Last summer, I was asked to lead a Nia® class that ran for 18 weeks under the Women Veterans Healthcare Program at the VA Hospital in New Jersey. This residential program offers care for women in the military who suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Prior to teaching this class I was unaware of MST. Veterans who experience MST and combat exposure are prone to depression, suicide and substance use and abuse.
Imagine someone you love and care about, sexually pressured and/or assaulted in the line of duty. (MST affects women and men, and you can read more in the link at the bottom.)
Women who were suffering with MST and PTSD came to Nia class. Some had experience with yoga and dance-type classes, others were into sports and some had injuries which made it difficult to move on their feet.
Everybody was new to Nia.
Each class was a learning experience and moods varied week-to-week. I had the highest respect for each of them yet I could not know what they were experiencing inside. I chose to share my personal experience of feeling disconnected from my body through illness for years and how Nia helped me reconnect with myself. Sharing my story seemed to help.
There were times when someone became "triggered" and left the room. The program psychologist and staff where present to assist and dance with us. I believe their presence helped put the women at ease and let them know they weren't alone.
Movement was simple and there was a sense of accomplishment as steps became familiar. We laughed a lot while dancing our "moves” in the circle (these ladies could move and I learned!). The music invited expression and healing. One of our favorite songs was Lay Your Sorrows Down from the Nia routine Joy.
One woman who left the room during the first and second classes returned. I let her know how courageous she was to come back. She didn't have to take the class, yet she had returned for herself. She came to every class until she was discharged. Witnessing her connect more with her body was remarkable.
Women left for home and there were tears, along with hope and confidence as these brave souls moved on with their lives.
Here are some words I heard as they said goodbye:
I felt I could "hang up the armor” before walking into class.
At first I felt awkward, but I got the moves over time.
I felt safe.
I could move my way.
I am more in touch with my body.
I felt at peace by the end of class.
I will look for a class when I get home.
This is wonderful work. Thank you for coming.
They thanked me. Yet it is each of these women that I have to thank from my heart for their courage, persistence, and service to our country.
They taught me what it means to be brave.
This is the power of therapy, compassion, and movement.
I am honored, humbled, and most grateful this experience was made possible through a government contract between Benessere, The Center for Wellness, in Summit, New Jersey, and the Veterans Health Administration. Their hope is to acquire further funding to continue this type of program in the future.
Teresa D'Angelo is a Nia 1st Degree Black Belt and Healing Movement Coach, specializing in classes and programs for people with chronic pain. She teaches classes at Benessere and other locations in Northern NJ. Visit here for more info.