This Nonprofit Organization Is Using Yoga to Help People Heal After Domestic Abuse

In 2011, Bilyana Simonoski's father attacked her mother with an axe. When Bilyana, who was in her early 20s, tried to intervene, her father swung the axe at her, severing her hand in half. He hit her mother in the head and neck, leaving her with brain damage so severe that she has been living in a nursing home ever since. In the aftermath of the attack, Simonoski struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which left her feeling broken and powerless—until yoga offered a way out from rock bottom.

“My trauma had destroyed my self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence,” Simonoski tells SELF. “I didn’t have any family support and felt incredibly isolated. I worried that I was going to die at any moment, and I didn’t think I deserved to be happy.”

At one of her lowest points, she called a nearby domestic violence shelter and asked for help.

“That was the first time I’d ever told anyone my entire story,” she says. “The thing that helped me right away was knowing I wasn’t alone, that actually a lot of people experienced this type of trauma. I got set up with an amazing therapist who encouraged me to practice self-care, so in addition to meditation and journaling, I started doing yoga videos on YouTube.”

From there, Bilyana attended free community yoga sessions and signed up for a membership at a studio. She realized she loved the challenge of a yoga practice and feeling stronger.

“I kept thinking, What if my mom had access to yoga when she was going through 20 years of abuse? She was busy working and keeping food on the table; self-care was the last thing on her mind. I thought about women in domestic violence shelters—they’ve just gotten away from someone who has tried to hurt or kill them; they’re not thinking about yoga, let alone transportation or child care to get to yoga in the first place. They are in survival mode.”

In response, Bilyana created Tough As Milk, a nonprofit named after her mother, Milka, which offers free trauma-informed yoga classes in Cleveland to survivors of domestic abuse.

“Yoga and working out helped me reconnect with my body, breath, and eventually, my mind,” she says. “Instead of physically feeling like I was being attacked every time I voluntarily or involuntarily thought of what happened to me, I learned that though those memories were awful, they were just memories and were not a part of the present moment.”

Tanvi Patel, a psychotherapist in Houston with expertise in treating trauma, anxiety, and PTSD, says this feeling of disconnection within the body for trauma survivors is extremely common, and yoga can be helpful alongside psychotherapy to help with the healing process.

“When traumas occur, the brain often tries to protect itself, and a common way of coping with trauma is something called dissociation,” she explains. “This takes us out of our bodies during the trauma, and also when we talk or think about it later. While this way of coping can save us pain, it also doesn't allow for a safe processing of the trauma, and the emotions and trauma responses come out in unintentional ways such as overreacting to triggers, flashbacks, heightened fear and anxiety, difficulty expressing emotions or connecting to others, and coping with substances. Yoga is a proven way of grounding ourselves and feeling like we are in our bodies and in the present moment.”

In his line of work, Los Angeles–based trauma therapist Joshua Beckett often sees how a simple yoga practice can counter how one’s nervous system gets “hijacked” after trauma. “One of the most enlightening discoveries in my field is that clients don’t have to talk about the trauma to heal from it,” he notes. The unique combination of breath work and body work in yoga, Beckett says, has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system.

Yoga is known to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, but it can also function as supplemental treatment for those suffering from PTSD.

“Research for the treatment is relatively new, about three to four years, and the trials have been small, but the outcomes are encouraging,” says Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, executive director at Maryland House Detox through Delphi Behavioral Health Group. “With PTSD, anxiety, and depression, breathing can become shallow and fast, signaling a ‘fight or flight’ response in the brain. Yoga provides the opportunity to focus attention on breathing, which brings one to the present moment and gives them control, which is crucial.”

While standard yoga classes offer these benefits to any practitioner, trauma-informed yoga is intended to be a little different.

More than anything, instructors need to help participants feel physically and emotionally safe in order to support recovery.

“Covered windows, soft lighting, minimized sound, and language that is inviting and nonjudgmental—yoga teachers who are trained in this way can offer options, so students feel comfortable in their bodies and take control over their experience, and think through postures and positions that could make some feel vulnerable.”

Bilyana learned this firsthand. She remembers the discomfort of being touched or assisted in yoga without being asked, and when she launched Tough As Milk, she realized she could use her background to better understand how to teach students who happened to be survivors, such as what boundaries to keep in place and how to deal with triggers when they arise.

Now, Tough As Milk serves up to 20 students a month at local domestic abuse shelters.

Later this year, the organization will partner with The MetroHealth System Trauma Center as part of the hospital’s approach to trauma care. But down the line, she’d love her organization to be a full-service yoga studio that provides free, trauma-informed classes funded by regular fee-based community classes with outside instructors.

“You don’t do one yoga class and you’re magically cured,” Simonoski says. “It’s a constant commitment to recovery. But I’ll never forget the first class I taught—we finished, and a student said, ‘Wow, I feel so much better. I was so worn down before this, and now my head feels clearer.’”

“People don’t like talking about domestic violence,” she adds, “but I want Tough As Milk to be a safe space where we can.”

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