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Yoga Saved Me from Abuse and Post-Traumatic Stress

Akinyi Shapiro was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali until a series of traumatic events changed everything. Through yoga she has found healing and growth.

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I was in the capitol of Mali during the 2012 coup d’état, and went through a five-day lockdown in a regional Peace Corps house. At that time, several members of the Malian military felt unsupported by their government during grizzly stand-offs with an increasingly violent separatist movement in Northern Mali. All Peace Corps volunteers were briefed on the escalating tension before taking their posts. As a general health volunteer, my work would have consisted of doing presentations on hand washing and helping to retrain midwives. But some military personnel took control of the government overnight while I happened to be in the capitol getting my retainer fixed. I awoke to the yells of volunteers, and came downstairs to be debriefed by the house guards that we could not leave until the fighting stopped, over the sound of gunfire. I couldn’t go back to my village.

During the lockdown I found that yoga grounded me more than anything else. I practiced on the balcony of the house with the help of a friend who guided me through a sequence from a book that her mother had sent her. I had only practiced twice before at a gym near my university, but I was willing to try anything to calm myself in the middle of the conflict. And even though I felt physical and emotional tension from my first vinyasa to a final Child’s Pose before Savasanah, after I left that balcony, I knew yoga had helped me.

Related: How Yoga and Meditation Help Me Manage Anxiety

Peace Corps volunteers were then evacuated from Mali, and I was transferred to Botswana to finish my service. I couldn’t sleep more than three hours at night, even after taking four to eight Benadryl pills. I would fall asleep immediately, but wake up suddenly from nightmares about the coup after an hour or two of rest. My body believed that if I fell asleep, I’d wake up to gunfire all over again. I tossed and turned, gritting my teeth and trying to clear my mind for hours, but I couldn’t fall back asleep until morning. I was also intensely afraid of tasks that required any amount of responsibility or potential risk. I couldn’t go to a meeting for a new project, go back to the public clinic to identify places for improvement, or simply walk alone around the village because I felt like I would fail and get hurt in some way. I found myself ordering boxes of “healthy foods” for my father to mail me in care packages. I would binge on nutritional bars, packages of dark chocolate-covered dried fruit, cashew nut butter by the half-cup. Many of my thoughts were about food, exercise, or how afraid I was of getting “fat.” It didn’t help that I used to be heavier—when I was 15, I was 228 pounds, and am now about 100 pounds lighter. Without feeling able to eat, sleep, or work, I was fixated on an anxiety loop that began and ended with me hating being who I was and how I felt most of the time.

I started seeing a therapist and doing yoga more regularly to find some comfort. Almost immediately, I found yoga and meditation helped me sleep and eased my social anxiety to the point that I smiled more and was able to leave my house during the day again. I then met a man who worked at a United Nations agency operating near my work site and we immediately began dating. Our relationship quickly turned abusive. I justified his abuse by claiming it stemmed from “cultural differences.” He was sincerely homophobic, frighteningly racist, regularly physically hurt me while “play-wrestling,” and sexually assaulted me twice. But I consistently told myself he just had different perspectives on how to interact with romantic partners. I was living with an undiagnosed eating disorder as well as what I soon understood was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I managed my life as best I could, but it was nearly impossible to keep it together. A fellow volunteer helped me develop my yoga practice in such a loving direction that I learned how to sequence my own practices. Yoga became my only constant.

After I was assaulted for the second time by my partner, I practiced hip opening poses in his house while I debated leaving him. Hip openers help us open up the emotional junk drawer into which we stuff our four main emotional offenders: guilt, shame, anger, and sadness. So I tried and tried to open my hips. Whenever I used to practice Pigeon Pose I felt my shoulders tense, my thighs tighten, and my breathing get quicker and shallower as my forehead sweat onto my mat beneath me. I was so afraid each time that relaxing into the pose would mean hurting myself. But I kept trying to open my hips and let loose my guilt, shame, anger, and sadness. I discovered that I had the strength to act in a compassionate way toward myself, a true act of yoga, for one of the first times in my life: I reported being sexually assaulted to Peace Corps, and they medically evacuated me back to the U.S.

Almost two years ago I moved in with my father and I began to heal, but I stopped practicing. Yoga revealed remnants of trauma pent up in the corners of my body. It reminded me how it felt to be assaulted, trapped, and terrorized. When I was in that abusive relationship, practicing yoga kept me sane in the wake of incredible danger. I had known that I needed to leave to save my life, and the yoga I practiced became a place to contemplate what was happening to me. This gave me space to be compassionate with myself and let my body tell me what it needed to say. Years later the memories of horrific experiences, in combination with an old neck injury, left my body closed and constricted.

Once I felt settled in both trauma therapy and eating disorder recovery, I began practicing yoga regularly—first for exercise, but then, to come into myself and loosen my ideas of perfection. I began to breathe deeper and longer during my practice, and found myself doing the same when I experienced a trigger. Now I giggle in yoga class; my practice has become playtime, and falling has become funny. When I feel myself tensing in any area of my body, I let go and thank myself. Everything has changed in my physical practice because of how I think about myself off the mat.

When I reflect back to the time I spent sweating onto my mat in Pigeon, worrying about my hips opening, stuck in my fear, I feel gratitude. If it weren’t for my practice back then, I wouldn’t have survived that relationship and come back to a physical and emotional place where I feel safe. Just a month ago I reached King Pigeon Pose for the first time. My past was surrounded by a conscious desire to constantly become something more. My present, and presence, is a constant gift of appreciating myself as I am.

Learn more about Akinyi and her mission to serve women affected by domestic violence here.

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