She wants to open her own business, help others and travel the world to learn more about yoga. Talking to this engaging 21-year-old, it’s hard to imagine the ‘friend’ that sold her to a brothel in the centre of Phnom Penh, or that she survived two drug-addicted years there before being rescued at the age of 18. She is the antithesis of your average victim.

Southeast Asia Globe, June 24, 2011

Peace of mind: the rehabilitative power of yoga

Photo by Sam Jam
Photo by Sam Jam

Though difficult to quantify, sex trafficking in Cambodia persists in the face of minimum genuine effort on the part of the authorities to address it. It subsists in the unlawful recruitment of a person into prostitution using force, threats, deception, abuse of power or enticements, and it feeds on the trauma inflicted on victims through violence and fear. Terror is a calculated means for ensuring their submission.

Many trafficking survivors report that the psychological damage they sustained was far worse than the physical pain, which is what makes recovery tough even after they’re freed. Public mental health services are almost non-existent here and, in any event, psychiatric illness is highly stigmatised, which in turn limits help-seeking. Re-integration into the community is a minefield of adjustment problems combined with likely rejection. Suicide is a serious risk.

This is what makes Sophoan’s outlook, only three short years after being rescued, all the more startling. We’re at Nataraj Yoga, created by Canadian Isabelle Skaburskis and the home of Krama Yoga, an NGO that provides yoga training to vulnerable children across Phnom Penh and, since 2008, yoga teacher training to a group of young sex-trafficking survivors.

Skaburskis approached anti-trafficking NGO Transitions, which proposed “three headstrong, sceptical, traumatised, angry, curious girls who had done some yoga classes but didn’t particularly like it,” she says. The idea was to try to give the girls a future and to use yoga to help rebuild their emotional, physical and spiritual strength.

Six trainees were finally selected. “When they arrived, they were so shy and frightened, with no confidence,” says Yan Vannac, the director of Krama Yoga, shrinking himself at the memory. Two years on, Skaburskis has trouble capping the list of changes she has witnessed in the young graduates, describing a revolution in confidence, leadership, mutual support and expressions of kindness and love. “They know how to act according to what they believe in, as opposed to a life reacting against what is thrown at them,” she says.

Yoga is still relatively new to Cambodia and initial reactions can be sceptical. Asked if the kids in the programme thought she was mad at the beginning, Skaburskis replies with an emphatic: “Yes!” Initially, Sophoan wasn’t overly enthused, either: “I didn’t like it. I thought: why do they want me to do this? It hurts my muscles.”

But its power to heal in the context of young victims of trafficking lies in its emphases on relationships with others, the relationship with self and the union of the mind and the body.

“When I was at the place,” explains Sophoan in her gentle, unwavering voice, “one of the other girls gave me yama. She told me when I smoke it I cannot hurt, I cannot think about things, I can forget all.”

Whether through drugs and/or psychological dislocation, the separation of mind and body is how human beings manage the horror of finding themselves, as Sophoan did, in a context where being gang-raped is considered normal. Sophoan calmly describes one incident in which she was gang-raped by “I don’t know how many men” in a graveyard. They left her there when they were done to walk back to the brothel, crying, afraid, alone, in pain and in the dark. On her return, her boss sent her off with another client.

Survival mechanisms inhibit recovery and take time to dismantle, which makes listening to Sophoan today all the more astonishing. She talks about the love and support that Transitions has given her, and also how yoga has given her control over herself and her destiny. “This morning, when I finished my yoga, I close my eyes for meditation. I think about it and then I let it go. I let it go and it can’t hurt me.”

Yoga’s philosophy is fundamental to this process. “Yoga is a therapy to bring the mind back to the body, so that it can work through difficulty and live peacefully,” explains Vannac. All six young trainees recently passed internationally recognised exams and are now qualified yoga teachers.

“Today I feel peace and proud of myself,” says Sophoan. “Before and now are very different. I tell myself: now I am Sophoan, I teach yoga and I have a good life. I don’t want to think about before; I think about now. I can control my mind. I can control my life. I got that from yoga.”

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