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How Yoga Helped Liberate Me From Rape Trauma

Through my yoga practice, I began the process of truly healing.

Her Voice

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.

xoNecole is always looking for new voices and empowering stories to add to our platform. If you have an interesting story or personal essay that you'd love to share, we'd love to hear from you. Contact us at submissions@xonecole.com.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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