After surviving a sexual assault five years ago, Julie Grossman sought healing from yoga. Now, she’s helping other assault survivors.
She was 27 and living in Austin, Texas, at the time of her assault.
“In times of trauma, you don’t think clearly and you don’t file memories correctly all the time. There are some details that I remember very clearly and then other details are almost gone,” she says.
She remembers what she was wearing -- a sweatshirt, jeans -- and that it was a weekday when she dropped by a male friend’s house. They had planned to watch a movie. As she lounged on the couch, he brought her a tall, orange-flavored drink. Then it’s all a blank…until she came to later on his bed. He was on top of her. She registered what was happening, but passed out again.
When she woke up later, he claimed it had just been drunken sex.
“The sickening part was he said, ‘You loved when I did this or that. You responded when I touched you this way.’ That was the worst part of talking to him afterwards,” Grossman says.
Grossman drove herself home, called her dad, and packed her bags. Within days, she moved home to Minnesota. She called the Austin police department, but they said she could only make a statement in person. She also shared her story with a “bulldog of an attorney” who believed her, but wasn’t interested in representing her when he found out that the perpetrator didn’t have a great job or make a lot of money. After those discouraging phone calls, she gave up any hope of filing charges.
Grossman discussed the assault in therapy, and benefited from that, but still experienced panic attacks and depression. Then she began taking yoga classes, and finally felt some relief. When she heard about a branch of yoga called trauma-sensitive yoga, she knew it was something she wanted to do. She became certified in it earlier this year.
While traditional yoga focuses on alignment and executing movements on inhales and exhales, trauma-sensitive yoga is invitational. It encourages practitioners to find the positions that work for them (trauma-sensitive yoga uses the term “positions” rather than “poses” because “posing can have kind of a sexual connotation,” Grossman says).
Traditional yoga can feel, for some, like forcing the body into unnatural positions. It can be frustrating if the practitioner feels like their body can’t “do” the positions or doesn’t look like everyone else’s body. Some traditional yoga practitioners also feel pressure to lose weight. Trauma-sensitive yoga is not about aesthetics. It’s not meant to be a workout. Instead, practitioners learn how to calm the nerves and release anxiety.
“Trauma yoga is about being in your body, being in the moment,” Grossman says. “From there is when we start to find healing.”
Being present in the body can be difficult for assault survivors. “A lot of people want to dissociate. They want to escape,” Grossman says. “I hated my body," she recalls. "It was awful. It was working against me. I wanted to live in my head.”
Talk therapy is a top-down solution: It treats psychological issues in the hopes that physical symptoms will eventually be relieved. Yoga is a bottom-up solution: It addresses physical symptoms -- such as tightness in the chest and shallow breathing -- first, and the psychological benefits flow from that. Grossman doesn’t recommend one type of treatment over another; ideally, survivors will seek them as complements to one another.
Meditation and mindfulness are also helpful healing techniques. In her trauma-sensitive yoga meditations, Grossman prefers to focus on silence in a candle-lit room. Practitioners don’t close their eyes (which might be disorienting or scary for some) but instead gaze at candles or down their noses at the floor. If thoughts arise, practitioners are encouraged to acknowledge them, accept them, and let them go.
This weekend marks the start a two-part series led by Grossman at Tula Yoga. While this workshop is only for women who have experienced sexual assault, Grossman plans to add a trauma class for men in the future. She also recognizes that trauma is not only sexual, and hopes to explore traumas like loss and grief in upcoming workshops.
As for Grossman, she is in a better place now. She is a licensed realtor, as is her husband. They have a young son. “[The assault] happened to me, but nobody took anything away from me," she says. "I’m still whole and I’m still complete.”
IF YOU GO:
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and Sacred Movement Workshop with Julie Grossman
Tula Yoga & Wellness
3-5 p.m. Sun. Apr. 29 and/or Sun., May 27
Registration is $40 per person, per workshop.
Find more info here.