Mind-Body Exercise and Sexual Assault

Body, Mind Exercise and Sexual Assault by @jcstaff_

It’s no secret that exercise can be universally good for well-being. It is a mood enhancer, as the body releases feel-good endorphins when we exercise. Additionally, regular workouts can improve self-worth and body image, as feeling fit comes with these free benefits. For survivors of sexual assault, with possible trauma, anxiety, depression, PTSD and potentially a range of other trauma-related symptoms, regular sessions of physical activity can help immensely.

Advanced bridge, one-legged pose

Yoga, Pilates, Body-Mind-Fusion Classes
It is often recommended that classes like yoga and Pilates can be especially helpful for relaxation, body awareness and quieting down the mind, all really key skills for people who may need strategies to better manage their mental health. While the benefits are plentiful, attending classes like these can actually be rather challenging for people who have trauma as a result of sexual violence, for a number of reasons. Finding ways around these hurdles can enable people to attend classes and feel accommodated so they can enjoy the exercise and benefit from the healing effects.

As with anything new, getting started with a fresh exercise routine, especially a class you may have not tried before, can be incredibly daunting. For survivors who maybe have considered yoga or Pilates before and discounted it for whatever reason, it could be helpful to keep an open mind, and explore the benefits further, while seeking ways to make it work for you, with the least trepidation and minimal amount of anxiety possible. The following tips are not a set of guidelines, or even suitable for everyone, but they may provide a starting point to re-think ways of approaching such a class at some point in future.

Tips for Survivors of Sexual Trauma Considering Yoga/Pilates
1. Consider the time and place, as well as the instructor. Is it a building you are familiar with? Can you visit before attending your first class there, check out the changing rooms, bathroom? Will the class end while it is still light outside? Is there safe parking nearby? As for an instructor, women may feel more comfortable with a female instructor. It can be difficult to relax, especially towards the end for the cool-down, if the instructor is a male. You may find a woman’s voice more soothing and calming.

2. Speak to the instructor before you start. You might find this easier via phone or email, rather than trying to have a quiet word in the class. It is really important they know that you have experienced something which may affect your ability to access the class, regardless of your prior fitness level. For example, if you have post-traumatic stress disorder related to sexual assault, and they have an awareness of this, they will be able to tune into your comfort level in the class and support you to feel safer, while allowing you to modify moves to suit your own choice.

3. These classes may involve stretches or poses which feel uncomfortable, either physically, or emotionally. If it feels physically uncomfortable, it could be a flexibility issue and that will improve with time. If you feel emotionally unsettled, or even panicky, try a modified alternative. Find a similar pose you feel more comfortable with and use that.

4. Arrive in time to choose a spot in the class where you feel comfortable. If there are windows, it might help you to be near these, or nearer the door so you feel like you can get out if you want a break. Also, position your mat so you have as much space around you as you need, and so you can maintain eye contact with the instructor at all times. You may feel unsettled if there are people too close behind you. Also, if the class is mixed, you may prefer to be surrounded by women, depending on your experiences. It can feel very exposing exercising next to strangers, so if possible, take as much space as you need. This is self-care.

5. There will be a good deal of lying down, often prone on your back. For some who have survived sexual assault, this can feel very unsettling, and even, at times, triggering. There are many ways round this, and remember, lots of people have back problems and other reasons they can’t lie down on their back, so modifying this will not draw added attention to you in the class.

— Try using a foam yoga block under your shoulder blades to put you at a near 45 degree angle. If your instructor doesn’t have these, you can purchase them very inexpensively.
– Focus on your breathing, if the instructor’s breathing messages are not working for you, do your own thing. Extend your out-breath to keep anxiety from escalating (eg breathe in for the count of five and out for the count of seven.)
– If you find aromatherapy helpful, you might use Rescue Remedy, or a rollerball scent at this point, Tisserand do a lovely range of small pocket-size vials.
– Keep a hoody, cardigan or sweatshirt to hand. You may wish to put this on during lying down sections so you feel warm and cosy, helping you feel safer and secure.

6. Do your own thing. In cardio fitness classes, the participants feel each other’s energy, and there is a sense of all being in it together, motivating each other and feeding off the charged vibes in the room. These type of classes are very different, very solitary, and there is a sense of everyone going into their own zone. Don’t feel pressured to do what the rest of the class are doing; no one will notice you, they are all in their own zen space! You do YOU.

7. If there is a relaxation segment at the end, you may choose at first to leave before this begins, if the instructor is happy for you to do so. It can involve some mindfulness and meditative activities which may be both challenging and unsettling to engage in. If you do feel able to stay, do what you need to do to stay grounded and present. Count the ceiling lights, check/scroll through your phone, make a list in your mind of what you need at the store on the way home. These will prohibit you from trying to follow the instructor’s directions, but in the early days, it might be too hard for you to do so while trying to manage arousal levels and hyper-vigilance. Until you are ready to access this segment in its entirety, opting out by re-directing your mind may feel less pressured and more comfortable.

8. Take it at your own pace, allowing yourself the time you need to adjust to this type of fitness class. You may find by the second class, you are able to participate in nearly the whole thing. Alternatively, you may go for months before you feel able to even lie on your back. Whatever you need to do to access the class, prioritise that and make sure you have a kind, empathetic instructor. By attending the class, your body and well-being will benefit, undoubtedly. 

While these tips might not all work for everyone, and for some people, they may not even make a single difference whatsoever, the ideas above may give you a starting point, enabling you to explore mind-body exercise classes with a little less trepidation. Going with a friend might be easier too, though going on your own might help you connect with someone new, thus creating a friendship for you within the class, which could be another reason to attend. You might dislike it and decide it’s not for you – that’s fine, at least you will have given it a try! Who knows, it could be the beginning of a whole new frontier in your fitness schedule each week.
Good luck, and happy downward dog!