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On the day I was raped, I felt like a true yogi. It was July and 30 degrees Celsius on New York's Rockaway Peninsula*. I had been up since 6 a.m. I’d started the day by swimming in the ocean, running on the soft sand, and doing an asana sequence I had committed to memory on a wooden deck in the morning sunshine. I meditated in a rose garden under an American flag. I met another tourist from Connecticut who told me about how lost she was in her life. I counselled her, staring into her eyes, and said something ridiculously earnest, like, "You can overcome anything. Everything you need is inside of you." I’m sure I posted this quote on Instagram at the time, along with a photo of me looking very flexible and very sweaty.
When you’re strong, free, and happy, it’s very hard to believe that something bad is going to happen to you. I was at the tail end of a monthlong stay in New York City, and I had had the time of my life. I had met wild people, had a few enthralling romances, seen incredible things. I had opened my mind and heart up to everything the city had to offer, and it had delivered me things beyond my imagination. New York City will give you everything you want, and it will give you things you didn’t know you needed, you just have to be open and walk around and talk to people.
I had been practising yoga every day, and I was spinning and elevated with endorphins. Meditation had liberated me from years of being hampered by depression and anxiety. I finally had control over my life and my happiness. I mean, I had found the ANSWER and it was YOGA.
Looking back, I realise my guard was down. I was slightly high on an admittedly confused understanding of some very intense spirituality. I was travelling and had the wanderer’s spirit and was somewhat reliant on the kindness of strangers, and as a woman this makes you very vulnerable. Nonetheless, it’s still hard to come to terms with what happened to me. As a victim, it’s hard for me to draw the line between where I made mistakes and where my attacker’s actions were premeditated and predatory. I still wonder if there were things I could have done to ensure my escape.
My attacker was the married bar manager of a boating club on the Rockaways (I mean, seriously). I had been staying with him, and I stupidly trusted him because he was, well, married. He isolated me from my bag and phone, drugged my drink, gave me alcohol when I asked for water, and when I got to the point where I could no longer walk or talk, he took me home. The rest is blurry and still painful for me to recall. Let's just say I was assaulted for an extended period of time, and I am now a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder.
After it happened, all I wanted to do was escape. I wanted to be back in a yoga studio. I wanted to be sweating and chanting and meditating and feel happy and safe, surrounded by soft-talking hippies and stinky incense. The feelings were too much for me to bear — like, I couldn’t even think about it. Or talk about it. I couldn’t admit to anybody that it had happened. I never agreed to be a victim. Being raped wasn’t part of my narrative.
I started telling myself that how I felt about it was a choice. It was MY choice. It was just a story that I could tell about myself or not.
So I made the decision not to be a victim. I was angry about what had happened to me, but I was determined to continue on my path to enlightenment. I had been happy, focused, and gleaming with energy. I had been waking up every day and meditating, for God’s sake. This rapist bar manager was not going to take my power from me. So I committed to stop myself from thinking about it. I repeated my mantra — let go — whenever I caught myself thinking about what had happened to me. I continued my yoga practise and worked harder than before. I believed that I had the tools to get through it on my own.
In my experience, something amazing happens when you start really practising yoga. It’s indescribable. It’s what makes “yoga people” so happy and giggly and probably quite insufferable to be around. It’s why yogis will always beg you to come to yoga! As a teacher of mine said once, yogis can never really tell you why they love yoga.
It’s not as simple as yoga feeling good. It’s not about getting the yoga butt. It’s not as simple as the rush of endorphins, because it’s different from the gym and I think it’s better than Pilates. In my opinion, the secret about yoga is that it’s ancient and magic. It was created specifically for the human body and the human soul. It yokes them together, uniting them. (The word yoga is Sanskrit for yoke, or union.) Doing this, especially in our modern society, gives me a rush. I believe if you find the right class and the right method that works for you, you will feel uplifted and high after every session.
I love yoga and meditation. But I also thought these things could make that traumatic and painful night disappear.
In November, back in Australia, I went to a yoga retreat with some friends, and everybody there was SO happy. We gorged on amazing vegan food, practised yoga three times a day, went on bush walks, and swam in a river, and everybody sang chants in Sanskrit. At the end of the weekend, we all wore white and stuck adhesive-backed crystals on our foreheads. I posted photos on Instagram with captions like, "WILLLLDDD YOGIS," my face beaming like I didn’t have a care in the world. I looked so happy in those photos.
Driving home from that retreat, I thought about the Rockaways and started crying. I thought I was high from the yoga and the good food and all of the exercise, but I couldn’t stop. I cried for the entire three-hour drive. The next day, I had to call in sick to work because I could not stop crying. It had been five months since the attack.
Slowly, my life began to fall apart.
One year after being drugged and raped, I was still managing to go to yoga almost every day. That is however pretty much all I was doing. Apart from going to work, I had developed quite severe agoraphobia. I had become a terrible friend who would constantly cancel on plans. If I did turn up to anything social, I would be 30 to 45 minutes late because I was always panicked. I would spend hours before leaving the house pacing my bedroom in confused thought, ruminating and speculating about what would go wrong when I finally went outside. I stared at inspirational posts on Instagram from other yogis and felt guilty because I was crumbling emotionally. I was trying to portray the image of carefree happiness I once had, but it was gone.
I was suffering and angry and disempowered. Everything that used to give me joy was gone. I looked good because I was exercising a lot, but that was about it. The constant anxiety and regular panic attacks had wreaked havoc on my body. I had horrific stomach pain all the time. I was an insomniac. I look at selfies from the time and I had the longing, panicked eyes of a frightened puppy. I would take photos over and over again until I found one where I didn’t look like I was about to cry. Then I’d post that online, with some stupid inspirational quote. "Love forever." "Do it your way! Do your own being!"
Offline, I alienated myself socially because the pressure of having to leave the house was simply too burdensome for me. The only real social contact I had was when I would go to yoga every day. I would wander in, no doubt often looking quite askew. A few people would talk to me, I would lay out my mat and practise yoga, and then I would go home alone, lonely, and still panicked. Yoga really is all I had, and I can say without qualification that in those months, it kept me alive.
But that's about all it did.
Looking back at those days, I realise I was so caught up in trying to find the essential goodness in the universe, and my compassion for all beings that I had lost my survival instinct. I spent my days reading books about yoga and meditating and drinking smoothies and trying to have compassion for my attacker.
Trying to yoga-think my way out of what was clearly PTSD nearly killed me. I kept waiting for enlightenment to come, but it never would. Sadly, it wasn’t my choice to not be a victim. I had been victimised. Every time I tried to meditate, my head would whirl with painful flashbacks. When they closed the curtains at the yoga studio, I felt great waves of relief, because I knew the tears could finally come and nobody could see. Finally, a yoga teacher told me the answer, and it had nothing to do with yoga: I needed therapy.
Yogis believe that samsara is the endless cycle of birth and death from which we need to liberate ourselves. Without working on our souls within our lifetime, we are doomed to repeat these same patterns over and over again, and continue suffering for lifetime after lifetime. The pain that I endured at the hands of my rapist has scarred me, and I know that my suffering is something that is now a part of me. It is yoked to my narrative, to my body and my soul.
For me, feeling scarred forever was a devastating concept. Seeing a therapist has helped me deal with the evil that was enacted upon me. For an entire year, I blamed myself for being drugged and raped. I believed it was my fault and in some twisted way, I had compassion for my attacker and no compassion for myself.
I no longer feel this way.
My liberation has come slowly, but I am breaking free from the cycle of blaming myself. I love yoga and meditation, but thinking my spirituality was enough to save me from PTSD sadly was a mistake. Victims of rape and sexual assault need medical intervention. For me, there was no work-around for that.
Last month I asked my therapist if she thought I would ever get beyond my suffering. She said, "Absolutely, Phoebe. It's just going to take practise." This made me happy, as practising yoga has taught me to love a challenge.
I remember my very first class at Jivamukti Yoga Sydney in 2014, where the teacher forcefully instructed the whole class attempt a headstand. There was sweat dripping into my eyes. I was exhausted and over it. I just thought, This is ridiculous. I am NEVER going to be able to do this. I was unfit, overweight, uncoordinated, and weak. It took two years of practising every damn day, but now, most days, I can stand on my head, for, like, quite a while.
Like learning to stand on my head at yoga, healing from being raped is something that I know will take time. I deeply resent my attacker for taking over my life and filling it with anxiety and anger, but as each day passes, the clouds lift, and things are starting to sparkle again.
It has now been 18 months since I was attacked. I cry less and less in my (still daily!) yoga classes. I go to therapy. I talk to my friends. I am letting go of being ashamed. I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask for help, from anyone and everyone, when you need it.
*Location has been changed at the author's request.