How yoga therapists work: Supporting survivors of intimate partner violence

By Deborah King

Part of my yoga therapy practice is supporting survivors of intimate partner violence. Anyone who has experienced abuse is a survivor—whether they are still in the relationship or have had the privilege to get out. In abusive relationships, the nervous system adapts to help the person survive, but these adaptations often engender other difficulties. Reclaiming agency over one’s own nervous system is a critical step toward healing, one that can be powerfully accessed through yoga therapy. 

Appeasing to survive

Neuroscience describes freeze, appease, dissociate, and collapse responses to threats as survival instincts. Appeasing an abusive partner by maintaining the relationship sometimes can be as practical as escaping; according to a recent article by Stephen Porges, PhD, and colleagues, “the withdrawal of this social engagement can dysregulate the [abuser’s] system. This may necessitate a continued need for social engagement in order for the survivor to stay safe.” Unequal power dynamics, such as racial, gender, and heterosexual privilege, as well as immigration or disability status, physical overpowering, or economic access can exacerbate this dynamic.

Finding choice

When someone has been controlled by another person, understanding that they will be supported in making the choices that serve them is transformational. The basis of choice is finding a felt sense of boundaries. Sometimes survivors are so attuned to their abusers—so that they can help to regulate them—that they disconnect from their own feelings and sense of agency. A definition of interpersonal trauma is stolen autonomy. Through a yoga lens, however, the autonomy is still present and needs to be uncovered and nurtured.

One of my favorite ways to help create the shift back into a client’s awareness of their own system—toward their own needs, wants, and choice—is to invite them to make a circle of bolsters or pillows around themselves. This marks the space as theirs, a space I only come into if I am invited. This space becomes a place to rediscover choice, to discover “no” and “yes,” “maybe,” and “my mind can change” within the context of a yoga therapy session.

One morning a client came into the studio in distress. She paced as she told me about the interaction she had just had with her partner. I encouraged her to move—to use her large muscles for a bit, to mark out her space with her arms—and then she started to slow down. Just as she began to settle, she startled. “I need to leave. Is that okay?” When she came back the next week, she said the experience of leaving with no repercussions brought a sense of peace and strength that helped to anchor her throughout her week.

Reclamation: The light is me

One of my favorite recurring observations in my yoga therapy work with survivors is the consistent shift in the therapeutic relationship when a client stops asking my permission. This moment is such a beautiful reclamation of autonomy. “This body is mine” is an affirmation of innate resilience and can be the foundation of healthy autonomy and agency. Healing is not a static point of perfection, but rather a constantly unfolding process that can be facilitated by yoga therapy. At its heart, though, healing is self-led.

As one client described after practice: “I feel the ground supporting me. And I see light. And the light is me.”

Deborah King, C-IAYT, is a yoga therapist in private practice. She partners with The Dove Project to offer practice to survivors and with Swedish Medical Centers to create practices for  people navigating multiple sclerosis, cancer, and postnatal mental health challenges.