08/30/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Yoga: How We Serve Survivors of Sexual Exploitation

This is an interview with Heather Snyder, whose first service work was at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City on the psychiatric floor just after she became a certified yoga teacher in 2008. That inspired her to get involved with Off the Mat, Into the World, where she is now a senior leader. She traveled to Uganda with Off the Mat and found a calling teaching yoga to girls and women who are survivors of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. She teaches this population at Restore and GEMS in New York City.

Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My original motivation had simply to do with wanting to connect with others, and the idea of yoga being the medium and tool with which to do that. What continues to motivate me is seeing how healing and inner shifts can happen when people get into their bodies and breath and take time for themselves.

Is there a standout moment from your work with GEMS or with victims of sex trafficking?

The standout moments are ones in which a girl who is resistant to doing yoga tells me at the end of class that she feels calmer, less stressed, and that her mind is quieter. One great moment happened recently. One of the girls brought her 1-year-old to class, in addition to her small son. We co-teach all classes and in this particular class, I was playing with the baby so her mom could get some time for herself doing yoga. Her son wanted to jump into the class midway through and he went to his mom, lay down on her back and legs and rested quietly while she went into certain poses. It was such a beautiful, fun, and honest moment between [the] mom and her son.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if at all, have those assumptions changed?

All I knew is what I had read, heard about and seen from afar. I assumed that most of the girls would be shut down, uninterested, and guarded. I had that in my head without really acknowledging it consciously. Well, my assumptions were blown out of the water! Some girls are like that, but many of the girls are open to the healing work, engaged, and actually find it fun. In many ways, they are just girls, like any other girls, except these girls are dealing with more traumatic life circumstances. At heart, they are teenage girls who want to connect with friends and laugh and push boundaries, be seen and just be themselves.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio and what are the reasons for these differences?

First of all, any plan I have for a class is extremely loose. One day we might have two girls who are pregnant, another day we might have one girl who brings her baby to class. We have to keep our boundaries and structure but also meet whoever shows up that week. There is also more of a focus on meditation and relaxation techniques and not as much asana (practice of postures). That is what works for this specific group of girls.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I do a lot of inner work to address my own fears, insecurities, and judgments so I can be in that room as a clear, open, grounded presence. It's not always easy, but the more I can get grounded in myself, the more clearly I can show up for them and then what I say, how I respond will come from an authentic place in myself.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

Get some training in working with trauma survivors. Understand how trauma works and can show up in a classroom. Also, remember that we are all on a journey and all learning, which means going into a class without judgment and fear. Everyone has experienced some trauma, fear, anger, depression and anxiety in their life.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of service yoga in America in the next decade?

My hope is that it becomes a more accepted and mainstream form of healing. I would love to see it in all hospitals and organizations that work with people in trauma.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My idea of service is simple these days. Showing up, fully present, to be with another person who needs you is a form of service that can change someone's life. It may not look big but it IS big to that person. My own practice has become a lot more gentle and healing for myself. I understand that my body's signals are telling me to take care of myself in a more intelligent way.

What are some of your greatest hopes for the development of a service yoga community?

That we will support each other, learn from each other, and keep our egos in check so that we can serve more people well.

What other organizations do you admire?

There are so many wonderful organizations out there doing important work. I work closely with The Somaly Mam Foundation and fully believe in its mission to empower trafficking survivors and support and nurture girls on their road to recovery and reintegration into society.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!


Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Coping with Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans. This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.