Making Friends with your Body Again.
I am a qualified integrative counsellor and I also trained as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. I have worked for The Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) for three and a half years counselling men and women whose lives have been affected in some way by HIV. Through my involvement with THT, I have also worked with SWISH, a charity project which supports anyone involved in the sex industry. SWISH is part of Terrence Higgins Trust and supports women, men and trans people who work in the adult industries. Whether clients are flat-based sex workers or experienced porn actors, SWISH offer help with a broad range of issues – from practical matters to support with emotional challenges.
After having some success building trusting relationships within a counselling context with a number of the clients working as sexworkers, SWISH invited me to offer group-work based around mindful yoga to this client group. The intention behind offering this kind of group to SWISH clients was to offer new possibilities for clients of being in relationship with their bodies. Some of the people working as sexworkers who access SWISH counselling and support service have struggles with histories of traumas such as sexual abuse, and physical violence. This is not always the case and there are just as many people working in sexwork who access our service for other issues such as bereavement or relationship problems. Clients struggling with violent and abusive issues will commonly try to escape both their feelings and their thoughts which can manifest in numbing through drug and alcohol use and other self – harm such as cutting and eating disorders.
I started to use gentle mindful yoga with two individual female SWISH clients, one struggling with an eating disorder and one with heroin addiction. As both these clients had suffered physical and sexual violence and had difficult family histories I was aware that it was possible that they would both be traumatised. Mindful of this I followed the guidelines for Trauma Sensitive Yoga as originated by Bessel van Der Kolk. I was immediately struck by the way that these two women embraced the experience of yoga.
My preconceptions had led me to expect some reluctance to try parts of our practice but I was completely wrong. Instead they soaked up every moment of the sessions and were keen for me to give them ‘homework’ so that they could continue their experience in their own time.
Both women were moved by the use and meaning of Namaste at the end of the session, one in particular asking me to repeat the word several times as she soaked it in.
Encouraged by this experience I am now running weekly two hour mixed groups in Croydon. All group members are at different stages of exiting sex work and all have addiction issues or are in early recovery. We begin the class with a mindful check in as taught to me by Bo Forbes, in which we pay attention to the speed of our thoughts, our breathing, our heartbeat, temperature, connection to our body and how comfortable we feel in a room with other people.
I precede this with a reminder that where we all are right now does not need to be judged, just noticed as I have found that these clients have a tendency to assume that where they are is wrong or bad. After this each participant (and me) check in with how we feel today and what we feel we need both physically and emotionally. Based on this information I offer suggestions for gentle asana that will support the group’s needs. Within this I offer psycho-education regarding the benefits of each posture and as we work together I encourage that the group take ownership of the class, understanding the benefits and consequently get comfortable in asking for what they feel works for them.
My hope is that each participant begins to have the confidence to practice at home and work even 10 minutes of nourishing yoga into their day. We end our session with breathing practice, chanting and a 15 minute savasana. For the savasana I encourage each participant to ask for assistance in getting as comfortable as possible. Again, for this client group, encouraging them to ask for help in becoming comfortable is a very meaningful experience. Here is what two of Kathy’s clients have to say about their experience:
“I feel calm, like I can deal better with my problems. Why don’t they give us this on
prescription instead of Methadone?”
” I’m in a lot of pain most of the time, mental and physical pain. Being in here (the yoga room) feels like a place where I can forget for a while. It’s amazing that just breathing differently has such a big affect!! Who knew?”
My hopes for this group are that they will take away memories of being within a safe environment in which some tentative connection with body sensations and relaxation are possible. From this beginners taste of the subtle and gentle pleasure that yoga can bring, new relationship with an abandoned and neglected body may become increasingly possible. Kathy Osborne works in private practice as an integrative counsellor and yoga therapist and also works as a counsellor and group facilitator for THT and SWISH.