How A Boise State Class Is Using Yoga To Help Sexual Assault Victims

May 29, 2014

The Centers for Disease Control says one in five women is sexually assaulted in college, a statistic that prompted the White House to release guidelines to help those victims. As that guidance works its way through universities across the country, a Boise State University graduate student has launched her own effort to support victims.  

Caitlin Lanier understands the healing process required for sexual assault survivors. She was sexually assaulted during her first year of college. Lanier didn’t have many options to help her heal. She joined a support group and she’d drink alcohol.

“And drink and drink and drink and numb ourselves afterwards and that was our only mode of therapy,” Lanier remembers.

She also battled an eating disorder. Her struggle continued for several years. Things only began to get better when she rediscovered something from high school: yoga. Lanier didn’t feel the urge to drink anymore. She regained control of her life.

Now, 10 years later, Lanier is working on her master’s degree in social work. The yoga worked so well for her, she wanted to bring it to other survivors of sexual assault to help them heal. She worked with the university to set up a class it’s never offered before.

“We’re calling it healing breath trauma-sensitive yoga, and it’s for survivors of sexual assault.”

Ten years ago Caitlin Lanier was sexually assaulted. She used yoga to help heal, and now she's teaching other survivors how yoga can help.
Credit Jessica Murri / For Boise State Public Radio

The eight-week class started in March. Interested students went through a screening process to get in. Five women met every Friday morning for a 15-minute check-in with a Boise State counselor, and an hour-long yoga practice lead by Lanier.

Because of the sensitive nature of the class, we were unable to observe one of the sessions. But on a recent weekday, Lanier led one of her students through a few poses.

“Notice the contact of your body to the earth,” she tells her student. “If you’d like to have your eyes open or closed, either is fine. Completely your choice.”

It’s not your typical yoga class. Lanier takes the “trauma-sensitive” part especially seriously. Even if she’s only walking across the room to adjust the thermostat, she’ll tell the women ahead of time. Unlike most yoga classes where instructors make adjustments on people’s poses, Lanier never makes contact.

“ Maybe letting your ear rest towards your shoulder, completely your choice, and you’re completely in control of all your movements,” she says.

For Miranda–whose name we changed for this story–this was her first time trying yoga. She’s struggled to deal with her attack. A counselor on campus referred her to the class. She was hesitant initially, but was surprised to find the class helped.

“I would have been avoiding working through it, I think,” Miranda says. “I would have been curled up on the couch for hours and hours.”

She says the yoga has helped her feel like things don’t just happen to her. She feels like she has an active part in her own life again. Miranda says the class has helped her cope with her attack.

“It’s okay for me to feel, it’s okay for me to cry sometimes.–I’m going to cry right now.–I’m giving myself permission to feel. And have emotions,” she says.

Experts say when treating post-traumatic stress from sexual assault, the first line of defense is usually counseling, but Lanier thinks yoga should be included, too. She says in counseling, the idea is to get people who experienced trauma to talk about what happened to them. But sexual assault happens in the physical realm. Lanier feels like there also needs to be physical component to the healing process.

Krista Lane is a counselor at Boise State, and she jumped on the opportunity to help Lanier put the class together. She also sees a connection between talking about an issue, and physically exploring it.

“I just thought it was a great program because we don’t often times do enough with trauma victims and being able to help, help them,” says Lane. “I’ve done yoga in the past and it’s a great way to reintegrate body and mind and learn how to deal with anxiety, stress -  just helping you integrate.”

Lane stands by during the yoga sessions in case any of the women have problems, like a trigger or a flashback. But she says nothing has come up.

Miranda says she was glad for the opportunity to begin healing.

“I still have a ways to go, but I’m progressing and that feels good and that gives me hope,” Miranda says. “Yeah, I’m gonna be okay.”

The class wrapped up in May. Lanier and Lane say they hope to offer it again in the fall. 

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio