Exhale to Inhale: Yoga for Survivors

an interview with Kimberly, executive director at Exhale to Inhale


Exhale to Inhale. Sounds... relaxing! Can you tell us about the name and why you chose it? 
Absolutely! Exhale to Inhale was founded in 2013 by Zoë LePage. Zoë first conceived of ETI as a senior at Barnard College and had been practicing yoga for years herself. She had a number of friends who were survivors of sexual assault. Knowing what yoga had done for her, Zoë intuitively knew what it could do for survivors of trauma and abuse. She founded Exhale to Inhale in honor of her friends and she named the organization based on the premise that sometimes we have to exhale that which is holding us back in order to Inhale new possibilities.

So you guys are really into yoga, huh?
Yes! We believe that survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault can feel strong and safe in their bodies, and when they do, they can help to end the cycle of violence in their families and communities. Yoga integrates the mind, body, and emotions. It teaches us to become aware of our bodies, our breath, and ourselves. Yoga helps us create a sense of connection to our bodies. While many of us take the idea of being in tune with our bodies for granted, this is a feeling that may be difficult for trauma survivors. Consider that our students may have lived with abuse for a long time, possibly even from childhood. We strive to offer them a more positive connection to their bodies and their inner selves, and when they begin to experience this, they may slowly incorporate that new way of being off the mat and into their everyday lives. People ask, “Why yoga?” And our answer is that we see yoga as a life skill, a foundation for creating an empowered life. The resources people gain through yoga are at the very foundation of our lives — the ability to breathe, to gain physical and emotional strength, and to make healthy life choices. And we’re really excited to say that research backs up what we’ve known to be true in our experiences — that a yoga program can reduce many of the symptoms of trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

And the teachers? Who teaches the classes, and do they have any special kind of training/credentials? 
Our amazing teachers are all volunteers. They all have their 200-hour teaching certification and are all trained in the Exhale to Inhale methodology for trauma-informed yoga. Most of our teachers have also taken advanced coursework in trauma-informed yoga. Things such as language to use and avoid, how to set up the room to create a safe space, how to conduct yourself as a teacher, and what to do if a student experiences a traumatic trigger (something that causes someone to recall previous trauma and can result in a strong emotional or physical reaction) while in class, are all things our teachers are trained to handle. Anyone interested in taking a training in the ETI methodology or in teaching for us can get more information and apply on our website at http://exhaletoinhale.org/teach/.

That is really awesome. It sounds like a powerful experience! So what do these classes for survivors look like?
Exhale to Inhale classes are different from your typical yoga class. Our three main goals when designing a class are choice making, simplicity and safety. So for example, in Exhale to Inhale classes, we truly meet our students where they are. We use invitational language and we offer options for each form. For example, we might say, “I invite you to raise your arm, if that isn’t comfortable for you, maybe bring your hand to your waist." We don’t play music, we leave the lights on, we don’t offer physical adjustments, and we don’t move about the room unannounced, meaning that we stay on our own mats and if we have to move to close a window, adjust the room temperature, etc, we let our students know what we are about to do. Our classes provide students a safe place to explore the concept of making choices for themselves and acting on those choices. We hold space for them to be present in the moment without being hijacked by the trauma, to connect to how their bodies move throughout the space and to recognize how movements make them feel emotionally and physically. 

Talk to us about the women who come to these classes. What kinds of things have they been through?
The women who attend our classes are survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Domestic violence can take many forms. It is the actual or threatened physical, sexual, psychological, or economic abuse that impairs someone from functioning in a self-determining way or causes that person to be afraid. It is a pattern of power and control over another person. It may take the form of physical violence like kicking hitting, or punching, or it may take the form of financial control, humiliation in front of others, taunting, stalking, manipulations that make the other person think that what they are seeing or hearing isn’t real, or sexual assault. And many of these tactics overlap so situations exist where someone may be experiencing several or all of these things. Many of the women who come to our classes have been living with these types of traumas for years and in some cases, their whole lives. A person they love has hurt them in unimaginable ways. They are living in a shelter, trying to keep themselves, and possibly their children, safe while they rebuild their lives. They are trying to figure out how to be financially secure, and maybe find a new job. They essentially have to rebuild the foundation of their lives, starting with the relationship they have with their own bodies. So as you can imagine, the women we serve are often functioning with their nervous systems in a heightened state. They may be experiencing fear, depression, or anxiety and they may have physical injuries as well. Trauma often results in an inability to connect with the present moment and this is where yoga and awareness of the breath can be particularly useful. In our view, this isn’t about giving these women power and strength they don’t have. It’s about offering them a tool that helps them to reconnect to the power and the strength that they have and have always had inside them. 

Domestic violence and sexual assault are different from trafficking and forced prostitution, to be sure, but the wounds, I'm sure, both go deep down. Have you hosted women in your classes who have survived a trafficking experience?
I agree that while there are differences between domestic violence and sexual assault and trafficking and forced prostitution, the trauma that results from these acts can manifest itself in similar ways. It is definitely possible that we have hosted women in our classes who are survivors of trafficking. We generally don’t know the women’s stories so we can’t be sure. Some women choose to share their stories with our teachers but the majority of the time our teachers are focused on creating a safe space for the students to re-establish their connection to themselves through yoga. A lot of women have told us that they appreciate having a safe space where they don’t have to tell their story again and can begin to explore for themselves what it’s like to feel sensations in their bodies and choose what yoga forms feel best for them.

What kind of positive impact have you seen as a result of sharing these free classes and a safe space with women who have been through so much? 
A lot of our students have never done yoga before and so sometimes they come to us with a little bit of apprehension because they think they have to be super flexible or wear special clothes. After experiencing our classes, we’ve had students tell us that practicing yoga is a release, a way to feel free. Students talk about how using their breath gets them through difficult moments in their everyday lives. We see changes in people physically as well. One of our students needed a cane to walk, and through her regular yoga practice, she is now able to walk without her cane. We’ve had women feel safe enough to fall asleep in our classes. For us, that’s the highest compliment. 

What are your biggest dreams for the future  where do you hope to see this Exhale to Inhale thing going? 
Naturally our biggest dream is that Exhale to Inhale grows to offer programs in every major city in the US and beyond helping as many survivors as possible to heal. We currently offer classes in New York City, Long Island, and Connecticut, and this year we are expanding to Boston and Los Angeles. It is important to us that we expand in a smart and sustainable way that allows our teachers in each location to feel supported so that they may in turn provide a safe and healing environment for those we serve.

Is there anything our bonJOY followers can do for you? 
First, thank you for taking the time learn more about us and for helping us spread the word about what we do and what yoga can do for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Anyone who is interested in taking our teacher training, teaching for us, or in helping to bring Exhale to Inhale to their area, can contact us at info@exhaletoinhale.org. We’re also taking part in the No More Challenge, a fundraising campaign sponsored by No More and Verizon. The organization that raises the most money during the challenge will receive an additional $50,000 donation. As you can imagine, this could be a real game-changer for us and could go a long way toward helping us reach even more survivors. If you’d like to help Exhale to Inhale win the No More Challenge, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/exhaletoinhale-nomore and make a donation between now and 2:00pm EST on March 15th.

Domestic violence isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a man’s issue, a community issue, a business issue, and a public health issue with far-reaching and damaging effects on survivors, abusers, children, and our communities. It’s important that we have conversations about this issue, break through the myths and the stigma, and hold one another accountable so that we can end this cycle of violence.  

Exhale to Inhale empowers survivors of domestic violence and assault to reclaim their lives through the healing and grounding practice of yoga.

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