Yoga Stretches Terrain for Sex-Trauma Therapy

Sunday, February 28, 2010

In and around the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Deirdre Summerbell teaches an athletic and vigorous form of yoga to about 250 to 300 girls and women; most have survived assault or abuse. Many contracted HIV during the genocide.

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Women Find Joy

yoga as therapyIn a note on Project Air's Web site, Summerbell writes that this separation is evident in the attitudes women express about their physical strength before and after taking yoga classes. In the beginning, the women lamented that they were too old or too sick to take the classes, but once they started Summerbell found that a shift occurred.

"This was something below the level of thought, below the level of memory, below the level of conscious feeling even, but when it was sparked, it was as if--and I don't know how else to put this--it was as if the women became able to feel again and to love again the life that was in them," she wrote.

Beyond the benefit of improved sleep, the women also find happiness in taking her classes. "There's a palpable feeling of joy in a class we give in Rwanda that I've never met anywhere else," she said.

At the same time, Summerbell faces criticism in Rwanda, where some evangelical churches characterize yoga as Satanism and devil worship. As her students are not members of the middle class, who are those that mainly hold such views, the apprehensions don't reach her students, she said.

Organizations Express Hostility

But Rwandese staff members of nongovernmental organizations, including some members of WE-ACTx, have demonstrated considerable hostility, she said.

As a policy, Summerbell confines yoga, which has deep ties to Buddhism and Hinduism, to a physical practice and tries to steer clear of religious arguments.

Lenny Williams, a certified trauma-sensitive yoga instructor in New York, shared why she believes yoga helps people recover from trauma, during which the brain triggers fight-or-flight responses that leave deep, recurring memories.

"What's happened to trauma survivors is that you get stuck in a rut," Williams said. "It's like a record that's got a skip. You keep remembering, you keep remembering and you get into these circular thoughts that whatever triggers you, you're right back there."

Learning calming techniques, such as yoga, allows the body to send impulses that inform the brain that no one is in danger.

In November Williams, herself a rape survivor, founded Mandala House, an organization based in New York, dedicated to training survivors of gender-based violence abroad to be yoga instructors.

She is planning a trip to Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of March and then Sri Lanka this summer to provide the trainings.

Lensay Abadula is a freelance writer living in New York.

For more information:

Project Air

Mandala House

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