Yoga for emotional healing

It's increasingly common to encounter people who practice yoga for therapeutic reasons — to alleviate back pain or stress, for example. Former Portlander Caseylin Gillis, a graduate of the Sacred Seeds Yoga School in Massachusetts who moved to mid-coast Maine as "a sort of self-imposed sabbatical" in 2011, believes that the healing properties of yoga can go even deeper. She recently founded the Sacred Yogini Project, a yoga "movement" specifically dedicated to female survivors of sexual abuse or trauma. We spoke to her about the origins of her idea, as well as where she sees it going.

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS IDEA? ARE THERE OTHER EXAMPLES OF USING YOGA AS A HEALING APPROACH FOR SEXUAL TRAUMA VICTIMS? The idea was born as a fusion for my two passions: social work and yoga. As a trauma survivor myself, I have always gravitated toward working in trauma and with marginalized populations. I've worked at children's orphanages, recovery centers, and homeless shelters. What I found (after burn-out) was that what we truly needed — more than changing someone's [external] situation — was to give them something to have, to do, to hold onto that is solely theirs, for the purpose of healing their life from the inside out.

Yoga is being studied intensely as an extremely beneficial practice for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Trauma Institute of Boston is really making great strides in this research. There are yoga projects and non-profits that are doing similar kind of work. However, as far as yoga specifically for female survivors of sexual trauma, I haven't come across such a specific project in my research. Kind of exciting to be the first with such a direct focus!

WHAT MAKES YOGA A GOOD OUTLET FOR DEALING WITH TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES? The statistics on women living with a sexual trauma in this world are astounding. More and more research is being done about how this trauma directly manifests itself into dis-ease within the body: eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol and drug addiction, abusive relationships, self-hatred, chronic hip and low back pain, sexual dysfunction — as in not having healthy, sacred sex — and many, many more.

Yoga is a great outlet for healing trauma because it offers a complete mind-body connection. In yoga, you don't have to talk about your experiences, but you can share a sacred space with others who understand your experience and share your story.

The practice of yoga is about staying in the present moment. The most tangible way to experience this is through the breath. When you are only focusing your attention on the inhale and the exhale that you're experiencing, it helps to give us a grounded and centered sensation. It can also help immensely when flashbacks or a "flight or fight" response is experienced through a triggering moment, whether it is internal or external. The breath helps to bring us back to the present moment and to connect us to the space that is our actual reality.

Many women who have experienced a sexual trauma are extremely disconnected from their bodies. They may feel like their body is just a shell or extension of them. Their bodies may feel like a vessel that just gets them from A to B. However, through yoga, when you practice and hear your teacher say things like "Touch your hands to the ground, step back with your feet," these words offer a complete mind-body connection. Yoga creates a sacred safe [space] for these women to feel, experience, and reclaim their bodies once again.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THIS PROJECT? I am raising donations for education and trainings in yoga and trauma, development of the project, and to make it accessible to all women, whether they have practiced yoga or never touched a mat in their life.

I am also consciously letting this project and its process unfold organically. When I try to control things too much, things tend to get all haywire! It's been already amazing to see that with just putting your intention and idea out into the world, so many people have been coming out of the woodwork to support and network and tell me their own experiences. This is really beautiful and humbling, so my intention is to keep the fluidity and development of this project very open.

For more information visit sacredyoginiproject.com.

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