Melissa Jhunja places a half dozen mats in a circle, making sure to keep a path to the exit door clear. She’s setting up for a yoga class, but the space feels different than your typical studio: The lights are on, the exits visible at all times, and no music plays, since lyrics and even musical genres can spark a memory of past trauma.
Jhunja, who is a social worker in addition to a yoga teacher, has spent years working with prison inmates, teaching them asanas and meditation. That work inspired her to volunteer with Exhale to Inhale, a nonprofit that brings yoga to survivors of domestic violence in New York, Connecticut, and Los Angeles. Today she teaches yoga to survivors at women’s shelters and social service agencies. “Most of the women are trying to get out of a relationship, trying to rebuild their lives, or just trying to heal from trauma no matter where they are,” she says. “They’ve been uprooted, and this is a place where they start to heal and move forward.”
Exhale to Inhale has worked with more than 700 domestic violence and sexual assault survivors since it was founded in 2013, helping women feel stronger and more secure in their bodies in a setting that’s safe and nurturing. While the poses are similar to those in a traditional Hatha class, the cues are strategically designed to promote choice making, which can be empowering. “We use invitational language because victims of abuse experience a loss of power,” says Jhunja. “So it’s about slowly regaining that power with small choices, but they’re profound. I’ll say, ‘I invite you to stay in this posture one more breath, or do you want to come out when you’re ready?’ Everything is a practice in making choices.” Research has shown that when trauma victims have a regular yoga practice, including meditation, relaxation, and postures, they can experience a reduction in blood pressure and muscle tension, a decrease in physical symptoms and emotional distress, and an improvement in quality of life.
Jhunja’s weekly sessions are intimate; typically there are two to six women in a room. Sharika Valerio, 24, started taking the classes last winter. She was sexually and physically abused as a teen. “If I have tension in an area of my body, I really focus my breathing there during yoga,” says Valerio, who also goes to therapy once a week. “This is my safe space. I can go in, and no matter what I’m feeling, whether I’m depressed or upset or angry, I know I’ll feel better afterward.”
Courtesy of Melissa Jhunja
Beyond an emotional lift, students learn physical skills that can help them through tough moments outside the studio. “If a student has a memory associated with sexual trauma, it can cause physical symptoms,” says Jhunja. “The breathing techniques the women learn in yoga can help them when they experience discomfort, whether it’s tension or pain.”
For the women who enter Jhunja’s class, this kind of transformation is not unusual. “They think it’s about bending and twisting yourself backward,” she says, “but slowly they realize it’s not about that at all.”
Here are four more amazing organizations using physical activity in creative, effective ways. They need your help to reach even more people.
Back on My Feet
Shelters and residential facilities in 12 cities have teamed up with this innovative org to offer staff- and volunteer-led runs for homeless men and women. The idea? That moving forward one step at a time can build momentum in daily life. Participants can become eligible for educational support, job-training services, employment referrals, and more.
How to help Run with a team in your area or raise money through fund-raising. backonmyfeet.org
Challenged Athletes Foundation
This group eliminates financial obstacles for aspiring athletes who have physical disabilities. Funding grants allow the group to purchase equipment, such as hand cycles, mono skis, and sports prostheses as well as cover training costs and competition expenses.
How to help Fund-raise through a variety of year-round events, like triathlons, cycling competitions, and more. challengedathletes.org
Sail to Prevail
People with disabilities get the experience of skippering on the open water with this program, which offers one-on-one and group lessons in small adapted boats. Participants gain confidence as they master different skills and become more comfortable in a new environment.
How to help Post and share the program with your social channels—the nonprofit relies largely on referrals and word-of-mouth recommendations to fill its sessions. sailtoprevail.org
This grassroots project, which targets kids who are 5 to 17 years old, first brought its vision of education and emotional development through skateboarding to Kabul in 2007. It’s now an award-winning NGO with projects in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. The goal is to nurture every child’s leadership skills.
How to help Donate to the cause, host a fund-raiser, or volunteer in the office at their Berlin headquarters. skateistan.org