Celebrating five years of service, the nonprofit Exhale to Inhale brings free, trauma-informed yoga classes to rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters in New York and California.
First it was her mother. Then it was a friend in college. And another friend. And another friend. As each person told Zoë LePage her experience of domestic or sexual violence, she was moved by the survivors. “I was furious that my loved ones had gone through this—that someone had violated them like this and made them feel less than. I wanted to create space for them and other individuals who had similar experiences, so they could do the work of healing,” she says.
Then, in her senior year of college, LePage’s women’s leadership–studies program tasked her with finding a way to change the world. She knew it needed to address trauma from sexual and domestic assaults.
See also How to Work with Yoga Students Who’ve Experienced Trauma
LePage thought about how much yoga had helped her with anxiety and depression between high school and college. “Yoga gave me a sense of strength and stability that nothing else could provide,” says LePage, who completed her first yoga teacher training in 2009. Hoping yoga would have the same effect on survivors, LePage founded Exhale to Inhale (ETI) in 2013, to bring free yoga classes to people who’d experienced trauma.
The name of the nonprofit organization comes from a quote her yoga teacher Jodie Rufty would say: “Sometimes you need to let go of that which is no longer serving you in order to fill yourself back up.” LePage explains, “In my mind, that translated into, ‘You need to exhale in order to inhale.’”
See also 5 Ways to Use Your Yoga Practice to Help You Deal With Trauma
ETI yoga instructors visit domestic and sexual violence shelters and rape crisis and community centers to teach free, trauma-informed yoga classes to the survivors and staff there. What a class looks like: The lights remain on, there is no music, everyone is oriented to face the entry and exit point of the room, and the instructor stays on her mat or in her chair. “Part of that method is so that the students have someone to copy, and part of it is easing the anxiety of students who may be hypervigilant. The idea of someone coming up behind them or there being someone they need to track as they walk around the room is a distraction,” she says.
Instructors also use invitational language. “We want our students to have the experience of noticing the sensations in their body and making choices based on that,” LePage says. So teachers use phrases like, “I invite you to try…” and “This is option A; this is option B. Or you can choose none of the above.”
See also Sarah Platt-Finger’s Self-Care Practice for Survivors of Sexual Assault
This empowers students and helps them reconnect to their bodies in a positive way. “For someone who has experienced trauma, her body has been violated. You do not feel safe in it or you feel disconnected from it,” LePage says. “We hold space for people to be present in the moment, to connect to how their bodies move in space, and to recognize how those movements make them feel emotionally and physically. When our students begin to experience this, they may slowly incorporate that new way of being into their everyday lives so they can create the lives they want.”
The Most Comfortable Men's Yoga Clothes On the Market Right Now
Comfort is key.
Nothing is more annoying during a vinyasa flow than a zipper stabbing you in the thigh during revolved lunge. Or what about during a yin class when the elastic waist feels a little too tight in your supine twists? Uncomfortable clothing can quickly take you out of your meditative state. Avoid that problem all-together with these trendy and extremely comfortable pieces perfect for identifying yogi males.
See also YJ Tested: 6 Yoga Pants + Shorts Guys Will Live In
5 Comfortable Men’s Yoga Clothes
prAna Men’s V Neck Short Sleeve Workout Tee
Vuori Men’s Banks Shorts
Manduka Men’s Utility Knit Joggers
prAna Men’s Vaha Yoga Pants 32″ Inseam
Spiritual Gangster Men’s Wave Surf Tank
Yoga Transformed Me After Trauma and Sexual Assault
As a child, Ebony Smith survived sexual assault but didn’t have the tools to cope with the trauma until years later, when she found yoga. Now, she’s bringing the practice to her community, and others in crisis.
Exactly 247 people came to practice yoga with me today. Why is that such a big deal? Well, it means that I’m a badass. But to fully understand, you have to learn more about me and my community.
The practice of yoga powerfully changed my life. I went from being an alcoholic, Xanax-poppin’ college dropout to traveling the world to inspire others to be the greatest versions of themselves.
I was born and raised in Dallas, and was eight-years-old the first time I was sexually abused by my neighbor. That year I was also sentenced to my first in-house suspension. I didn’t have the tools to cope with the trauma, and I was punished for it. I became a menace in my elementary school. Teachers didn’t want me in class, so they placed me in an ESL class instead (English is my first language). The ESL teacher drank cold coffee all day. She spoke in Spanish (which I didn’t understand) and seated me in a cubicle I couldn’t see over or around. Needless to say, I didn’t learn anything that year. I grew more disenchanted with school. Nobody asked what was going on with me.
My dysfunction bled into adulthood. By the time I was 29, I was an alcoholic, married to a man I didn’t really know, and detached from myself. Then I found out I was pregnant. I told my then-husband, and I haven’t seen him since. Watching a Ricki Lake documentary called The Business of Being Born (who doesn’t love Ricki Lake?) inspired me to have a natural childbirth. I found a doula, and the first thing she advised me to do was to start practicing yoga.
My first thought was, “Yoga? Black people don’t do yoga.” But I found a yoga studio, and it went something like this: I’m nervous as fuck wearing too-little yoga pants (of course, people don’t make yoga pants for my kind of super sexiness). The white woman behind the counter actually said, “This is a yoga studio, mama.” No kidding, I’m here to buy donuts, I wanted to say. When I explained that I was there to practice, she told me to pick a beginner class because I was plus-size. This was my first interaction with the world of yoga, at the closest studio to my home, and I had to travel 24 miles to get there.
Despite it all, the first time I stepped on the mat I was introduced to myself. As I practiced more and more, I gained the power to cultivate my life. I also quickly learned that yoga was expensive, so I found a studio that would let me clean up in exchange for free classes. I didn’t understand how a practice that empowers people to heal themselves was so inaccessible.
That’s why I had a dream to bring this healing to my community in southern Dallas. And it’s why I started offering free yoga in Kiest Park. As a child, I spent several summers at this peaceful spot, an anomaly in the area where I grew up. I’m sad to say that my community—plagued with a drug epidemic, under-resourced schools, and poverty—is in crisis.
See also This Yoga Teacher Is Bringing Diversity to the Yoga Retreat Industry
On any given day, drive three miles in my neighborhood and you’ll see people slumped over park benches after injecting crack, heroin, or meth. You can visit a corner store openly selling crack pipes. You can witness people yelling down the street or talking to themselves because they lack the mental health resources they need. Everyone in the community is suffering from trauma; nobody has the skills to cope with the level of stress induced by living in these conditions.
I want more for the people living in the hood (definition: under-resourced neighborhoods). In my neighborhood, there is an abundance of food deserts and crime. Families living in these communities experience trauma, directly and indirectly, on a daily basis. If they aren’t victims of violence themselves, they see it at home or on the streets. The area is rife with caretaker instability, including substance use or incarceration. House fires are common. I’ve seen all the reactions to this madness, including PTSD, depression, over-indulging, anxiety, irritability, stress, and aggression, along with health issues such as cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. During traumatic encounters, the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in, either by over-activation (“Too Turn’t Up”) or suppression (“Leave Me the Hell Alone”). When this goes down regularly, you become overloaded, hoarding trauma in your body. It’s like having a cut that never heals, because you don’t have resources to get a damn band-aid.
See also Jessamyn Stanley on Moving Beyond Body Positivity
COMMUNITY IN CRISIS
Needless to say, my hood needs some healing. But here’s the thing: Just because I understand the power of yoga doesn’t mean people in the hood do—or would even be willing to find out. Not only does the community lack accessibility (there are no yoga studios or wellness centers around here), but the idea of yoga itself seems foreign. Wellness is portrayed by the media as a luxury for the rich and the white, even though, truthfully, it is a human right.
Also, deep in the Bible Belt, people often have a false idea of what yoga has to offer. Yes, yoga came to us from an ancient religion, but even medical science recognizes the benefits of it for all. Recently I hosted a summer camp for young ladies at a local nonprofit, and we planned a trip to a yoga studio. Some girls had to stay home because their parents believed yoga was “worshipping another God.” Even one of the staff members sat outside the studio in 102-degree weather. “Yoga is against my religion,” she said.
Many yoga communities are trying to become more inclusive, but we have a long way to go. We must translate what wellness means across cultures, poverty lines, and sexual orientations. The best way to do it is from hood to hood.
See also How Yoga Helped One Rape Survivor Cope With the Kavanaugh Hearings
So, now you can begin to understand why, when I first started teaching at the park, I spent the first few summers teaching free yoga to invisible (that is, zero) people.
Every once in a while my mother or some of my friends would sit on the sidelines. But I wanted to empower my community. So every time no one showed up, I would still teach the class like there were hundreds of people there. I would still try to inspire, tap into the power of self, and discover the awesomeness within.
Last summer more than 200 people came out to practice yoga with me, the Ghetto Guru. I think people saw how determined and consistent I was on social media.
I’ve seen the power of yoga work in my community. One of our yogis lost 200 pounds because yoga changed her mindset. My favorite transformation so far has come from a 16-year-old African-American male. Like me, Will experienced trauma early in his life, seeing his mother on drugs and his father in and out of prison. When I met him, he was angry, hurt, and confined to the high-school behavioral unit. We began to practice yoga and mindfulness together. At first he was reluctant. But after a while, William got so good that I started teaching him how to lead classes, which gave him a sense of pride. After six weeks of practice, he was released from the behavioral unit and returned to regular classes, where he thrived.
I am guessing you might be saying that shit sounds like some yoga fairy tale—and it is. It’s a fairy tale I brought to life with the power of positive thoughts and perseverance. You can do the same thing with your fairy tales if you believe. My dream (and hard work) crystalized with Yoga N Da Hood, an organization that translates wellness into a language that people in our community understand. We make yoga accessible by teaching in parks, recreation centers, schools, and churches. Last year we reached more than 3,000 people by offering free yoga and mindfulness in ways the hood can relate: We offer Trap Yoga, Beyoncé Yoga, Yoga with African Drums, and so much more. We designed yoga nidra stories written for children of color and we produced a curriculum that teaches children and educators how to eliminate stress, thrive through trauma, and incorporate mindful movement into everyday life. We’ve grown from Kiest Park to five parks, 27 schools, and a mega church.
I’ve also had the opportunity to teach the power of changing your mind to change your life at workshops, universities, schools, corporations, and other cool communities around the world. I relish the opportunity to partner with you in making wellness accessible to everyone.
About our Author
EBONY SMITH is a Dallas-based, trauma-informed yoga teacher and yoga therapist, mindfulness instructor, neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, certified wellness coach, and motivational speaker. She is the founder of Yoga N Da Hood. Visit yogandahood.com for more information.
Yoga Transformed Me After Depression
Brad Wetzler found himself over-medicated, in a fog, and uncomfortable in his own skin. But yoga reminded him how to open his heart and feel whole again.
When I turned 38, I found myself in a bind. The intermittent depression that had haunted me since my teens had become more frequent and severe. I was taking a lot of medications to treat it. Antidepressants, first. When the drugs didn’t relieve my pain,
I pleaded with my psychiatrist for a higher dose, and then to try another, stronger med. And then another. Until I took 12 different meds, 25 pills per day. I’d been a successful magazine writer and editor who’d traveled the world on assignment for the New York Times, Newsweek, and more. I’d been an intrepid traveler to remote and extreme places. The drugs stole it all from me. I disappeared into a fog. The drugs caused me to slur my speech. I tripped when I walked. I couldn’t ride a bike without falling over. It was so bad that my wife hid my bike. I went to bed. For seven years.
And then my life really began to unravel. My 15-year marriage to my journalism grad-school sweetheart ended. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A dear friend whom I considered a little brother killed himself with an overdose. I was estranged from my real brother and father because of my anger about old issues. The worst part: I couldn’t feel a thing. I was cut off from my heart and couldn’t cope with the quickening changes. What do I mean?
See also 1 in 5 Adults Live with Mental Illness. These Yogis Are Breaking the Stigma
Looking back, I now see more clearly what happened. The child of an alcoholic, I’d grown up to be an addict, too. Instead of drinking, which I feared, I numbed out with prescription drugs. The drugs I took prevented me from feeling the very thoughts and emotions that I needed to heal. The drugs blocked fear—and fear is the gateway to growth. The drugs crushed empathy. I couldn’t feel the pain of others, let alone my own. I blamed everybody for my problems—for my divorce, for my floundering career, for my tough family dynamic. The drugs had become a steel cage around my heart. I thought about ending it all. I bought a gun.
And then I rediscovered yoga, which I had abandoned years earlier. After a months-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where I tried to re-ignite the Christian faith of my youth. I realized something big. No external messiah—not a pill, not Jesus—was going to save me. I would have to save myself. So, I decided to reengage with yoga. In my first class back, while standing in Warrior Pose II, I remembered the energy and confidence that yoga had brought me in my 20s. While lying in Savasana (Corpse Pose),
I remembered the emotional peace, the refuge, that a daily practice provided. I wanted that back.
It took a couple of months to reestablish a regular practice. And then I committed big time: six days a week. No questions asked. I made a decision. Every morning I woke up with a single intention: if I got to yoga, it was a good day. Nothing else mattered. I settled into a vinyasa practice. It took a few more months for yoga to begin to really work on me. But flowing moved energy. Sitting in uncomfortable poses caused me to reflect on my own escapism from pain, the reason I had gotten on the drugs in the first place. My yoga teachers’ daily wisdom reintroduced me to the philosophy of ahimsa—not harming others, but especially not harming myself.
See also 5 Ways to Radically Love Yourself Today
I saw the benefits. Yoga regulated my nervous system like no drug I’d taken. The depression and anxiety that had been so prevalent in my 30s lifted. It healed my body, too. The pain went away. More importantly, my heart began to open. Yoga led me to explore other spiritual practices, including meditation. And I found a new way to be in my skin. Today I take a mild antidepressant. But yoga gets the credit for showing me the way.
Sometimes the lost years gets to me. Seven whole years lost forever to a fog. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself and I find myself alone and sobbing. And when that happens, I know what to do. I grab my mat. I get to yoga. In my wallet, I keep a scrap of paper with these words scrawled on it: Get to yoga. Yoga saves.
About our Author
BRAD WETZLER is a journalist, writing coach, and yoga teacher in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more at bradwetzler.com.
Balance1 month ago
Are You Traveling to India for the Right Reasons?
Gluten Free7 months ago
Wild Rice Vegan Stuffing with Roasted Sweet Potato & Apple
cashew cream8 months ago
Creamy Vegan Chick’n Rice Skillet Supper
blog friends8 months ago
Brandi Doming’s Thai Red Curry Sweet Potato Dip
Life7 months ago
This Is the Guide to Yoga and Meditation We Wish We Had Growing Up
comfort food7 months ago
Creamy Vegan Skillet Lasagna | The Full Helping
Nutrition and Wellness8 months ago
Weekend Reading | The Full Helping
Nutrition and Wellness4 weeks ago
Weekend Reading | The Full Helping