8 Ways That Sexual Violence Crisis Training is Relevant to Teaching Yoga

Read more about the 40-hour training in general here.
1. The statistics are pretty sobering: 1 out of 6 US women has experienced attempted or completed sexual assault; 1 out of every 10 survivors are male; 21% of transgender college students have been assaulted (via RAINN).  Sexual violence is unfortunately not uncommon, and survivors are likely part of any given public yoga class. Whether you intend to teach survivors or not –  most likely you already do.

In contrast to rape crisis hotline volunteers or medical advocate, it’s less likely that I’ll be       having conversations so specifically about sexual violence as a yoga teacher – but the level of detail that came up really expanded my picture of how sexual violence can affect people.  A survivor assaulted by someone they know and will likely see again.One person’s concern that if they report the assault, their partner won’t understand, or the situation in which it happened will make their sexual orientation known and they haven’t come out. Parents who want their (adult) child to pursue a different path after the assault – reporting it or not, changing jobs, getting counseling – and struggle to let their child choose her/his own path.

The fact that someone hasn’t disclosed to you that they are a survivor of sexual violence does not mean they are not.

2. Victim-blaming is still a thing, whether it’s blatant or subtle (and “subtle” can be just as insidious – see microaggressions below). Rape culture is the attitude that normalizes or trivializes sexual assault, for instance, shifting the burden of prevention from the perpetrator and the wider social context that normalizes sexual violence to the (potential) individual survivors: take self defense! don’t wear revealing clothing! never walk alone at night! Self defense isn’t a bad thing, but the main problem is not that survivors didn’t take self defense, but that perpetrators committed violence against them.

While it’s hard to imagine a yoga instructor speaking specifically on the topic of sexual assault in a yoga class, it’s worth considering whether the stories and quotes we do share in general shift the burden of responsibility onto the individual rather than exploring the wider social context that we live in – because people do sometimes extrapolate from a more general quote to their own specific situation…in fact, isn’t this often the goal of sharing these quotes? “Happiness is a choice” … perhaps more so if you  receive adequate emotional support as a child, and live in an environment where your human rights are respected as an adult. It’s much more feasible to “choose” happiness when the conditions are amenable to it than when they are not.

 

3. Microagressions are  indirect or subtle discrimination, which are implicit in language rather than openly stated. The intention (/lack of) behind them does not make them less aggressive, and they may reflect subconscious attitudes a speaker holds. How to avoid them?  Try to notice assumptions and avoid them. In the context of rape crisis advocates, this could be the assumption that you know what pronoun to use with a transgender survivor, that you know exactly how a person feels, that men or disabled people can’t *really* experience sexual violence. Instead, ask, if it’s appropriate, or stick to what you know based on what the person has said in so many words.

Human beings make assumptions a lot! In yoga, which are more essential to avoid, and which are relatively feasible to avoid? That everyone knows you’ll be offering hands on assists and wants them. That everyone knows not to bring phones or shoes into the studio. That people who don’t fit a certain physical stereotype must be new to yoga.

4. We learned a survivor-centered approach to services, where the survivor chooses the path based on her/his knowledge of the situation in general and their own specific goals, rather than the agency creating one “best practice” path for all. You are the boss of you, at least in a survivor-centered approach! In a similar light, goals of rape crisis services include empowering survivors, increasing safety, and decreasing the impact of trauma…and not so much “fixing people”.

I suspect many people, many yoga teachers support this in theory – of course you have the right to choose what to do with your own body! It’s worth considering whether we slide away from this when we give cues that imply there is only one way to do a yoga pose “right”, or that we are “fixing” people’s poses with assists.

5. Privilege refers to benefits we receive based on membership in a group (race, gender, sexual identity, citizenship) versus benefits we earn. We sometimes take these for granted or assume we have earned them. In the context of rape crisis services, we may need to take stock so that our experiences of privilege don’t detract from the assistance we provide to survivors. For instance, economic privilege may allow some people to give up the shoes and clothes they were wearing during the assault as evidence – others may not have a second pair of shoes or another jacket and need their advocate to help them fight to get those things back. Having a history of positive reception from law enforcement or medical staff may reflect privilege based on race – a survivor who is concerned about not being believed may base that response on actual previous experience, and needs to be supported in whatever decision s/he makes rather than told s/he is wrong.

Privilege can come up in our language in yoga too. When we simplify huge concepts (karma!) to drop into a yoga class (you get back the energy you put out!), this may sound relatively harmless to those fortunate not to have experienced a) sexual assault b) a life threatening illness or injury c) the recent death of a loved one …but much harder to swallow to those who have.  Are these people somehow “getting back” suffering because of something they “put out there”? Put into so many words, this sounds very callous – of course not! It’s wise to be mindful of how our own privilege in life experience may come across.

6. Strive for empathy (connection) rather than sympathy (disconnection). Brene Brown speaks vividly about empathy – in practice the right words to say are not always obvious. Maybe most helpful is Brown’s concluding remark – it is not the response in words that makes something better, but the connection. Perspective-taking, avoiding judgment, recognizing emotion and communicating that you recognize that emotion – these skills are essential in jobs that require empathy.  “It could be worse” has probably never made anyone feel better; reveling in someone else’s suffering does not change mine.

Rather than being specific yoga yoga (or sexual violence crisis intervention), I would say empathy is just relevant universally!

7. Some of the training focused very specifically on interactions between the volunteer and survivor at the hospital – the importance of expressing non-judgment, avoiding making promises you cannot keep (I’ll be here for you, everything will be fine), being aware of your facial expression (sometimes we smile or laugh when we are uncomfortable).

In yoga, non-judgement matters. How does it come up in our words or thoughts? Do we judge people for leaving class early, for not practicing enough or too much or a style we don’t think is “yogic” enough, for bringing phones into class? When we share an anecdote or quote – can we really “promise” the truth of what we say, and if not, how can we re-state it so we are still offering something?

8. Vicarious or second-hand trauma: seeing other people in great pain can be traumatic too. On top of the likelihood that there are sexual violence survivors in class, there’s a likelihood that there are people who help them too!

People sometimes here the term “trauma informed yoga” or “trauma sensitive yoga’ and think that these practices are only relevant to very specific groups of people who have been diagnosed with PTSD or something. These practices are relevant to the population in general…because trauma is present in the population in general. We don’t have to give up, but we can learn something about trauma and let it inform how we approach our work.
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