How Sexual Assault Survivors Are Using Fitness As Part of Their Recovery

Women are turning to workouts like running, yoga, and martial arts to reclaim their bodies as their own.

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.

The Me Too movement is more than a hashtag: It's an important reminder that sexual assault is a very, very prevalent problem. To put the numbers in perspective, 1 in 6 women have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes, and a sexual assault happens every 98 seconds in the U.S. (And those are just the cases that have been reported.)

Of these survivors, 94 percent experience symptoms of PTSD following the assault, which can manifest itself in a number of ways, but often affects the woman's relationship with her body. "It's common for survivors of sexual violence to want to hide their bodies, or engage in health risk behaviors, often in an attempt to avoid or numb overwhelming feelings," says Alison Rhodes, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and trauma and recovery researcher in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Though the road to recovery is long and difficult, and there's by no means a cure-all to such trauma, many survivors are finding solace in fitness.

Strengthening the Body and Mind

"Healing from sexual violence often entails restoring one's sense of self," says Claire Burke Draucker, Ph.D., R.N., professor of Mental Health Nursing at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. "This phase often comes later in the recovery process after individuals have had an opportunity to process the trauma, begin to make sense of it, and understand the impact it's had on their lives."

Yoga can help at this stage. Women in domestic violence shelters and community centers throughout New York City, Los Angeles, parts of New York state, and Connecticut are turning to Exhale to Inhale, a nonprofit offering yoga for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The classes, some taught by sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors, put students at ease by using invitational language to move slowly through the flows, like "Join me in [fill in the blank] pose, if that feels comfortable for you, or "If you'd like to stay with me, we'll be there for three breaths," explains Kimberly Campbell, executive director of Exhale to Inhale, yoga instructor, and longtime domestic violence prevention advocate.

Triggers are taken into consideration in every class. The instructor makes no physical adjustments to the students' posture. The environment is carefully curated-the classroom is quiet, devoid of any distracting music, lights are kept on, and the mats all face the doorway so that students can see a point of exit at all times. This environment encourages a sense of choice and agency over your body, which is exactly what sexual assault takes away from women, Campbell says.

There's plenty of research to back up yoga's healing power. One study found that a trauma-informed yoga practice was more effective than any other treatment, including individual and group therapy sessions, in reducing chronic PTSD symptoms long-term. Combining the elements of breathing, poses, and mindfulness in a gentle, meditative yoga practice geared toward trauma sufferers helps survivors reconnect with their bodies and emotions, according to the research.

"Sexual assault creates a profound loss of control over your body, so a practice that allows you to engage in kindness toward yourself and your body is essential," Rhodes says.

Learning Self-Defense Skills

Survivors often feel silenced, both during the assault and sometimes years after, which is why self-defense classes, like those at IMPACT, encourage women to advocate for themselves and for other women. One anonymous survivor of childhood abuse and repeated sexual harassment from a professor shares that it wasn't until she coupled self-defense with her other therapeutic practices that she got the chance to take back the power that was stolen from her, starting with finding her voice.

The first part of class at IMPACT is yelling "no," to get that word in your body, and that verbal adrenaline release is what propels the entire physical portion of the class. "For some survivors, this is the most difficult part of the class, getting to practice advocating for yourself, especially when adrenaline is rushing through your system," says Meg Stone, executive director of IMPACT Boston, a division of Triangle.


An empowerment self-defense class at IMPACT Boston.

Next, the IMPACT instructor takes students through a variety of scenarios, beginning with a classic "stranger on the street" example. Students also learn how to react when someone else is in distress, and then move to more familiar settings, like a bedroom.

While a simulated violent scenario may seem incredibly triggering (and can be for some), Stone says that IMPACT handles each class with very specific, trauma-informed protocol. "One of the most important features of an empowerment self-defense class is the responsibility placed on the perpetrator of the violence," Stone says. "And no one is expected to complete the exercise if they're uncomfortable."

Solidifying a Routine

Returning to a regular routine is an essential part of recovery-and fitness can help. Telisha Williams, bass player and singer of the Nashville folk band Wild Ponies, a survivor of years of childhood sexual abuse, relies on running to combat anxiety and depression.

Williams started running in 1998, and continued with her first marathon in 2014 and then the 200-mile Bourbon Chase relay, saying that each step she ran was one step closer to recovery. "The permission to set-and accomplish-goals helped me establish a healthy lifestyle," Williams says. That's one of the things that's transformed her life, she says, and empowered her to share her story at some of her concerts. (She adds that there's always at least one survivor in the audience who approaches her afterward and thanks her for her advocacy.)

For Reema Zaman, an Oregon-based writer, speaker, and trauma coach, fitness and nutrition were key components of recovery. Growing up in Bangladesh, she was assaulted by a cousin and harassed by teachers and strangers on the street. Then, after moving to the U.S. for college, she was raped at 23 years old. Because she had no family in the U.S. at the time, and chose not to take legal action as not to jeopardize the status of her visa or career, she relied solely on herself to heal, particularly her daily rituals of running 7 miles, strength training, and conscious eating. "They're like spirituality for me," Zaman says. "Fitness has been my method for creating stability, centeredness, and independence in this world," she says. "We need to commit ourselves to our own rise, by doing things that nourish our ability to live, heal, and move from one day to another."

Reclaiming Sexuality

"Recovery often involves reclaiming your sexuality, including reclaiming the right to make sexual decisions, to engage in sexual behaviors of your own choosing, and honoring your sexual and gender identity," Draucker says.

Some survivors have turned to more sensual fitness practices like burlesque and pole dance for this sense of reclamation. Despite notions that these activities exist solely to fulfill the male gaze, "this couldn't be further from the truth," argues Gina DeRoos, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, pole fitness instructor, and Reiki healer in Manteca, California. "Pole dance teaches women how to engage with their bodies on a sensual level, and love their bodies through movement," she says. Years of therapy for her PTSD-related triggers, nightmares, and panic attacks, which she still experienced 20 years after her initial assault, were essential in her long healing process, she shares. But it was pole dancing that helped her rebuild self-love and self-acceptance.

Albert Martinez Photography; survivor and pole fitness instructor Gina DeRoos demonstrating at a studio open house.

Telisha Williams has a similar perspective. Running and all of her other healthy habits were nourishing her from day to day, but something was missing in her long recovery from childhood sexual abuse, which took her many years to unpack and seek treatment for. "Why can't I love my body?" she wondered. "I had not been able to look at my body and see 'sexy'-it was kind of blocked." One day, she dropped in on a burlesque dance class in Nashville, and immediately started to feel the love-the instructor asked students to find something positive about their bodies in each class, instead of taking a cynical or comical approach to the way they moved in the space. Williams was hooked, and class became a space of refuge. She joined a 24-week burlesque training program that culminated in a performance, complete with costumes, and her own choreography, set to some of Wild Ponies' songs. "At the end of that performance, I stood on stage and I felt so powerful in that moment, and I knew I didn't need to go back to not having that power again," she says.

The Importance of Self-Care

Another layer of self-love? Showing kindness to your body on a daily basis. One thing that contributes to healing is "engaging in a practice of self-care, in contrast to self-punishing or self-harming behaviors," Rhodes says. The morning after Reema Zaman was raped, she began her day by writing a love letter to herself and has done so religiously since.

Oliva Katz; Reema Zaman: survivor, advocate, writer, speaker, and trauma coach.

Even with these fortifying practices, Zaman acknowledges that she hasn't always been in a healthy place. From age 15 to age 30, she struggled with disordered eating and overexercising, working toward an image of perfection that she believed was ideal for her acting and modeling career. "I've always been in danger of leaning on myself too hard-I needed to really appreciate what my body was able to give me instead of just depending on her, over and over," Zaman says. "I started realizing that maybe I still held some traces of unhealed trauma, and that was metastasizing as self-harm and punishing standards of beauty." Her response was to write a memoir, I Am Yours, a manual for healing from trauma and self-harm, for herself and for others, at age 30. Getting her story out there on the page and reflecting upon her journey as a survivor allowed her to develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise and appreciate her courage and fortitude today.

The road to recovery is neither linear nor easy. "But survivors benefit most from practices that facilitate their abilities to take care of themselves in a gentle way, and make choices for their own bodies," says Rhodes.

If you or someone you love has experienced sexual violence, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

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