By Katie Patterson
Awaken hosted its 7th annual banquet last November. In attendance were powerful speakers with heart-wrenching testimonies and firsthand experiences about the traumatic and devastating effects sex-trafficking has on women’s and children’s mind, body, and soul. Rebecca Charleston, sex-traffic survivor and guest speaker, shared her personal testimony and briefly addressed the issue of dissociation, a need for victims to ‘disconnect’ from their traumatic circumstances. Rebekah asked the audience,
Can you image having sex with someone you don’t want to have sex with? You can’t show the disgust on your face because you’ll blow the call. If you blow the call, you don’t get the money. If you don’t get the money, you go home to your pimp, you get beat.
What is dissociation? A very simplified definition: Dissociation is when the brain disconnects from what is happening and goes somewhere safe. Dissociation is the body’s way of coping with the guilt, shame, embarrassment, pain, and trauma of being sexually abused. The survivor does not choose to dissociate. It happens automatically. (To a lesser extent, everyone does this at times… it is like daydreaming or getting lost in a good book or movie.) However, for those who have endured sexual abuse, rape, trafficking, or any traumatic experience, dissociation can be a defense mechanism that helps the survivor by ‘removing’ him/her from what is happening.
When you think about having to keep a straight face when forced to have sex with a disgusting man or client. It is no wonder your body and brain would disconnect from the traumatic abuse, especially one that reoccurs. One of Awaken’s many goals is providing a safe environment for women and children to reconnect with their bodies. One Awaken program that helps survivors physically reconnect to their bodies is yoga. Awaken’s yoga class has been taught at the Drop-In Center for more than two years with roughly five to seven women and young girls attending. I asked if I could join one of their classes, and Amanda Fischer, Awaken employee and house case manager, was kind enough to let me.
Amanda has been doing yoga for 10 years and teaching for four years. Her yoga training is unique in that she took classes with a focus on how to teach yoga to sexual assault survivors. I have attended many yoga classes, but this one was different. I walked into the class, yoga mats were already on the floor, the room’s temperature was perfect, not too hot or too cold, and the calm, quiet atmosphere was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Christmas. Amanda asked the class to lay on their backs, breathe deep, relax, and listen to the sound of air filling up our lungs as we in-and-exhale. She then asked the class to put their hands on their stomach and feel our bodies expand and collapse with air. We stayed like that for a little while, really focusing on deep, whole breaths, and allowing the busy day’s stress to disappear. Amanda then asked the class to move their hands from their stomach to their ribs IF we were comfortable to do so. As I laid there, hands on my ribs, I wondered how self-touch might not be comfortable for all people, maybe it was a ‘touch’ they did not want to re-experience. Amanda then instructed the class to place both their hands over their hearts IF we were comfortable doing so. I had never attended a yoga session where the instructor gave the class a choice to position their hands on their bodies; at the end of class I asked Amanda about this. She said what was taken from these women was their choice, their permission, and their consent. “I always try to give these women what they did not have: a choice to be touched.”
One survivor in the class had participated with Awaken’s yoga program for the entire two years it had been taught. Obtaining her permission to ask a few questions, I inquired as to why she started taking the class. She laughed and said, “to exercise.” She also said she joined the class to see what her body was capable of. I asked her why she stuck with it for the last two years. She said it helps her relax in a safe environment and helps her ‘reconnect’ with her body, a feat she wasn’t sure she knew how to do. She said when she is in the class she does not have to be at home thinking. When asked about the benefits of this yoga class, the student said, “Getting to know myself better in a positive way.” She said touching can be uncomfortable but Awaken is a safe environment. “It is a safe touch. It is not sexual,” she said.
After the class, I also felt re-connected to my body and jokingly said “I need to do this every week.” I paused because I know how true it is. How much more for these women and children who have had their bodies vandalized, victimized, raped, beaten, used, and abused? It is so good that Awaken has these programs and classes to help women learn how to love their bodies and learn how to reconnect mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. For ways to get involved with Awaken, check out their website. As well, a shout out and BIG thank you to the “Give Back Yoga Foundation” for donating 10 yoga mats. Your donation will make a difference in the lives of women and children for years to come; with hope, this is an encouraging word for all readers that a simple act of love will go a LONG way.
 If you were unable to attend the banquet, follow this link to watch a recording of it. If you do not have an hour to spare, please read this recap of the evening’s speakers and survivor testimony.
 Henderson, S. (2013). Information for Survivors of Sexual Violence Dissociation [Scholarly project]. Retrieved December 26, 2018, from https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/publications/RCS-supportresources-dissociation.pdf