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Yoga instructor Ashleigh Gurtler knows the power of a good downward dog. The 30-year-old from New York City, by way of Orlando, has been a dancer her whole life and says getting into yoga was a natural progression. After obtaining a 500-hour yoga certification, she began to teach classes. Then, a friend asked her if she would bring yoga to a local domestic violence shelter, as part of New York’s Exhale to Inhale organization, and Gurtler jumped at the chance.
She took a 200-hour trauma-sensitive yoga training (TSY) with the Justice Resource Institute. TSY, she says, aims to give survivors a sense of empowerment. “Unlike a traditional yoga class … the emphasis is not on executing certain poses perfectly, but instead on encouraging and supporting survivors to make their own choices within their bodies on how they approach the movements.”
When Gurtler moved to North Carolina, she knew she wanted to continue teaching yoga to survivors, so she contacted SAFE, Inc., a domestic violence shelter in Brevard her mother, a board member, introduced her to. Last summer, Gurtler began holding free yoga classes for survivors, staff and volunteers at the shelter.
“The majority of the students who attend class have never tried yoga before. They sometimes come in with a bit of apprehension, but once they experience the trauma-sensitive approach, they realize it’s all just about moving and breathing and being in your body,” says Gurtler.
The Benefits of Breath
A study from the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute found that yoga was beneficial in helping to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. When a group of 64 women, ages 18-57, with chronic, unresponsive PTSD underwent 10 weeks of trauma-sensitive yoga classes, more than half no longer met the criteria for PTSD once the sessions were completed. “Body-based work, such as yoga, may act as a treatment bridge, increasing a sense of awareness, safety and mastery over one's body,” reads the study.
Gurtler says she puts a lot of emphasis on breathing and on bringing individuals into the present moment, “something trauma survivors have a difficult time doing,” she says. “They are often simultaneously haunted by the past and worried about the future. The yoga movements are simple and the sequence generally stays the same each week to keep a sense of comfort and consistency.”
She says keeping the emphasis in class about making one’s own choices, in regards to their bodies and their movements, is incredibly powerful for those who are used to being controlled by an abuser.
“They are constantly reminded to make choices that feel right to them,” says Gurtler. “My hope is that this practice helps them begin to reclaim their bodies and reconnect to things they might have lost due to the shame and pain their abuser caused them.”
Bringing Yoga to the Community
Gurtler also holds a monthly community yoga class and donates the proceeds back to SAFE.
“I was happy to volunteer my time teaching at the shelter, but I wanted to find a way to also raise money as well. I was very aware of the constant need for more funding. I knew this was something I could offer, and Brevard Yoga was generous enough to donate their beautiful studio to me free of charge for that class. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to hold this monthly class so I am very grateful to them.”
She says that, although the classes don’t raise a huge amount, it does get more people in the community aware of SAFE, “which is incredibly valuable.” And for that, the organization is grateful.
Susan Huter, director of prevention services with SAFE, calls Ashleigh “a true star” for the organization. “Her dedication of fitting SAFE’s clients in while working full time and living 30 miles away has been amazing and appreciated.”
Do You Know a Domestic Violence Hero?
DomesticShelters.org is looking for individuals doing heroic things, big or small, within their communities to help survivors of domestic violence. If you know someone, let us know about them by emailing Amanda@DomesticShelters.org and they may be featured in an upcoming story. #DomesticViolenceHeroes
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