- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Yoga is more than rigorous stretching and deep breathing. Many people use it to better understand themselves and their connection with others.

But victims of sexual assault may have lost their connection with their bodies, and they may be afraid of a connection with someone else’s.

Knowing this, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency (SARA) has begun offering yoga classes designed specifically for survivors of sexual assault.

Taught by Sheila Parker, the classes are adapted to let survivors stretch their bodies and explore their feelings in a safe, supportive environment.

“I told my class, ‘I’m a survivor. If you start crying or if you don’t want to be touched, I understand,’” Miss Parker said.

The class is meant for beginners and focuses on integral yoga. Miss Parker emphasizes breathing and meditation along with the poses.

“It’s about being gentle and loving with your body,” Miss Parker said.

Miss Parker, who moved to Charlottesville from Colorado almost one year ago, has practiced yoga for more than 20 years. She said it helped her recover and heal her body after the abuse she suffered as a child.

Although she hadn’t planned to become a yoga instructor, she realized that by teaching a class, she might be able to help others, too.

“It’s a healing art,” Miss Parker said. “I want to go around the world with it and make a difference. I want to tell survivors: Heal thyself.”

Miss Parker, already a volunteer at SARA, proposed teaching a class. Rachel Thielmann, the volunteer coordinator, said it was a great idea.

“A lot of people hold memories in their body,” Miss Thielmann said. “For someone who has been sexually assaulted, even if an instructor touches them in a completely innocent way, they might not feel safe.”

Having an instructor who understands this allows participants to feel more comfortable. The agency also keeps a trained advocate on hand at every class to assist anyone who might need to take a break.

SARA then found a location for the classes, the Community Space, which charges no rent. This way, SARA can offer the classes free of charge.

“There’s no charge and I want it to remain a service,” Miss Parker said. “I think that in itself is pretty inspiring.”

Marla Cantor and Sandra Savine, who run the Community Space, said they are glad to provide the place.

When Mrs. Cantor first leased the room, “it was just a little bombed-out hole in the wall.”

The room had been used for storage.

Mrs. Cantor’s husband erected walls, painted and finished the Community Space in a few months.

“We want it to be a central place for the community to make things happen,” Miss Savine said. “If it’s something that sounds wonderful, why not give people a space to do wonderful things?”

The yoga classes are offered every Saturday morning, but participants are not required to attend weekly.

Miss Parker and Miss Thielmann emphasize that the classes aren’t meant to heal every wound.

“There’s not really going to come a point when you feel, ‘I’m over that,’” Miss Thielmann said. “What we try to do is help them integrate that into their life and say, ‘Yes, this is part of what makes me, me.’”

Miss Parker hopes that her participation, teaching and revelation that she is a survivor will help her students do the same.

“I want to inspire others and show them it’s possible to heal and give them peace of mind,” she said. “I want people to break the silence, to go out there and say, ‘This is my story.’”

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