Iowa City yoga instructor leads free, anonymous class to help trauma survivors ‘regain a sense of bodily autonomy’

Mara Cheney poses for a portrait on Thursday, June 9, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. In these portraits, Cheney walks through various poses and exercises from her Yoga for Survivors class at Benders Studio, like the seated side body stretch above. The class helps soothe symptoms of trauma and reconnect with your body. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Benders Studio is quiet and bright as Mara Cheney sets up her yoga mat. Her hair is pulled back into a low ponytail, and she places her jean jacket on the floor. It’s a misty Thursday morning. The sound of Iowa Avenue traffic doesn’t carry past the lobby. Inside, the studio is small but cozy, with exposed brick and wall-to-wall mirrors.

For most of the week, Cheney works as a well-being and harm reduction assessment coordinator at the University of Iowa, just a few blocks away from the studio. But every Thursday, she teaches Yoga for Survivors at Benders, a free anonymous class that helps people recover from past trauma.

“In trauma we didn’t have a choice, and in yoga we do,” Cheney said. “Survivors feel like, oh they can regain a sense of bodily autonomy.”

Initially, we may react to trauma with feeling of exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness and more. But other symptoms persist for months and years afterwards, manifesting as sleep disorders, nightmares, depression, hyper-vigilance and so on.

Trauma changes us on a physiological level, altering our brain chemistry and structure. People who experience severe trauma for prolonged periods can face autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal distress, and difficulties thinking or learning.

Cheney is a survivor herself. In 2019, she was pregnant with a boy, Leo Lionheart.

“He was born at 22 weeks,” she said. “He lived for about 13 days.”

Cheney does a shavasana in fetal pose, an option if people are not comfortable laying on their back. Her arm shows a tattoo of her son’s name, Leo. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village
Cheney shows her other tattoo dedicated to her son. “Lionheart” runs across her ribs. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Sometimes she looks over old pictures and diary entries from their brief time together in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), or she’ll watch videos of Leo pumping his arms. It’s easy to remember the headaches and fuzziness, like “moving through putty.”

“It’s visceral. A part of my body and soul is no longer here as it should be,” she writes on her website, Lionheart Yogi.

And like many others, Cheney felt disconnected from her body.

“One of my biggest issues that I had after my son was born was just like this total lack of trust for my body and kind of like a hatred for it,” she explained.

Following Leo’s death, she decided to complete a teacher training program at Hot House Yoga. She started doing yoga while attending UI and had thought about becoming a yoga teacher. The training required hours upon hours of yoga, and it had an unintended side effect.

“I noticed that it really helped a lot of my symptoms of PTSD and depression and anxiety,” she said. “It kind of helped me connect back to my body more and just feel more like myself.”

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On the mat, she could cry and breathe. It was a space to exist without worrying what other people thought about her grief or how she was handling it. Small, unexpected things used to ignite her symptoms, but overtime it happened less and less. And when trauma did reappear, she could calm down faster.

“I started to feel more comfortable in my body. I didn’t hate it so much. I trusted it more.”

A standing half moon, which strengthens circulation throughout the body. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Yoga helped dampen Cheney’s symptoms and make her feel stronger, more confident and resilient. And she felt more connected to her body. When she goes a few weeks without touching the mat, she starts feeling off.

“If I haven’t gone to class, I’m kind of like, ‘uuuggghhhhh,’ you know? And so then, if I can come back to the mat, it kind of re-centers me,” she said.

The idea for a trauma recovery class came in late 2021. At UI, Cheney often works with fraternities and sororities on alcohol harm reduction, which overlaps with sexual violence, hazing and other high-risk behaviors.

When thousands of people protested the FIJI fraternity following an alleged sexual assault by FIJI members, some students came to her office. They said the university needed to provide more support beyond harm reduction and violence prevention. Something was missing.

Cheney pitched the idea of a free anonymous yoga class for survivors to her boss, representatives from Title IX and Gender Equity and the Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP), and Benders owner Cara Flynn.

“I was like, ‘Ooo yes.’ I didn’t even question it,” Flynn said. “That service is important for so many. Also, I think there’s so many of us that have experienced something like that.”

The camel pose, which stretches your chest, shoulders, hips and thighs. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Benders was the perfect fit. Cheney still practices at Hot House, where she also teaches prenatal yoga, but it’s an intense environment for newcomers. Benders, however, developed a reputation as a beginner’s yoga studio early on.

Flynn has worked in fitness since 2010, but her background is in strength training, not yoga. She opened Benders in 2019 with a “yoga but anti-yoga” philosophy: edgy with loud music, but open and welcoming.

“Pretty much all of it started up as a way for me to heal as a newly stay-at-home mom … I wasn’t good it. I was really depressed,” she said while laughing.

Flynn previously worked at Systems Unlimited Inc., a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, and at Joe’s Place, a bar next-door to Benders that her husband owns. But after having a second child, she couldn’t work mornings and nights anymore.

A friend talked her into attending a women-only gym, where she found a light-hearted, supportive community. There, Flynn decided to push herself into activities she either feared or hated.

“I hated yoga. So, if I was like a spring trainer, who does yoga? That’s not very hard,” she said.

To her surprise, yoga helped her heal physically and emotionally, and she wanted a space to combine strength training and yoga, which eventually evolved into Benders.

The “yoga but anti-yoga” idea didn’t stick though. At first, Flynn was confused why Benders was the studio for people who don’t know anything about yoga. But she loved that people felt comfortable enough to experiment in a no-pressure environment.

Sitting on top of her legs, Cheney rests with her palms open and eyes closed, focused on her breathing. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Flynn also wanted to decouple fitness and weight loss. She thinks body scans, measures and dieting can prevent people from exercising. Her two rules for instructors are, “Don’t talk poorly about yourself or your body,” and “Guide people away from talking negatively about their body.” If people want to lose weight, she directs them body positive dietitians.

“I’ve had just a bad relationship with food. So, I am in no way, shape or form, ready to impart any ideas or whatever,” she said. “Your body will do and respond when you give to it, when you love it. And that positivity, I think, that repetitive talk, and the lack of the other stuff, the bad shit, really helps … You are in control of you.”

Benders soon became a studio for both novices to learn about themselves and yoga, and for newly minted instructors to learn how and what to teach. Benders keeps membership prices low, offers students discounts and free mat rentals. Flynn caps class sizes at 10 people, even though the room can fit 25, to make classes feel personal and accessible.

“We’re Iowans, man. We like space. We don’t want to be right next door,” she said. “None of this makes great business sense. But it’s working.”

“I also try to encourage people not to come to the studio — once again, I’m not the best business owner — but get out there. Go ride a horse. It’s gorgeous outside, go for a walk,” Flynn continued. “We live in Iowa. We have enough months where we can’t do anything, where it’s too damn hot, or it’s too damn cold. Come to the studio those days. Come to the studio to learn more about your body.”

She wanted the studio to be about the community — the talents of the teachers, the green and veteran yogis — and less about herself. But Benders is also a reflection of Flynn, from the colorful butterfly mural in the lobby to the floral-esque logo. The clientele is mostly women, partly due to yoga’s reputation, but she’s trying to find more male teachers, as well as LGBTQ ones.

“You gotta have a really good man bun to do yoga — I feel like that’s the idea — or be super buff,” she said. “Yoga for men is so weird. I feel bad for them ’cause they’re missing out on such good shit, you know.”

The cat pose warms up your spine, shoulders and hips. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

She wants to recognize people who walk through the door, greet them by name, and never emit a closed-off feeling. Cheney brought the trauma recovery method to Benders because of this. The space feels safe and cozy, and for survivors, removing any potential barrier is paramount.

“Getting there is the hardest part in my opinion, even for me. After having done yoga for like 10 to 15 years now, showing up to class is the hardest part,” Cheney said. “It’s like, ‘Come, we have everything you need. You just bring yourself.’”

Yoga for Survivors is a calm 30-minute session. In typical yoga classes, the lights are dimmed, there’s filling music and the instructor will walk around, occasionally touching people to adjust some poses.

Cheney keeps the lights on and stays on her mat in the front of the room. She avoids poses that are strenuous or compromising. A pose like shavasana, which requires lying flat on your back, could be too vulnerable for some people.

Cheney stretches her arms, shoulders and neck. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“Yoga is choice based, so I will invite you to do certain movements, but you don’t have to do it. And I’ll often give people other options,” she said. “If something doesn’t feel good, just let me know, and we can talk through something that might work better.”

At the front of the room, Cheney begins by orienting herself to the space. She sits legs crossed, but any comfortable position will work. Then she runs through grounding techniques. How does the mat feel? Where are your hands of your legs? Cheney peeks around the room, focusing on a few objects, like the rolled-up blue mats, the black curtains, the spiral decorations.

Then she finds her center. She imagines a string coming out the top of her head, and she gently pulls the string, lengthening her spine, while bringing her belly button inwards. After focusing on her breathing, she starts going through slow, intentional movements. She stretches her arms behind her back and over her head.

In this centering technique, Cheney imagines a string coming from the top of her head. As she pulls the string, her spine straightens. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village
Cheney demonstrates the Take Five breathing technique. With one palm facing outwards like a star, you trace the outside edge of your thumb breathing in. As you trace the inside, you breathe out, repeating the process for each finger. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“If you are having PTSD, anxiety, depression, whatever, and the instructor is like, ‘We’re gonna do all this physically hard stuff,’ it just doesn’t work too great,” she said.

Cheney keeps the same movements to develop a familiar routine and ends with a resting pose and meditation. She tells hesitant newcomers that the class is easy. If you sit on the mat for the entire class, that’s yoga, too. It’s non-judgmental, and everything is optional.

“Therapy is amazing. Medication is amazing. I use both of those tools, and I think there are a lot more options out there,” she said. “Yoga itself does such a good job of joining the body and mind, and I think that’s an important thing that can be missed.”

Usually, one or two people attend the class per week. At most she’s had four, and some weeks nobody comes, which Cheney thinks is good. No one needed her that day. She enjoys one-on-one sessions, where they can have conversations and tailored yoga.

Most participants are college students, though Iowa City residents also come. The class began in January, and she expects more people to attend as word travels. And while it’s mostly women, everyone is welcome.

The trauma recovery yoga method aims to soothe the nervous system, ease symptoms like anxiety and hyper-vigilance, and help people recover faster from triggering events. But in the short-term, Cheney hopes people can forget their worries for half an hour.

A three-legged dog pose, which improves strength and balance. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“Can you be in a space where you feel safe, you feel like you can connect with your body, and you can feel relaxed at the end of it?” she said.

Cheney is helping train other instructors in the method, and Benders has partnered with the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) to donate money from its events.

Flynn remembers working late nights at the bar, and the unsafe feeling of walking down lonely streets, so she thinks Yoga for Survivors is invaluable for Iowa City.

“I just get to experience more life because of each person that walks through here,” Flynn said. “I love hearing people’s stories and seeing people do things that they never thought they could do.”

A sign for the Yoga for Survivors class at Benders Studio. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village