Interview with Molly Boeder Harris: Healing Sexual Trauma Through Yoga and Holistic Methods
I’m so happy today to present my interview with Molly Boeder Harris, Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network. Molly and her team have just recently launched The Breathe Network, a resource for educating sexual trauma survivors and providers about holistic and mind-body-spirit approaches to healing. The website also offers a directory of providers specializing in holistic and alternative methods of treatment for sexual trauma victims.
In my interview with Molly, we talked about how yoga and holistic modalities contributed to her own healing from sexual trauma, how to teach a trauma-sensitive yoga class, why she founded The Breathe Network, and how healing practitioners of all types can become more trauma sensitive and/or apply to be listed in The Breathe Network’s provider directory (something I myself am in the process of doing.)
Hi Molly, thanks so much for speaking with me today. For those not familiar with your work, I am wondering if you could share a bit of your story – how you became involved in working with survivors of sexual violence and abuse, and what inspired you to start The Breathe Network?
Hi Lisa, thank you for inviting me. There is more on my bio at The Breathe Network website, but the real catalyst for my current work is that I was sexually assaulted in 2003. After that happened, my real challenge during my healing process was my relationship to my body. I already had a yoga practice, and was already familiar with a lot of alternative healing modalities, and although I was able to connect with and communicate my feelings, I felt like my body was trying to tell me things all the time – like it had its own process it was going through. I would have a pain, or an ache, or just a sensation when I moved a certain way, during the day that would remind me of the sexual assault. Other parts of my body I felt very disconnected from.
So I began to practice yoga every day. I had left my job and was living with my parents, and yoga became this place every day where I could go and reconnect with my physical body, as well as my emotional and spiritual self, as those aspects of me would show up in my practice too. I fell in love with yoga as a way to heal.
So often we encourage victims to do other things, all of which are important, like make a police report, receive medical care, seek counseling, etc. But one thing I have heard over and over from other sexual violence survivors is this sense of disconnect from their body and themselves. Many end up seeking coping mechanisms to numb the physical or emotional pain. For me, I felt like yoga really saved me from doing that.
Yoga is wonderful for trauma victims because in the right environment it is very self-directed, and can change day to day, depending on how a person is feeling. It is not only a method for moving trauma through you but also a place where eventually a survivor can start to feel a sense of joy, or ease, or pleasure just by being in their own body again. This is so important, because for many survivors it is not just negative feelings that can trigger post-traumatic reactions, but pleasurable sensations too – any sensation can feel overwhelming or frightening. So yoga offers a supported place to work through all of that.
The body is the site of the trauma, and through a yoga practice the body can also become the vehicle for transforming it. For me it was like the ultimate sense of empowerment really, to take my body, which had had to survive this awful physical assault, and use it to heal from the experience.
Yes, that is really what is so meaningful – the body as a vehicle for healing. I love how you are describing yoga practice here in terms of healing – it becomes a safe space for re-exploring your body and its sensations at whatever level works for you.
Yes, and it becomes a place to start to learn how to manage sensation, painful and pleasurable, and re-establish a sense of control. If something starts to feel overwhelming in the practice, you know that you have options – other postures, or breathing techniques, or ways to rest. A sense of options is very important I think.
And of course re-establishing that link to your body is an important part of healing for so many people, not only trauma victims. For cancer victims, or anyone undergoing surgery, or really healing from anything – a safe space to re-explore your body is so essential.
Now, I am curious what other support you received? Were you also in therapy? Was yoga an immediate part of your healing process, or was it something you returned to after counseling? How did they complement each other?
I was so lucky. I found an amazing psychotherapist who practices a very body-based approach, and I saw her within a month of my assault. She knew I had a yoga practice already, and encouraged me to continue. Actually, she had me bring my yoga mat into sessions with her, so I could actually sit on my mat and do poses if I wanted to while I talked with her. I also did a lot of writing and drawing, and she would often use things I had drawn between sessions as an entry point for our sessions. There were so many things that I wasn’t even conscious of, that I wasn’t able to express or even be aware of in words, but that would come out of our discussions of my drawings.
So I was very lucky to work with her. And in fact, eight years later I went back to her and did EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy with her, as a kind of closure. But during my initial time with her, I was actively attending yoga, and it complemented what I was doing with her. I also did some acupuncture and other healing sessions, such as Reiki. They all complemented each other. The therapy sessions were more verbal and cognitive, while the yoga was more physical and sense-based. The acupuncture and Reiki were also helpful because they didn’t require my effort – you can’t be efforting all the time, so receiving healing was also important.
Every trauma victim experiences an array of individual physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual symptoms, so I was really able to address all of them through these various modalities, whether it was sleep disturbances and nightmares, or tension or pain in a part of my body, or an overwhelming sense of sadness and despair. I was able to address them each in a different way. It was like putting together this puzzle, coming at my responses from many different angles.
So many survivors describe this disconnect from the body. Even during attacks, many victims will describe feeling like they are out of their body. It is a kind of coping mechanism that we have. So re-integrating with our bodies is so crucial, and having ways to address all these different aspects of our healing process, including the physical.
I was of course very lucky, both that I had these resources available to me, and that I had financial support from friends and family. This is part of what inspired me to create The Breathe Network – to help make these resources more widely available, and on a sliding scale basis – a willingness to work on a sliding scale basis with victims is one of the requirements for being listed on our site.
Yes, that’s wonderful. And you also have taught yoga at a rape crises center, right? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yes, I worked at a rape crises center as a medical and legal advocate for a couple of years, and I also taught classes for survivors and in one case, for staff also. We basically did chair yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. Most recently I’ve also been working with a wonderful trauma counseling center here in Illinois called the Juniper Center, offering yoga classes for trauma survivors.
What do you do differently when teaching trauma surivors vs. other yoga classes?
That’s a really good question, especially because the more I learn about how to teach a trauma-sensitive yoga class, the more it influences how I teach my other public classes, because we know a significant amount of the general population does experience some kind of trauma in their lifetime. I modify my language, and change the pacing, to emphasize communication and provide lots of options throughout class. I make sure everyone knows it is a safe space where everything is voluntary, and they can lie down, or leave the room, or rest, or whatever they need to do, at anytime.
In trauma-sensitive classes I tend to spend more time emphasizing the options, and I also allow more time for meditation, and restorative poses. Creating a sense of safety is very important, and always asking before doing hands-on adjustments. I do very few hands-on adjustments in my trauma-sensitive classes actually, until I have established a relationship with someone.
There are also certain poses I don’t initially offer in my trauma- sensitive classes, although maybe over time I would. Very deep hip openers for example, or poses that may feel very vulnerable – lying on your back, or anything with legs spread. I focus on poses where people feel very grounded, and connected to the earth, and strong and safe in their own bodies.
Also, in trauma-sensitive classes I talk a lot more during poses, making sure participants know exactly what to expect – how long we are going to try to stay in the posture, and that they can get out at any time. I will say ‘we are going to be in this pose for 3 more breaths’. It is very important for trauma victims to know when things are going to end – especially for childhood abuse survivors, the fear was that the abuse would never end, so knowing that there is an end to a challenging pose is very important.
I talk more during savasana, resting pose, as well. I will keep participants in their bodies and breath by talking about the breath, and sensations, reminding them to feel the back of their body on the ground etc. I also offer other options besides lying on their backs, inviting them to pull their knees up with their feet on the floor, or lie on their sides, or even sit up against a wall. So again, it’s all about offering options so everyone can find what feels safe and comfortable.
That’s wonderful information for any instructor looking to make their classes more trauma-sensitive. Now I am wondering what advice you have for trauma survivors who are new to yoga? You had a pre-existing yoga practice when your assault occurred, but what advice would you give to a trauma victim looking to explore yoga for the first time?
I don’t recommend just showing up to any yoga class. I usually recommend that someone does some research, and try out a class that is labeled ‘gentle’ or ‘restorative.’ In my experience, the teachers that are interested in offering gentle and restorative classes have a real interest in working with people who need that, whether they’ve actually trained in trauma-sensitive techniques or not. Even with my yoga background, I had some experiences soon after my assault in more rigorous yoga classes where I just wanted to leave. Something the teacher said or asked us to do would just be too overwhelming for me and trigger a response. So starting with gentle and restorative classes is the best way.
If you are able to find a class with someone trained in working with trauma survivors, that is even better. More and more trauma and counseling centers are offering this, so it’s worth looking. It’s important to start out slowly. I was recently reading that trauma disconnects us from the natural rhythms of our body – our breath etc. So starting slowly allows a trauma victim to remake those connections gradually, in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming.
I also think exploring different teachers is important. Every teacher has their own style, and we each resonate with different individuals, so even if a gentle class with one teacher doesn’t feel right for you, don’t give up, consider trying another teacher.
Also, I would say be patient with yourself, be compassionate with yourself. The benefits aren’t always experienced in the moment. It is something that builds over time. One yoga class probably won’t stop your nightmares or other PTSD symptoms, but over time, it can help.
Finally, as much as I love yoga, I never say yoga is for everyone. It may not be right for someone. Or it might be right for someone a year down the road. So if it really doesn’t feel right for you, that doesn’t say anything negative about you or your healing process. A survivor should trust how they feel, and if it just doesn’t feel right, there are other ways to heal.
What advice or resources do you suggest for yoga instructors that would like to become more trauma-sensitive?
David Emerson offers an amazing training program for yoga instructors that want to become more trauma-sensitive, and he also offers a training program for psychotherapists that want to incorporate some basic movement and yoga techniques into their work with survivors. He offers his classes in Boston [through the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute], and through Kripalu [Center for Yoga and Health], and also has a book out [Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, authored by him along with Elizabeth Hopper.] Bessel van der Kolk, one of David’s teachers, has also done incredible research on the effects of yoga in healing trauma. If you search his name online, he has a lot of different articles available. I think we will see more and more of this kind of work becoming available.
Dr. Peter Levine is also someone who you are probably already familiar with, who has many books out, including Waking the Tiger, that can really help educate instructors or therapists on how trauma may be showing up in their student’s bodies. Even just reading the first few chapters of that book would be very useful to anyone looking to work with trauma victims.
I often hear from fellow yoga teachers, “oh I don’t know if I could do that.” They are fearful they could not work with trauma victims. But I think most teachers could. It is really a matter of slowing down, watching your language, offering a lot of directions and options, and creating a sense that yoga is something students can explore – that you are not commanding them to do something, but rather offering ways for them to explore their bodies in a safe environment.
So tell us more about The Breathe Network, and the provider list you are building there?
The idea is to provide a list of providers that offer holistic and mind-body-spirit based approaches to healing from sexual trauma and abuse. Individuals, family members, or crises centers could use this resource to help connect victims and providers. We are just getting started, so so far we have only processed a few applications, but over time we would like to build this list internationally. We are reaching out to local, state, and national sexual trauma coalitions to educate them on the benefits of offering alternative and holistic modalities.
How can a provider get listed?
The application is available at the site, and the healer answers a series of questions. For example, in addition to offering information on their training and background, they are asked to talk about any experience they have working with trauma victims. They are asked to describe their modalities – for example, psychotherapy, EMDR, reiki, etc. - and how their modalities address the physical, emotional and/or spiritual issues survivors face. The application also asks how the provider modifies their modality for trauma victims – how they create a sense of safety, for example. We ask if they are willing to offer their services on a sliding scale basis, as accessibility is such an issue.
We also ask for a bio, resume, and references. So it is a pretty extensive application, but the good thing is that if they are approved, the entire application goes online, so a survivor can really feel like they have all the information they need about each provider. We hope to build an amazing database of providers, which among other things will become a source for learning about all the other modalities being used by providers to work effectively with trauma survivors.
We really want to encourage anyone interested to apply – we are interested in any holistic modality. And this includes yoga instructors that offer gentle classes – we really want to offer a variety of modalities and options spread geographically throughout the globe.
Molly, thanks so much for your time, for sharing your knowledge, and for founding your wonderful organization.
I encourage everyone to check out The Breathe Network, and to help spread the word about it, to both survivors and providers. And if you are a healer, therapist, yoga instructor, or anyone working in the holistic health fields, I encourage you to consider researching how you can become more trauma sensitive, and how you may be able to offer your services to sexual trauma survivors, including through The Breathe Network.
As always, I welcome you to share your thoughts and questions in the comments. Namaste-