How Yoga Helped Me Reclaim My Body After Sexual Assault

May 23, 2017
How Yoga Helped Me Reclaim My Body

Any person who has suffered sexual harassment or assault may find solace and empowerment in the practice of yoga.

I have very vivid memories of a time in second grade when my teacher taught us about personal space. We reached our hands out at far as they could go and constructed our “personal space bubbles.” The lesson was silly, but I think back to it often, wishing that the guy at the bar or on the street had gotten this lesson in second grade (and then again in third, fourth, fifth grade, freshmen year of college…).

If I could list the times where my body and space were violated, I would essentially be giving anyone reading it the chance to relive bad memories. Getting your hair pulled because some guy thought that was a way to get your attention. Walking down the street, only to jump when a guy reaches out and tries to grab you. The more I talk to women about being sexually harassed or assaulted, the more I learn that everyone has a story to tell about an incident that should never have happened but certainly left its mark.

When you are left looking at bruises left by another person, it’s hard to feel that you are in control of your body. When I had more frequent panic attacks, I would feel a heightened sense of detachment and confusion about my body. I felt like I was hanging in space, experiencing bug-like sensations on the inside of my skin. Panic attacks and anxiety are a product of my brain, but my body suffered the blows.

And then came yoga.

Yoga is often practiced for physical benefits, but even if you just want to break a sweat, the unity of our mind, body, and soul is hard at work. When I practiced yoga a few times a week, my mind was introduced to my body for the first time since puberty stretched me out like a hard-working hair tie. Awareness fuels this essential relationship.

Beginner yogis may find themselves stuck when they hear a cue like “move your right hip forward” or even “plant your left hand outside of your right foot.” But as we practice, we begin to understand where our body needs to be. We are introduced to different muscles that have been working silently for our entire lives. We bring focus to the physical connection between our feet and the ground, our palms and our mat, our back and the floor. Meditation allows us to map out our body and feel it in the space that we take up. From this recognition, we start to gain control.

The awareness that we develop doesn’t just help us engage our core; the awareness follows us off the mat. Understanding where my body was in space helped me take control of my physical being. The control and awareness gave me the ownership that I always had but didn’t fully recognize.

When we are told to be aware of our bodies in the outside world, we do so by looking at our bodies, changing them, judging them. We are told to accept our bodies, but rarely are we told to take control of our bodies.

When we develop awareness and control, we can focus on accepting the presence, rather than merely the look, of our body. Assault, specifically sexual assault toward women, isn’t always brought on by someone’s look. From sweatpants to short skirts, there’s no one outfit that attracts unwanted attention. Indeed, assault doesn’t discriminate by weight, beauty, or the way someone presents their body. This is not to minimize assaults against marginalized groups of women, but in all cases, the underlying motive remains the same: the violence is committed so that the perpetrator can exercise control over the woman’s body. This violence, even in small forms like hair-pulling or grabbing a woman by…you know by now…forces us to give up control over the body we inhabit. But we can fight back, or we can heal invisible scarring. We start by taking back control and ownership of our bodies.

Yoga isn’t the only answer, but it certainly opened the doors for me to understand how my body interacts with the rest of the physical world and accept and assert to myself that the space that I inhabit is mine. There are so many ways that women develop a positive relationship with and claim ownership of their body. I see women who take control through other fitness avenues, through makeup, through specific diets. This desire for control needs to be monitored and constantly examined; once this control becomes violent, the effects of this violence can be unhealthy. Yoga teaches the importance of ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence. I look forward to my yoga practice allowing me to take control of my physical body with nonviolence and put a stop to violence that is committed to taking away that control.


Also by Megan: 4 Cooling Breath Techniques For When Literally Everything Is Making You Steam

Related: How A Plant-Based Diet Helped Me Find Body Acceptance

How to Move On from Traumatic Experience

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Megan Okonsky
Megan Okonsky is a yoga teacher and writer originally from Philadelphia. After years of living the digital nomad life, she's settled down and resumed regular teaching in Austin, TX. Her favorite classes to teach include gentle yoga at Willow Gardens Yoga Studio and meditation at the Travis County Correctional Facility! Follow her work on her website.


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