March 19, 2018

Shape Your Life (SYL) is a 14-week boxing program for self-identified women who have experienced violence.  While boxing is often perceived as a violent sport, SYL uses non-contact training to teach boxing, and to fight the mental, emotional, and physical effects of trauma and abuse.

Once a week participants jump into a class and learn to box with their coaches Melinda Watpool and Jazz Kamal. The coaches bring an enthusiastic, playful approach to coaching, which helps diminish some of the more intimidating aspects of learning a new skill. As participants leave the program, it looks like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders—you see them breathing easier, faces glowing, and smiling.

Sports like boxing are not self-defense—rather SYL uses boxing as a means to create safer communities for healing and empowerment for women. There is a unique focus on resilience, and fighting the effects of abuse instead of fighting other people. Despite misconceptions about being an individual sport, boxing at SYL is nurtured through a collaborative mentality, Mel says, “we cheer each other on, so it feels like a team sport and participants support each other.”

“we cheer each other on, so it feels like a team sport and participants support each other”

One of the major strengths of this non-contact boxing program is that it is trauma and violence informed. This means the coaches have taken part in training and know how to create safe environments for participants based on understanding the effects of trauma and its links to health and behavior. Jazz explains that it’s important to acknowledge, “all trauma is different, you can’t measure it.” Melinda elaborates on how important it is to feel safe in your own body after trauma, “for example, your heart is racing, your muscles tense up, but we work to re-associate increased heart rate with positive experiences like hitting the heavy bag and working out.” At SYL participants work at their own pace with the coaches to connect with their bodies while learning to box.

SYL creates a community that supports people who have experienced violence. At SYL we know that mind-body are not separate—the mental and physical are intertwined. Trauma and violence informed boxing is a great way to take care of your body and self. “We’re not teaching aggression, we’re releasing it,” Jazz explains, “it’s considered old school to be a hard ass [during training], but we don’t encourage bravado, and not knowing how to do something is not a failure” it’s a reframed as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Boxing enthusiasts often talk about the heart of boxing. At Shape Your Life (SYL) the program’s founders and coaches’ dynamic energy, understanding, and enthusiasm are the heart of the program. Co-founders Dr. Cathy van Ingen and Joanne Green have been running the program for 11 years. Over 1,600 women have participated and 300 women are on a waiting list.

There is a consistent and growing demand for trauma-informed programs, and SYL is committed to nurturing a community for healing and women reclaiming their bodies and their power.

Written by: Paloma Holmes