Healing with Yoga and Jiu Jitsu

Yesterday was one of those days that I just didn’t want to be a part of humanity anymore.  I mentioned in a previous post that every woman I have ever asked has been sexually assaulted at some point in her life.  I was talking to a friend yesterday and she realized that what she had previously thought of as a bad sexual experience was in fact rape because she said “no” multiple times during the experience.

She started dwelling on what she could have done differently.  It is never the person who was sexually assaulted’s responsibility to have done anything differently.  Often the assaulter is taking advantage of power differentials, social norms, and trust in a way that makes it less likely or impossible for the person being assaulted to fight back.  It is not your fault and you are not responsible for what happened to you.

I wanted to do another post on the guard for self defense today.  But instead I will focus on how jiu jitsu and yoga can help in healing from sexual assault.  It is not your responsibility to keep bad people from doing bad things.  No matter what happened in the past – remember you are strong and have the power to heal.

Learning How to Respond to Threats

Jiu jitsu, particularly rolling, allows you to practice responses to various threats or attacks.  In drilling, you can learn and practice what to do against specific attacks.  In rolling you get to try what you would instinctively do and modify that until it works.  Once you have enough experience, you might even start reacting to threats automatically.

For example, I had someone ask me about my grip fighting style.  He said that I would not let him establish his grips and fought very hard to get the grips I wanted.  I later asked my husband if I grip fought at all because I didn’t think I did.  Apparently, I don’t allow my rolling partners to get the grips they want without even thinking about it.

Just knowing that you could do something in a self-defense situation can be empowering.  It isn’t about actually defending yourself but more about feeling strong, powerful, and confident that you could protect yourself if you needed to.

Gaining the Confidence to Protect Yourself

Jiu jitsu has taught me that if someone is between my legs (the guard) I can choose to break them (arm bar or kimura), put them to sleep (triangle), or just hold them until help comes.  This is a very powerful thought for me.

Jiu jitsu gives you the option of controlling someone without hurting them, choking them but not causing any permanent damage, or causing permanent damage.  The way sexual assault commonly occurs, it might not feel appropriate to hurt the person or to make a big deal about it.  Its not true – if someone is trying to harm you, you have the right to defend yourself.  But again, bad people take advantage of power, trust, and social norms.

A friend of a friend once kept wrapping his arm around me and touching me during a party.  I didn’t know at that point how to get his arm off of me without breaking it or throwing him and risking him breaking his head open on the hardwood floors (he was fairly drunk and I didn’t think he knew how to break fall…).  So I put up with the unwanted contact and told the party host and my husband the next day.  He never touched me again but I would have preferred to handle the situation myself without actually hurting him.

Being able to control how a situation ends is important.  I resented having to rely on men to protect me from another man.  I have since researched and practiced escaping that kind of situation and I feel like I could handle it differently in the future.

Training to Fight

I have met multiple women who freeze in bad situations.  One of my friends is a fantastic runner; she’s super fast and can run forever.  But in a situation where she was in danger and could have saved herself by running, she froze instead.  Fortunately, there were no negative consequences to her reaction.

Rolling puts you in uncomfortable positions where you have to fend off your partner’s attacks.  People who are new to jiu jitsu often feel a lot of adrenaline when they start rolling so rolling can simulate a stressful experience where you might need to choose between fighting, fleeing, or freezing.  Practicing fighting and having no negative consequences to freezing (your partner may be confused and concerned if you run away) may help you learn to fight when you need to.

Experiencing control and power of your own body

I have trouble feeling good about my body on a daily basis.  Some days I hate how I look, some days I hate that no one looks at me like I’m pretty, other days I resent that people are looking at me at all.  Jiu jitsu, yoga, and other physical activities give my body a different purpose.

It doesn’t matter if my hair looks good (it definitely doesn’t while I’m rolling) or if I have a pimple, when I roll my body listens to me.  It reacts quickly and efficiently.  My leg puts just enough pressure against my partner’s to feel for the right opening so I can prevent their mount attempt.  I am in control of my body and its reactions – looks and sex have nothing to do with it.

Flowing from one pose to another in yoga is a very powerful feeling.  You can feel your weight shift and feel the structure of your body allowing for you to move into the correct position.  Each time you practice you get to feel yourself becoming stronger and more flexible.  It is very rewarding to be able to hold a pose longer or try a deeper variation.  Experiencing my body like that allows me to appreciate it in a different way.

Yoga also allows you to experience how your mental state affects your body.  After a long day, I have to focus on releasing the tension in my shoulders and jaw.  Before I practiced yoga regularly, I would not notice this tension until I gave myself a headache.  Reading these signals from your body can help you take care of yourself mentally and physically.

Experiencing Touch in a Positive and Non-Sexual Way

I love touch but only on my terms.  Touching does not have to be sexual or possessive.

Touch and being physically close to other people is normal in jiu jitsu.  There are more times than I can remember when I was drilling a move with a partner and the coach called everyone’s attention to fix a minor detail.  Three minutes later my partner and I realize that we’ve been in the guard this entire time and coach doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop talking any time soon so we awkwardly move to a more normal sitting position.  I feel like everyone hugs and randomly touching someone in conversation (usually to explain a move) is completely normal and expected.  Normalizing touch and it being not about sex is empowering because it makes me feel like my body is just a body and everyone else has just a body too.

I have had different experiences with touch in yoga.  For some teachers, hands on adjustments are important but other teachers avoid it or ask permission first.  I have had teachers who give a neck and shoulder rub during corpse pose.  It was shocking and intense the first time to have someone come into my space during the most difficult pose for me and touch me.  Now I love it because that pose is when I am feeling most vulnerable and feeling physical contact helps me feel connected and cared for.

Building Social Support

Sometimes, it is hard to find friends as an adult.  Social support can be very important for getting through tough times.  Even if you don’t talk to anyone about what is going on, just interacting with people can be helpful and encouraging.  Doing any hobby can introduce you to like minded people and create an opportunity for building friendships.  I love talking about jiu jitsu with my friends and I have met some amazing people who I wouldn’t have otherwise met if it hadn’t been for yoga or jiu jitsu.

Learning to Accept Yourself


Yoga is hard.  You see these beautiful people in beautiful places doing amazing things with their bodies.  Then you go to yoga class and try to do crow pose and fall on your face.  But the point of yoga is not to look perfect.  As long as you are doing a pose safely and you are trying your best, then you are doing that pose correctly.

A year ago, my hips were very flexible but once I restarted jiu jitsu, I realized I could no longer comfortably sit cross-legged on the floor.  I became frustrated with myself and stopped trying to sit cross-legged until I realized that this change in my body probably happened for a reason.  I read a book on yoga for athletes and realized that my hips were tight.  After dedicating more time to stretching my hips, I can sit cross-legged comfortably again.

Yoga teaches you to listen to your body and accept where it is.  Changes and improvement will come but pushing yourself past your limits only leads to injury.

Being able to be in your own head

For the first month I did yoga regularly, I cried each time we ended the class in savasana (corpse pose).  After getting a good workout (it was a flow class) and focusing on my breathing for an hour, it felt like all of my emotions would just come rushing back into me during savasana.  I thought about quitting yoga until I talked with my teacher.  She said it was very common – they had tissues in the room for just that reason – and any time I was uncomfortable crying, I could transition to child’s pose instead.

Coming back to being in my own head was too intense for me at that point.  But with practice, I learned to breathe through it.  I used mindfulness techniques (noticing thoughts, realizing thoughts are not the same as reality) to get through the 5 minutes in savasana and now I am better able to sit quietly with myself without judgement.

Healing from sexual assault is different for everyone.  It has been very difficult for me and has taken me a long time.  Please, be kind to yourself and remember you are not alone.

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