How Yoga Helped Me Heal After Sexual Assault

 (Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar) 

(Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar) 

By Jessica Hamlin

I met Monica a few years ago while freelancing at KPCC, an NPR affiliate radio station in Los Angeles. She was an intern on the web team and I was a web producer. The web producers helped oversee the interns and the articles they wrote and posted, so Monica, aka “MoniLu,” and I interacted often. Her enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, skill and professionalism impressed me, although she was also friendly and someone with whom you could share a laugh. Humor and her bright, beautiful smile were much appreciated when working the morning shift that started at 6 a.m. 

I was excited for Monica, though not surprised, when she later got a gig as a web producer at KCET. Since then she’s written for a slew of high-profile publications like NBC Asian America and VICE about topics ranging from a wheelchair dance company to teaching sexual consent in college. She has a gift for storytelling and helping give a voice to those who may not be usually seen. But until recently, she hadn’t publicly shared a painful part of her own story.

A couple months ago, Monica blogged about a sexual assault she experienced and the role yoga has played in her healing. I was stunned and brought to tears reading her story, but I was proud of her vulnerability. When I asked her if we could share her story here, she agreed. She said she didn’t write it in hopes of it getting much attention, but it was more for herself and the healing process as well as a way to perhaps help others who have faced assault. In any case, it's worth reading. This is Monica’s story.


Yoga, Trauma, and Healing 

By Monica Luhar

I talked about my sexual assault for the first time during my third therapy session.

I was 24 when I was sexually assaulted by my boyfriend at the time. I went through a rollercoaster of emotions when it first happened: From denying that I had been sexually assaulted, to feeling guilty and convincing myself to forget everything.

Repressing my emotions did quite the opposite of what I needed to do. My assault somehow filtered through other parts of my life: My career, my friendships — basically everything that was going right. I became wary of the people around me. It was very difficult for me to confide in others for fear of judgment or the possibility of re-traumatizing myself. I buried myself in work and freelance assignments without revisiting trauma or talking about it. I kept myself busy in volunteer and side projects and neglected my mental health.

It’s been about four years since the assault happened. During my last therapy session, I shared some details of the assault. I felt like I was ready to talk. For weeks before the appointment, I turned to my journal for comfort. I talked to friends. I talked to myself in the mirror and sent positive vibes my way.

The more I talked about the assault, the more I was able to confront and understand my triggers. I felt comfortable enough to say everything I needed to say, even if no one was there to listen — even if whatever I said didn’t make sense. I wanted the echo in the room to be heard loud and clear this time.

“How old were you when it happened?”

“24. It was around Valentine’s Day.”

I felt paralyzed and frozen when I was sexually assaulted. This is a common experience many sexual assault survivors go through. I recently watched "13 Reasons Why" and had a very difficult time processing and watching the episode when Hannah was sexually assaulted by Bryce.

When it happened, I felt a similar out of body experience — like I was unable to move even though I wanted so desperately to find a way to get out. I closed my eyes and did anything but process what was happening in the present tense.

Shortly after the assault, I fell into this place where I constantly blamed myself or felt a sense of shame — this feeling that we know all too well.

I didn’t react when it happened. My body froze and the only thing that seemed to feel real was the tear that rolled down my cheek and stung my skin. And that was the only sensation I felt at the time. The numbness still haunts me today because I have moments that bring me back to the trauma— though it doesn’t carry the same weight as it did four years ago.

 Monica has found healing in yoga. (Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar)

Monica has found healing in yoga. (Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar)

I began my yoga journey over a year ago, and I can truly say that it’s given me my life back. It’s helped me confront trauma and any insecurities I have built up inside of me. I’ve learned that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to have days when you’re still processing and healing from trauma.

Yoga has restored the balance in my life and the power I thought I had lost to sexual assault.

I feel at peace when I am on my yoga mat, practicing and receiving the abundance of the universe. Each asana brings me back to myself and reminds me that I do not need validation; I am enough.

I feel like I am able to put things into focus when I am deep in my practice. I am reminded of the courageous women in my life and all of the positive vibes that others have created in a sacred space.

One of my friends, Zabie Yamasaki, has launched a specialized yoga program for survivors of sexual assault. The goal is to empower survivors through the healing practice of yoga.

Her organization, Transcending Sexual Violence Through Yoga, connects survivors with essential skills to help identify triggers and heal their mind, body, and soul through trauma-sensitive yoga. I’ve been following Zabie’s work for several years now, and I’m so grateful this organization and safe space exists for survivors.

 "Yoga has restored the balance in my life and the power I thought I had lost to sexual assault," Monica says. (Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar)

"Yoga has restored the balance in my life and the power I thought I had lost to sexual assault," Monica says. (Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar)

My body is mine. It was never anyone else’s. Talking about sexual assault is one the hardest things I’ve had to do. But hearing other people’s stories, and learning and growing from this has helped me face my trauma and send healing energies to those who need it the most.

As a storyteller, I’m usually the one with the recorder in hand, prying into someone’s life and sharing their most intimate details with the world. It’s not easy for someone to open the door for you. This is something fairly new to me: Talking about my own story, and sharing it with the world. It’s an exercise for the mind, body, and soul.

I’ve been brutally honest with myself this year. I’m turning 28 this September and there’s been such a huge learning curve and transformation over the past year. I talked to my therapist about maybe sprucing up my room, making it more “zen” or getting rid of some of the triggers that may bring me down.

I now have a “positive affirmations” wall covered in post-its. (And of course, a kick-ass quote from my fav — Tina Fey).

The wall is a reminder of resilience and a reminder that we are all here to support one another in this journey.

 Monica has a wall of positive affirmations in her room. (Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar)

Monica has a wall of positive affirmations in her room. (Photo courtesy of Monica Luhar)


The Good Stuff.

We asked Monica about some of her favorite things.

 

Fave workout/way to move

Pop Pilates is my favorite kind of workout! I love being able to jam to my favorite pop songs while sweating it out on the mat and doing some major core work. (P.S. here's a fun video I did with Sapphire Dance & Fitness Studio Pop Pilates instructor Michelle Mai. It breaks down Pop Pilates in a minute!). I also love Bollywood dance and hip hop because I feel like I'm able to really step into character and internalize the lyrics and movements.

Fave wellness practice

Mother Nature is the best way to restore the mind, body, and soul. I love unplugging by visiting local arboretums or just going for a casual stroll in the park. The Arcadia Arboretum is a local favorite (they have peacocks and a bed of lavender leaves, succulents, and other beauties). The beach is also my favorite playground. I always need to be surrounded by a body of water to meditate and bring myself back to the now.

Fave self-care practice

I’m a huge fan of bubble baths! Lately, I’ve been watching a bunch of DIY bath bomb videos on YouTube. There’s something oddly therapeutic about dropping a bath bomb and watching it fizzle and burst into a splash of vibrant colors. Lavender, rose, and vanilla are my favorite scents. I feel like my worries melt away the minute I step into the bathtub with a glass of hard apple cider by my side. Something I also recently got into is ASMR videos and crystal quartz singing bowls. I am a firm believer that music and other sensory elements can play a key role in healing and providing clarity and relief during uncertain and stressful times.

Fave hobby

Can I count people-watching as a hobby? I’m a journalist, so I’m naturally inquisitive. Pestering people is my middle name.

Fave food

I eat all the stuff (anything that is vegetarian-friendly, that is)! I grew up practicing a life of vegetarianism both for religious and personal reasons. Although, I have to say that one of the biggest challenges in my life is trying to keep track of my list of food allergies (I’m allergic to quite a lot. I’ll list a few for now: grapefruit, grapes, oranges, bananas, lemon, papaya, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, avocados, coconut, kiwi, etc). If you have any allergy-free recipes, I’m all ears.

Fave drink

I love iced matcha! In fact, I just had a delicious matcha roll topped with chia seeds and mango the other day. I am allergic to most citrus drinks, so it’s been a challenge. Did I mention I’m also a huge boba fan? (Don’t get me started with that New York Times boba article, though).

Fave snack

I go to Trader Joe’s for all my snacking needs and to this day, I have never left unsatisfied. My new obsession: TJ’s Crispy Crunchy Okra. It has a dry, bitter taste matched with unbelievable crunchy goodness. It's definitely a snack that you can't share (trust me, I finished the whole bag in 5 minutes).

Fave kitchen gadget/appliance

Growing up, I always wanted to buy a Jack LaLanne Power Juicer. But if I had to choose, I’d also vote for the Magic Bullet.

Fave place in the world

Sapphire Dance and Fitness Studio in San Gabriel. (It’s become more than just a dance/fitness studio, but a way of life for me).

Who or what inspires you and why? 

Malala. She’s a fearless soul who has dedicated her life to empowering girls and encouraging them to never settle for less than their dreams. I am so incredibly proud of her and can’t wait to follow her exciting college journey!
Fave quote/saying/mantra and why

“Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.” -- Tina Fey. This quote speaks to me on so many different levels. I used to care so much about what others thought about me. As I’m nearing my 30s, I’m beginning to live life with a DGAF attitude (full disclaimer: I'm not getting rid of my empath or Virgo tendencies, just rebranding and focusing more on taking risks without overanalyzing the damn situation).

Fave podcast

For anyone hoping to relieve their childhood “Reading Rainbow” dreams, I’d suggest listening to “Levar Burton Reads” (basically an adult version of "Reading Rainbow" where he narrates stories from greats like Haruki Murakami).

Fave workout song

I’d have to vote for Far East Movement’s “Turn Up the Love.” It’s such a fun, upbeat song that helps you work up a sweat!

If you had a theme song, what would it be and why?

This is a tough one. Jhene Aiko is one of my all-time favorite singers. She has a way of expressing such bold and vulnerable emotions. I’d have to choose “Spotless Mind” because it’s all about embracing the inevitable and being open and receptive to change and letting go of the plans we once had.

Fave book

I learned everything I know about dating apathy and romance from my boy, Aziz Ansari. Give it up for his bestselling book, “Modern Romance.” Hearts and heartbreaks galore!

Fave website

A few years ago, I was on the lookout for positive, uplifting, and inspiring stories centered around the narratives of women and young girls. After a few searches, I landed on GirlTalkHQ, a site that highlights empowering stories and spotlights badass women. I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing the founder, Asha Dahya, for NBC Asian America a while back.

Fave movie

“Never Been Kissed” is basically the story of my awkward teenage self. We are all Josie Grossies—we just gotta do the damn thing and not care what people think.