TW: This article discusses elements of trauma and rape.
My path to healing after being raped was everything but a straight line. I went on with business as usual. I didn't tell anyone. I didn't think about it. I didn't have flashbacks or nightmares of it. I didn't look for the face of the man that raped me in supermarkets and parking garages. He was someone I knew so I wasn't worried about that. I didn't think about it when I finally started to have consensual sex.
But the shame was there.
Not in a self-pity way, but in a matter of fact way.
At first I blamed myself for being there and trusting this man at all, but over time that didn't make sense to me because I had trusted other men who didn't make the same choice as him. So then I blamed myself for not fighting hard enough. The same questions lingered in my subconscious whenever the topic of rape came up. Why didn't I fight harder? Why did I give up? Why did I freeze? It wasn't until years later, as I began to commit to my yoga practice and study trauma, that I would learn my reaction was a normal autonomic response to a threat and understanding it would be my pathway to healing.
Courtesy of Jasmine Allen
After becoming a certified yoga instructor, I went on to take additional training in trauma-informed yoga. Through my studies, I began to learn about the nervous system. While I was vaguely familiar with the fight or flight response of the nervous system, I knew much less about the freeze response and immobilization.
In my mind, people chose to freeze in a crisis because they were too afraid to fight back or try to run away. Little did I know, I was very wrong.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic, and responds to sensations along three distinct pathways. The sympathetic branch is in charge of fight or flight. The parasympathetic branch is split into two parts, ventral vagal, and dorsal vagal. The ventral vagal is in charge of social engagement which is activated when you feel safe. The dorsal vagal is in charge of immobilization which is activated under extreme stress and danger and is the oldest part of the nervous system. The dorsal vagal puts the body into a protective state of collapse. It literally causes a reduced flow of oxygen and blood to the brain during a traumatic event to aid in dissociation, which is why after traumatic incidents you often hear people say, "I felt like I was outside of my body watching it."
I could identify with this because at some point while I was being raped, my eyes glazed over, my body went numb, and my mind went blank. For me, this felt like I had given up but in reality my dorsal vagal pathway had taken over in an attempt to protect me. Humans may describe their experience of the freeze response as feeling numb, frozen, or not here.
The most important thing I learned about the freeze response is that it's automatic. It's an instinctual decision made from the oldest part of the nervous system. The rational brain is not involved in the decision making of the freeze response. It is the nervous system's last resort when the brain interprets a threat as too close, too big, or too dangerous.
The goal of the freeze response is to temporarily shut down the body and then activate the sympathetic nervous system to escape the danger and discharge the energy built up during the attack. Unfortunately, in many cases like being imprisoned, being in an abusive relationship, living in a high crime neighborhood, or being raped to name a few, individuals are not able to escape the danger and their nervous systems are unable to restabilize. Whatever triggers the freeze response, the body is not to be blamed. The circumstances or the individuals committing the violence are responsible.
So while I had been blaming myself for not kicking, biting, and screaming and instead zoning out and waiting for it to be over, all along that was my body's way of protecting me. This was a man that I knew well so the shift in events shocked me so much that I went from thinking I was safe to thinking he was capable of doing virtually anything to me.
Courtesy of Jasmine Allen
Through this newfound understanding and my yoga practice, I began the process of truly healing.
For me, healing meant exonerating myself. My shame had prevented me from healing because deep down I didn't believe I deserved to be sad over what had happened to me because I felt it was my fault. After understanding it was not, I began to take the lessons I was learning on my yoga mat and implement them into my life. Lessons like the impernancy of my feelings. Just like I could start off a practice feeling drained and end feeling energized, I started to see the constant impermanence of my feelings in my own life. I no longer avoided feelings of sadness or rage when they bubbled inside of me because I understood they were not there to stay.
Similarly, yoga showed me the healing power I possess within my breath and body. On the mat, I could be in a challenging pose and take a deep breath and stay a little longer. Off the mat, I could feel overwhelmed with the fear of telling my story then take a deep breath and reassure myself that I am safe.
Courtesy of Jasmine Allen
More than anything, yoga helped me learn how to approach myself with kindness and empathy instead of the criticism I toted around for years. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a great yoga philosophical text, the first ethical precept is ahimsa, which is sanskrit for "do no harm". I practiced very carefully because of the concept of ahimsa, always prioritizing alignment and stability over deepening my stretch beyond my limits. In life, I learned to practice ahimsa by becoming aware of my negative self-talk and the lack of compassion I showed myself. It gradually became easier to surrender the blame for what had been done to me and know it was never my fault.
For me, yoga began as a way to get out of my head and into my body. It was my meditation in motion. Eventually, it led me to a new way of understanding myself and one of the hardest things I had ever experienced. My yoga mat will forever be the place I fell back in love with my body and learned to trust myself again.
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