Since she took up the practice as a senior in high school, Zoë LePage ’13 has found strength and solace in yoga. So when she had to complete a social action project as part of her senior seminar in Barnard’s Athena Scholars’ Program — which empowers students to lead and change the world — LePage combined her love of yoga with her desire to honor family and friends affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.

She created and continues to serve as executive director of Exhale to Inhale (ETI), a nonprofit organization that uses the healing practice of trauma-informed yoga to empower survivors. “I have a family member who is a survivor of domestic violence and friends from Barnard who are survivors of sexual assault,” says LePage. “I saw how violence and trauma impacted my loved ones and wanted to create something that I wish they had.”

Photo courtesy of lululemon/© BrakeThrough Media

The name of the organization comes from an insight shared by one of her teachers as LePage was completing her yoga-teacher certification during a gap year between high school and college: “Sometimes we need to let go of that which is no longer serving us in order to fill ourselves back up again; we need to exhale to inhale.”

“We have developed our own trauma-informed method — which is based on choice-making, simplicity, and safety — and we offer our training to yoga teachers throughout the country,” says LePage. The group’s teachers then “go into domestic violence shelters, rape crisis organizations, and other community-based organizations to offer yoga.”

Classes in these venues are free, so that cost doesn’t deter anyone from attending; funding comes primarily from individual donors, as well as corporations and grants.

The first series of classes was launched in New York City in June 2013, shortly after LePage graduated. Now, the group offers 11 classes each week in New York and Los Angeles. About half of ETI classes are for clients who are living in a shelter or receiving services from social service agencies. “The impacts of yoga, particularly our style of yoga, are profound,” she says. “Yoga addresses many physical symptoms of trauma, such as insomnia, headaches, digestive issues, and backache.” LePage says that clients also gain a greater sense of their own resilience and agency. “We had one student who said, ‘Yoga finally feels like I’m loving myself again,’” she recalls.

The other half of ETI’s classes are offered to staff members at domestic violence shelters and other agencies that help survivors. She notes that staff members who work at these facilities are underpaid and overworked. “Their daily job is holding space for and processing other people’s trauma, which research shows takes a toll on these workers,” she says. “We are offering yoga to these individuals to make their jobs and lives more sustainable.

“We’re bringing yoga into places and spaces where it hasn’t existed and sometimes it’s an uphill battle because most of our students have never practiced yoga before,” says LePage. “They think yoga isn’t for them. But I love that light bulb moment when a student realizes that yoga can help her feel better.”

LePage credits Barnard with instilling in her the belief that she has a voice and can have an impact. “Barnard helped me understand that I deserve a seat at the table,” she says. “I attribute the boldness, conviction, and belief in myself that allowed me to create this organization in part to my Barnard education.” •

Michele Lynn is a writer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.