At an Exhale Project yoga class, there is more than stretching and strength-building happening.
These classes, held in six counties around Eastern Iowa, are focused on mental and spiritual healing and gaining tools to deal with past harm.
“None of the yoga we do is about exercise. It’s about getting the body into a relaxed space and creating safety,” director Julie Jack said.
She teaches trauma-informed yoga, a discipline that seeks to serve the specific needs of people dealing with things like sexual violence or other traumatic experiences.
From a scientific perspective, Jack said, yoga works with the body’s autonomic nervous system, which regulates things such as breath and heart rate. When people process trauma, their body often reacts in specific ways related to that system. People with post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety related to past trauma may find themselves having panic attacks or flashbacks. Jack said the mindfulness aspect of yoga can help.
“Yoga gives you tools to calm yourself down and build awareness of the body,” she said. “Mindfulness is being in the present moment, and knowing, right now, in this moment, I’m safe … You start to know your triggers, and start to know what’s happening with your body, so it’s not as scary.”
Jack had been a therapist and yoga teacher for a some time when she came across the concept of trauma-informed yoga. It immediately clicked for her.
“It’s always been my intuitive feeling there’s something more to this than exercise,” she said.
She moved to the Cedar Rapids area five years ago and met the director of Iowa City-based Rape Victim Advocacy Project, who approached her after a yoga class she taught with the idea of holding a class specifically for sexual violence survivors.
She wrote a grant, and the program received funding through the Victims of Crime Act. That got Exhale started almost three years ago, and it now also has a fiscal sponsor and is in the process of applying for 501c3 nonprofit status.
“My hope is to let it grow into something bigger,” Jack said. “I see so much benefit doing this work.”
Exhale works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to facilitate classes in Lynn, Johnson, Mahaska, Marshall, Poweshiek and Washington counties. All classes are free and held in donated spaces.
The grant funding is specifically for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking. Classes are typically mostly women, but some men have attended as well. Classes are held in eight-week sessions, and people generally come for one session.
Jack also invites non-offending family and friends, as well as service providers, to attend.
“I want to help them feel comfortable and to address vicarious trauma,” she said.
She also will hold a training for yoga teachers interested in trauma-informed yoga later this year.
Jack said she focuses on making the space feel as safe as possible — for example, she doesn’t touch clients or physically adjust poses during a class, as that can be triggering. She and the other teachers she works with are also trained in how to deal with a situation if someone does start having a panic attack.
Jennifer Moen, of Cedar Rapids, has been attending Jack’s classes for a couple of years.
“Yoga has just become a big part of my life. It just helps ground me and center me, and helps me deal with day-to-day trauma. It helps me find inner peace,” she said.
She said she struggled with alcoholism in the past and has been sober for almost four years. She credits the program with helping.
“Yoga just kept me sober,” she said. “It’s calming, it’s therapeutic. It’s a way to have some sense of community, too, with other people.”
Jack said the class often offers social support for participants, who know everyone there understands what each other is going through.
“In a sense, it’s a little bit of a support group,” she said.
The owner of interior design and staging business Carpe Diem Décor and life coaching business LivAwake, Moen said she sees yoga as another form of the balance she strives to teach her own clients.
“It’s not for working out as much as mind, body, spirit alignment,” she said. “It clears you, too, so you can become more aware of your surroundings.”
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l Learn more about The Exhale Project and find classes at exhaleproject.org.