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.”
Race Car Legend Danica Patrick Has a New Podcast Out this Week
The 20-year yoga student chatted with us about Gloria Steinem, pranayama, and finally perfecting her Scorpion Pose.
At 5’2”, Danica Patrick is a force to be reckoned with. The only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, Patrick is no stranger to staring down her fears. The 37-year-old author and longtime yoga practitioner retired from race car driving last year, and today she’s channeling her take-no-prisoners attitude into an inspirational podcast, aptly titled Pretty Intense, in which she interviews famed guests such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Alex Rodriguez about tough topics like what it takes to win, spirituality, and what makes us human. We caught up with her to talk about her new career goals, her yoga practice, and what she dreams about at night.
Yoga Journal: Why a podcast?
Danica Patrick: I just spend a lot of my time listening to inspirational podcasts and watching these types of videos, and I thought that it would be really fun to go deep with people and find out more about the parts of their lives that were difficult or transitioned into something good and find out how they did it. When I watch something or listen to someone speak, I want some action points. What did it take to get where they are? What techniques did they use? How are you going grow—not just as an idea but how are you going to do it. So now I talk to people to find out how they did it.
YJ: What guests are you most excited about so far?
DP: I loved the conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson. We talked about religion a lot it was int bc he’s an astrophysicist. What a cool and smart guy. I feel like it’s going to be cool for people to hear about the universe and the fabric of our reality what makes us humans and what makes us unique. Oh, and Gloria Steinem. She was refreshingly simple and really fun to talk to.
YJ: Who’s your dream guest?
YJ: What keeps bringing you back to your yoga mat?
DP: I’ve realized how important the mental aspect of the practice is—being able to connect with the breath, turn your thoughts off, and return to something repetitive and simple. It’s so powerful for overall emotion and mental wellness to be focused in that way. It’s been really good for me to focus on the small stuff, because I have a very driven, type-A, goal-oriented side of me that wants to accomplish difficult poses and touch my feet to my head—which I finally did a couple months ago in Scorpion!—I’ve had dreams about my feet touching my head. I don’t know if that makes me weird, but I’ve definitely had those dreams.
YJ: Home practice or yoga studio?
DP: Mine’s a home practice. I think it’s easier to progress at home because you can take time to focus and work on whatever you want. In a class, you have to go with the flow. I’m trying to get more consistent with meditation as well. It took until a couple years ago for me to breath through each movement—in through Up Dog and exhale through Down Dog—the simplicity of breathing through was not easy for me. Doing pranayama work and getting deeper into mediation has been super powerful and ultimately the most important part of my home practice. Without meditation and pranayama, you may as well do any other fitness routine. There are ways to burn calories, but yoga really focuses on the mind, body, and breathing.
YJ: How did yoga influence your racing career?
DP: Breathing for sure was a big deal for me in racing. I’ve always understood the power of a deep breath for slowing things down. I’d take slow breaths in through my mouth and out through my nose to reset the adrenaline, focus, and slow down. I’ve always believed that if you can bend, you don’t break. That mantra was always helpful for me when accidents would happen. My body was going to places in ways it shouldn’t, but I was able to get out of the sport without any major injuries. I always felt because of my flexibility, I bent and didn’t break.
Yoga Helped Clare Cui Find Peace In Her Body
Weightlifting was wreaking havoc on my body and spirit—until I found yoga.
I couldn’t see much in the darkness, but I could smell the tanning oil that covered the toned bodies of women who were nervously clustered together in lines waiting to take the stage. As I stood there in my group, my number pinned to my bikini, I looked down at my body, which I had beat into peak physical condition, and I still didn’t like what I saw. I’m sure I looked confident in my own skin, but what I really wanted to do was to crawl out of it.
I know there are countless women who feel self-conscious about a little squish on their belly or thighs—wondering what new workout or crash diet to try—constantly worrying about making “healthy” decisions around food and exercise. For a long time, I was no different. I was insecure and constantly pursuing the “perfect” body. It was a race that I was never going to win. I was inundated by negative messages in a culture where validation, praise, and value relied on placing in competition. I couldn’t get out of the get-up-and-grind mentality. This chiseled body that kept garnering praise became an addiction.
That is exactly why—despite the three first-place fitness titles I had earned that year—I was left waging a secret war against myself and my body. In that moment in the darkness backstage, my soul was sending out an SOS. I knew something was wrong.
See also Is Social Media Wrecking Your Body Image?
I left that competition and tried to go back to my life as the head strength and conditioning coach at a Denver public high school. I vowed to let go of superficial goals, obsessive negative self-talk, counting calories, incessant workouts, and all-consuming anxiety about what I looked like on stage. This spaciousness in my thoughts was a welcome breath of fresh air, but it also felt strange and empty. Without competition, I craved focus, so I threw myself into fostering strength in others, helping students to rid themselves of pain and reach their physical goals.
My students had restricted movement from ailments such as torn ACLs and back problems. I grew fascinated by how the body moves and how rigidity causes all sorts of problems. Health wasn’t just about strength. I was discovering another piece of the puzzle: Flexibility—both physically and mentally—was critical. Bulldozing my way through competitions on shear strength and willpower like I had been was killing me because I didn’t have the flexibility of mind to take days off and let my body recover.
I could see that my clients’ mindsets were determining their recoveries. Some of them were stubborn, stuck on one way of doing things, forcing the same approach over and over again with few results. I saw them like a mirror, exposing my own flaws. Rigidity wasn’t working, for them or for me. We need strength to overcome our challenges, but also flexibility to pivot when things aren’t working the way we want them to.
See also Kat Fowler on Embracing Yoga and Conquering Self-Doubt
Fueled by a desire to learn more about increasing flexibility, I walked into a power yoga teacher training having never taken a yoga class. Halfway through class, covered in sweat, I was falling on my face attempting Bakasana. My inner strength coach had been beaten into submission by how much I had underestimated the whole “yoga thing,” and something unexpected happened: I found myself deeply in love with asana practice.
I’d huff and puff my way through vinyasa classes, where each pose got me closer to answering the aching question: How do I stop fighting with my body? I had long approached my fitness routine as a tool to punish myself into a better body—one that mirrored the standardized images I saw in the media. Through yoga, this armor slowly started to come off. Each time I attempted to slow down and soften into a pose, using my strength to support my body rather than demand a result from it, I could feel myself deeply listening to what was going to heal instead of hurt me. I began to witness the compassion and kindness toward myself that I had been missing for years.
Yes, the intelligent placement of my bones and muscles in space supported my strength. But this magical organization of my walking meat sack got me in tune with so much more than any fad diet ever had. Instead of regarding my body as an obstacle in the way of a shiny new trophy, through yoga I realized that this awareness in my body meant that I was the trophy.
See also The Avoidance Mechanisms We Have to Face In Order To Heal
I no longer saw my shoulders as something that needed more shaping, but a beloved elevator to lift me higher in Handstands and inspire courage and confidence. Now, I absolutely won’t deny that yoga and strength training have toned my backside. But what I flex (no pun intended) regularly with my yoga tools is not a physical muscle, but an internal one. The skills of softening, deep listening, and presence were dormant and weak before I found yoga. These mind muscles allow me to see the shapes my body makes without focusing on what it looks like externally. I can now focus on what it feels like from the inside of the pose.
I’ve become more in tune with a source of joy and wholeness that doesn’t come from a judge or a medal. It comes from deep within. Real confidence comes from an internal knowing that we are worthy, beautiful, and whole—no matter what shape we take.
See also Jessamyn Stanley on Moving Beyond Body Positivity
About the author
Clare Cui is a Denver-based yoga teacher with more than 12 years of experience in strength training. Her passion is supporting career women and business leaders to create the strength in their bodies and minds to show up confidently in their own skin. Find her at theyogathlete.com and @clare_cui on Instagram.
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