Embracing the Healing Practice of Yoga
Breathing Space Yoga is based in Hampshire County and works with many local and national partners to provide trauma-informed yoga for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Freedom from gender-based violence is one of the Women’s Fund strategic pillars for advancing gender and racial equity in our region. To us, that means to promote safety from gender-based sexual violence, toxic relationships, and power dynamics to ensure bodily security and autonomy. We are proud of the committee members who participated in this year’s trust-based philanthropy process to award funds for the crucial healing and recovery work throughout the four counties of Western Massachusetts.
Breathing Space Yoga (BSY) in Hampshire County is one of the organizations funded for this pillar of work. Breathing Space Yoga was founded in 2017 and has persevered through the pandemic to meet the greatest needs of women and girls in quarantine. Their commitment to cultivating safe and affirming spaces for women and girls is evident through their trauma-informed care practices, accessibility efforts, and intersectional lens of identity when welcoming all to the journey of healing and recovery.
How is your organization making a difference for women and girls in Western Massachusetts?
Breathing Space yoga offers free and low-cost yoga classes in the Studio, online, and through our outreach classes. Since our founding in 2017, we have been making a difference for women and girls by bringing yoga to many who would otherwise not have access to yoga. While we strive to make our yoga studio accessible to all, women who are struggling to have sufficient resources may not have access to transportation or child support that would allow them to attend class at the studio. Online yoga is great, but to access it you need broadband Internet, a space to practice yoga, a typical 9-5 work schedule, and childcare. Due to these factors, Breathing Space was founded in 2017 with a mission of going out into the community – to those impacted by serious addictions and/or incarcerated – and working with institutions to bring yoga into their therapeutic and recovery programming.
Targeting women and girls specifically, we offer trauma-informed yoga and support at institutions such as the Western Mass Recovery and Wellness Center’s women’s unit, the Western Mass Regional Women’s Correctional Center, the Gandara Women’s Recovery House, and the South Hadley Treatment Program for Girls. In all-gender programs, we have supported women in recovery at Providence Hospital, AISS Springfield, Northampton Recovery Center, Hope for Holyoke, Northern Hope, and many other recovery centers and programs. We feel that yoga is a vital support for reclaiming mind/body connection, working with emotions, and creating positive and affirming spaces for women and girls.
How is your organization working toward meeting the goals of our freedom from gender-based sexual violence, harassment, and abuse pillar?
It is well-known that women who suffer from addiction are often survivors of gender-based violence and abuse (Dawgert, 2009). The Breathing Space teaching team is trained in trauma-informed yoga (TIY). We consider TIY the basis of bringing an intersectional lens to how we present yoga and how we understand yoga as a healing practice. Specifically, we are engaged in antiracist/anti-bias work, including enhancing our understanding of how race, gender identity, mental health, and social factors intersect and create barriers to accessing yoga practice.
To reach the goal of freedom from sexual violence, we have trained in 2020-21 with Prison Yoga Project, Michelle C. Johnson, Rebby Kern, and Jena Duncan on the intersections of race, gender, oppression, and bias. Our Studio also serves women through our weekly free BIPOC yoga class led by Lorrie Heard, and this class is also being presented at the Black womxn-owned co-working & cafe space, The Ethnic Study, in Springfield. This Fall, Breathing Space will pilot a yoga class series led by Angelica Lopez: “Thrive: A Yoga Series for Survivors of Sexual Violence.” We will also introduce a biweekly Queer/Trans Yoga class taught by Taylor Haaf. Yoga teachers Belinda, Dori, Johanna, Taylor, and Angelica lead weekly yoga classes at recovery centers and in jails in Hampden and Hampshire counties. We work directly with women and girls at the Gandara Women’s Recovery House in Holyoke, and at the South Hadley Girl’s Treatment Center.
What is happening in the world, your region, or your city today that is creating the greatest challenges for women and girls?
Women and girls are facing unique challenges in our region in 2020-2021. During the pandemic, many women faced unforeseen challenges in accessing childcare, finding job flexibility, keeping themselves and their families healthy, and the extra burdens of supporting school-age children with technology and tutoring. Girls of school-age faced the challenges of online learning, limited social opportunities, and increased uncertainty about the future. Those women, girls, and families who are well-resourced found ways to create learning pods, work at home, and access suitable health care.
The economic and digital divides were exacerbated for those with limited resources, disproportionately represented in Black and Brown communities, and those who served as front-line workers especially. All women and girls faced increased stress and in some cases PTSD during these past two years. Mental health services were limited, again for all but especially for those without access. This unprecedented level of stress is the greatest challenge for women and girls right now.
What solutions does your team or organization recommend to address this?
Over the past 20 years, the positive effects of mind/body practices on reducing stress and releasing trauma have been shown. Our understanding of long-term stress and its impacts on mental and physical health, as well as childhood trauma and the relationship to stress and addiction, has grown many-fold. Trauma-informed yoga in particular has been demonstrated to improve the emotional and physical health of those who practice it regularly. While yoga can benefit everyone who is undergoing the stresses of these current times, those who otherwise would not have economic or cultural access to these practices will benefit most.
Our solution is to create outreach projects to bring free yoga classes, taught by teachers trained in trauma-informed practices, to organizations and institutions that serve under-resourced communities. In the process, we work with counselors and administrators at these organizations to demonstrate and discuss the efficacy of including yoga in their programming. We provide the equipment, teachers, and appropriate education about yoga so that the institutions we serve become “yoga-friendly” and those they serve to look forward to and take advantage of the sessions. To date, the organizations we serve have found that yoga has “stuck to the walls” and they are able to create a reflective space (in a cafeteria, a meeting room, or a day room) where stress is released and participants discover strength, balance, flexibility, and present-moment awareness. In our Studio, we complement these outreach efforts by offering BIPOC community yoga and Queer/Trans yoga classes as well.
Are you partnering with other organizations to deliver this program, specific services, or advance your overall mission?
Breathing Space has extensive partnership relationships in Hampshire and Hampden counties and nationally. Some of those partners include:
- Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, Springfield
- Gandara, Holyoke
- Mental Health Association GRIT Program, Holyoke
- RFK South Hadley Girl’s Treatment Program, South Hadley
- Stonybrook Stabilization & Treatment Center, Ludlow
- The Ethnic Study, Springfield
- Western Mass Recovery & Wellness Center, Springfield
- Western Mass Regional Women’s Correctional Center, Chicopee
- Prison Yoga Project
- Yoga of 12 Step Recovery
- Give Back Yoga Foundation
- The Movement for Black Lives
Dawgert, Sarah. (2009). Substance use and sexual violence: Building prevention and intervention responses. A guide for counselors and advocates. Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. https://pcar.org/sites/default/files/pages-pdf/substance_use_and_sexual_violence.pdf