Yoga Therapy: Healing the trauma of modern-day slavery

For D’Lita Miller, her yoga practice helped cope with years of pent-up anger and aggression.  In this case, Miller’s emotional backlog is because she is a survivor of human trafficking, a situation that is unfortunately an issue today for people around the world.  Many like Miller are finding that yoga therapy is a powerful tool for releasing symptoms of depression and trauma; psychologists are recommending the practice and researchers are confirming what yoga therapists already know.  In her words, Miller says her yoga practice “allows for an exchange of energy” — an exchange in which she feels the positive, transformative energy that was missing from her life for 15 years.

During that stretch of time, D’Lita was trapped; a victim of human trafficking, a situation from which she freed herself after two pivotal events.  First, and what woke her up to the gravity of her situation, was that she came across a letter written by her daughter to her higher power asking for help for her mother.  Second, and even more shocking, D’Lita discovered her youngest daughter was being trafficked.  This motivated Miller to escape her trafficker, along with her children.  D’Lita’s story of trauma and healing is becoming more common: yogic practices as sources of positive energy that promote healing from post-traumatic stress.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery where trafficking victims are exploited for labor of commercial sex purposes by means of force, fraud or coercion, according to the U.S. Department of State.  One reason human trafficking is prevalent in the United States is related to our 1.7 million teenage runaways.  Many of these teens end up in the hand of a trafficker (a pimp), who makes them promises such as shelter.

Many trafficked youth, even girls younger than 14, are wrongfully arrested on prostitution charges (a minor cannot consent to having sex).  At Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, UpRising Yoga facilitates classes for incarcerated youth.  They’ve found that many of these young people have experienced trauma so founder and director Jill Ippolito and her team of trained instructors utilize yoga to encourage the youth in these programs to build strength and resilience internally as well as externally.

The statistics worldwide are both tragic and eye-opening; Unlikely Heroes, a nonprofit advocacy and education organization, has gathered these numbers:

• 27 million people are trapped in slavery today.

• $28 billion is generated from commercial sexual exploitation, making it one of the most lucrative crimes in the world.

• 100,000 children are sexually exploited in the U.S. each year.

Unlikely Heros valiantly provides safe houses for child victims, including in Mexico, the Philippines, and Thailand.  Founder Erica Greve and her team incorporate yoga along with other sports and physical activities for the people they serve.  Erica says she has seen yoga make a difference in the attitudes, sleep patterns, and emotional regulation of Unlikely Heroes’ clients.  Program Director Norielle Aurelio states that for the past three years, Unlikely Heroes’ Mexico home has trained instructors, who help lead the survivors on a path to healing and holistic physical activity.  With her highly trained team, Erica says that they endeavor “to give every child the component to restore their lives for wellbeing and healing.”

Melissa Grace Hoon (Meera) is the founder of Inner Awakening Writing Center (based in Orange County) as well as an anti-sex trafficking specialist and a state-certified peer counselor.  She joined the fight against human trafficking in 2011 after serving as a mentor at a home for abandoned, abused, and neglected children in South Africa, many of whom were victims of sexual abuse.  Through Inner Awakening, she teaches therapeutic journaling workshops to survivors of abuse, including sex trafficking.  She sees journaling as a form of yoga therapy; her therapeutic journaling workshops are spiritually focused, with attention on swadhyaya (self-study), the fourth niyama of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga.  Journaling is a profound method for recovery from trauma.  “Writing helps string pieces of fragmented memory together, allowing the survivor to form a full or nearly full memory ready for processing and healing,” says Melissa.  “Workshop participants meditate to cultivate calmness, clarity, and a safe inner space in preparation for writing.  They meditate afterward to restore the balance of emotions that may have been agitated during the writing process.”  As yoga therapist and International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) board member Dr. Amy Wheeler states, the yoga therapist is present without judgment or expectation and they serve an important role sharing tools for people recovering from PTSD.

Another example is found in the work of Dr. Richard  Miller, developer of iRest (Integrative Restoration), who currently uses the adapted relaxation practices of Yoga Nidra to aid in the recovery of survivors of sex trafficking in the United States and India.   He says, “iRest aids practitioners in recognizing their underlying peace of mind that is always present amidst all changing circumstances in life.”  Dr. Miller has also worked alongside Academy Award-winning director Jeffrey Brown on his new feature film Sold.  Based on the novel by Patricia McCormick, Sold is the story of 13-year-old girl who journey from a village to a brothel house in India.  Brown’s film posits that human trafficking is an enormous and complicated criminal act since worldwide, pimps and traffickers are working below the radar.  The film calls to action global activism against sexual slavery.

Although organizations such an Unlikely Heroes, UpRising Yoga, iRest, Inner Awakening Writing Center, and others are focused on combating the issues of human trafficking, it still remains a human rights issue.  Now that D’Lita is living a life of freedom and dignity, she has embarked on the mission to spread awareness about resources available to people who have been enslaved by human trafficking.  We, took can support initiatives to raise awareness and resources available to people who have been enslaved by human trafficking.  We, too, can support initiatives to raise awareness to prevent, identify, help people heal, and ultimately end this epidemic.


Amanda Ridder is a senior at Cal State San Bernardino majoring in English, and will be pursuing her master’s degree in Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston this fall.