Yoga at Work: Support Survivors of Domestic & Sexual Abuse
Exhale to Inhale is an extraordinary nonprofit based in NYC that brings unique, trauma-informed yoga classes to survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. Through Visit.org, they now offer in-office yoga experiences for a cause.
Founded in 2013 by Zoë LePage, this nonprofit was built on the fact that yoga is more than just a form of exercise; it serves as a pathway to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Exhale to Inhale empowers students from all walks of life to feel safe and powerful in their bodies through simple exercises, practicing mindfulness, and building agency. In partnership with Visit.org, Exhale to Inhale brings three experiences to companies looking to do good: Yoga in the Workplace, Zen 30-Minute Meditation, and a Personal and Professional Wellbeing Workshop.
In this interview, Zoë discusses how Exhale to Inhale came to be, how it is helping to bring healing to its community, how companies can be a part of their mission, and more.
Why did you decide to start Exhale to Inhale?
I have a family member and several close friends who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence. I saw how yoga was impacting them…not necessarily immediately after their experience, but years or decades later. When I was going through a tough time in my own life, I found an incredible amount of strength, healing, and comfort in my yoga practice, so that planted the seed in me that yoga was more than just a form of exercise. Trauma affects the mind, body, and spirit. It often manifests as insomnia, headaches, backaches, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, anxiety, or depression. Oftentimes we lose our sense of agency and we start to feel helpless and hopeless because of this terrible thing that has happened to you.
I connected the two dots and thought that yoga would be a healing experience for individuals who have experienced trauma.
As of 2019, one in four women and one in seven men are affected by domestic violence, so it’s definitely much more prevalent than people might think. It’s your mom, it’s your sister, it’s your best friend, it’s your uncle. An individual can be affected by domestic violence no matter their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. No one is immune to it.
How does Exhale to Inhale differ from traditional yoga classes?
We are trauma-informed, which means we take into account the unique experiences and needs of survivors. We orient our students towards the doors in a well-lit environment so they can see who’s coming in and out of the space. To help our students stay in the present moment, we don’t play any music. Also, we often practice from a seated position for students who are new to yoga or have an injury. Those who have gone through trauma are hyper-vigilant, and having to track the teacher throughout the class can be exhausting. So, our teachers stay put rather than walk around. They also don’t offer any hands-on adjustments since touch can be triggering.
Most importantly, the language is all invitational. We use phrases like “I invite you to,” or “if you’re curious to try.” The experience of trauma is often the experience of having choice taken from you, so we give our students a chance to practice making choices on their yoga mat, which we hopefully see translate out to their day to day lives. Our students walk into yoga class feeling a certain way, then take certain actions and leave feeling totally different. Through yoga, we hope to restore a sense of agency and sense that our students have the ability to become effective actors in their own lives.
What are the benefits of yoga & meditation for trauma survivors?
Yoga is a therapeutic intervention. It acts on all levels of the human experience. It addresses the way that trauma manifests physically, mentally, emotionally, and in a spiritual sense too.
Exhale to Inhale has students walk in who are in physical pain and under acute stress from crises like trying to get custody of their children or figure out where they’re going to live next month. Within one class, we see that our students are feeling better in their bodies, less stressed in their minds, and more resilient in their spirits. Over the course of a six-week series, we see that the change between the beginning and end of class becomes greater. The more our students practice yoga with us, the more impact the yoga’s having.
What advice would you give someone looking to provide support to a friend dealing with domestic violence and other traumatic issues?
When we’re talking about domestic violence, the first thing that many people want to say is, “Just leave, just leave!” If it were that simple, people would just leave, but it’s much more complicated than that. There are many reasons that an individual stays with his or her abuser.
I would say be there to listen and support and love. You can also put your friend in contact with the many free resources and professionals that can help with safety planning, support groups, and those kinds of things.
I think there are a lot more conversations that need to happen among all of us, men and women. There’s so much victim blaming and shame around domestic and sexual violence. I think, as men and women, we can all be more mindful of that. We should really acknowledge that this is an epidemic of violence. It’s so, so prevalent and being in conversation around it is important. We should hold space for those of us who don’t have a direct experience of domestic or sexual violence, and for people to share their experience if that feels like something they want to do.
What are some of your favorite stories that have come out of Exhale to Inhale’s trauma-informed yoga classes?
One of our students who would come to our classes walked with a cane because of the injuries she had sustained. After six weeks of practicing with us, she was able to show up to class without a cane. Yoga was helping her heal!
Another individual who attended several of our classes wrote back to us saying that she had to face her abuser in the courtroom, which is unfortunately not that rare an experience for survivors. She was able to leverage some of the techniques that we talk about in our classes like the ability to plant your feet on the floor, feel your breath in your own belly, and feel your own inherent resilience. There’s such power in the practice that we do. We really see yoga as a resource and as a tool; something that our students can take with them in all the days of their life.
What small daily practices would you recommend for improving mental & physical well-being in the office? Do you know of any simple ways of controlling stress, anxiety, and responses to anger?
So much of what we do at Exhale to Inhale is around helping people reclaim their own power and choice. I worked in management consulting for my first three years out of school, so I know what it’s like to work in a stressful work environment. For me and people I’ve talked to, we feel like we don’t have power in the workplace. We’re ruled by our calendar, by our to do list, by the emails that are coming in. The reality is we do have to answer those emails and show up to those meetings.
You should ask yourself, “How, within this context, can I take moments to take good care of myself and make choices that feel in alignment with me?” I think a powerful practice is to carve out moments in the day to give yourself choice and power. You can take 10 minutes to walk around the block, get yourself that sandwich you’ve been craving for lunch, put on a nice scented hand lotion. As a yogi, I think moving your body is incredibly powerful. Do some shoulder rolls while sitting at your desk or take a seated twist. Move your body! Take moments in the day to move, stretch, make a choice for you, and do nice things for yourself.
What motivated you to partner with Visit,org, and what would you like corporate employees to take away from an experience with Exhale to Inhale?
We are so, so grateful for our partnership with Visit.org. I think it’s a brilliant platform that’s introducing people to our work who might not otherwise hear about Exhale to Inhale, and that’s really exciting for us. I also think that trauma is something that exists on a spectrum and the human experience can be traumatic. I think that we all deserve access to experiences and practices that help us de-stress, regulate the nervous system, and return to feeling empowered. So, through our partnership with Visit.org, we’re able to do both. We’re able to spread awareness of the work that we’re doing and bring well-being and self-care into the workplace.
We want corporate employees to feel empowered by their experience with us. We want them to leave feeling more connected with themselves, more powerful, and confident in their ability to help make a difference in the world. By showing up to Visit.org events, they’re supporting a nonprofit that I think is doing some pretty great work.