm in my school work, my social life, my family circle, my writing. I knew that one session of this practice wouldn’t get me there entirely, but it was a valid gateway toward change.
In the midst of California’s intense health culture, I found Be the Change Yoga studio to be much more than a fitness center. There is something deeply spiritual about yoga that goes beyond stretching and breathing. Yoga is a passage into the present and an invitation to honor one’s own pace. This specialized program suggests that there is no set amount of time for one to heal or create positive change. Be The Change Yoga and other studios like it attempt to create a safe space that allows one to approach wellness holistically – to make conscious efforts in grounding oneself deeply in the present moment and understanding the body as an indicator of one’s needs to better fulfill the connection between body and soul.
Although this is easier said than done, the compassion and wisdom shared by instructors like Zabie Khorakiwala make the steps toward wellness and healing a narrative journey. To them, each day is like a gem among sandstone picked up with good intention: genuine, profound, enough.