I’m often asked why I chose to specialize in working with trauma survivors. My answer is, “because yoga transformed my life.”
This is my Story
In the summer of 1994, at the age of 21, I was sexually assaulted and severely beaten by a neighbor. The day I was released from the hospital, I knew that my life would never be as it had once been.
What had seemed certain, predictable and true, no longer was.
Afterward, I stayed with friends. I paced their courtyard, replaying the details of the assault in my head. I avoided venturing outside lest I come into contact with any reminders of the attack. I stayed out of the sunlight and kept to the cool shadows, where no one would see my badly beaten face, my stitches, my broken teeth. What if someone voiced what was occupying much of my thoughts in those early days: “You deserved it”? My sense of self was so depleted, I might just have agreed with them.
A Dangerous & Unpredictable World
As time passed, I grew to see myself as a vulnerable person in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Few others saw me in this light, and I was, for the most part, moving ahead in my life, but internally I lacked any sense of what the deeper meaning might be other than just surviving.
By 1998, I weighed almost 200 pounds; food had become a way to experience nurturing and safety. I smoked up to 1.5 packs of cigarettes a day to calm my anxiety and give me an excuse to escape social interactions when they grew too intimate. I engaged in risky sexual behavior to feel seen and valued. I binged on alcohol and drugs as a way to transcend the contempt I had for myself.
In 2002, I saw Madonna on TV speaking about her practice of Ashtanga yoga. I thought, “Yoga is easy. I could do that and maybe lose some weight.” But there was something just below the surface of that thought that was more vulnerable, and it said, “Maybe this will fix me.” In those early days of practice, a transformation began to take place. I was taught to focus on breath, be conscious of the sensations that arose in my body, accept myself where I was and ride the ebb and flow of my emotions as a curious and compassionate observer.
Although I wasn’t entirely aware of it at the time, I was growing into someone I would never have imagined myself to be.
Without conscious effort, the unhealthy coping strategies I had used to manage my trauma-related symptoms began to fall away. For the first time in years, I felt hope. I felt liberated and empowered. As I grew to know myself as a person who was committed, disciplined, strong, compassionate, flexible and adventurous on the mat, I also became that person out in the world. What trauma had taken away, yoga restored. The rumination, anxiety and desire to escape myself disappeared.
Within this practice, I discovered healthy coping strategies.
I could breathe through anxiety instead of smoking. I could go more deeply into and accept the sensations in my body that changed with my emotions rather than try to numb them with drugs and alcohol. I could stay present and become an observer of emotions and thoughts as they arose, shifted and fell away. I could choose what was happening at every step along the way. I was in control of my body, from a place of compassion not punishment.
Into the Sunlight
In 2003, I took my first yoga teachers training. I was reluctant to even consider that I might teach yoga to others, but my terror at the prospect told me that I was probably going in the right direction.
I know now that, ultimately, I am at the source of my life. I get to create it anew every morning when I step onto the mat, and that is what I want to share with my students.
My goal is to create a safe space for survivors to safely explore the landscape of their own stories.
I envision a day when all trauma survivors can easily access compassionate yoga-based care that takes into consideration both body and mind. The work I do is my contribution to that vision, and this story is my motivation.
“We worked together back in 2008 when Lead with Love was called TIP. I remember looking at her one day while she was doing her teaching with feedback work and I said to myself, “this woman is important”. I still do that. I believe that she is changing the face of yoga and expanding our collective awareness of trauma and therapy. Love to you and all you do, Nicole. Thank-you.”
Shannon Cluff, Founder & Director, Shannon Cluff Yoga