Shape Your Life boxing program helps empower women who've experienced violence

Shape Your Life is a boxing program for self-identified women who've experienced violence. It's been around for a decade but now is receiving funding from the federal government so that one of its co-founders can study how it's been helping women.

'We don't connect as victims, we connect as powerful women,' says program participant

Tania Jivraj, (far left) is a former participant and now co-ordinator of Shape Your Life. She is seen here with the program's founders: Joanne Green, Savoy Howe and Cathy van Ingen at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Ten years ago Tania Jivraj applied for a job as coordinator of a new, first-of-its-kind boxing program for those who identify as women who've experienced violence.

She didn't get it.

Instead she was asked to participate. Now, a decade later, after graduating from the Shape Your Life Program and going back to school for both her Bachelors and Masters of Social Work, the job is all hers.

"The program gave me confidence to reapply for the job and other jobs," said Jivraj, who started the position in August.

Tania Jivraj (left) says she's found her dream job working as the program co-ordinator of Shape Your Life. She was a participant in 2007. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"One day I was leaving the gym and I realized I was walking in the middle of the sidewalk. I was taking up room and if people were walking towards me I wasn't trying to give them space, I wasn't saying sorry, I just felt so strong."

There is an important point that both participants and organizers are quick to clarify. Why would you have survivors of violence box each other? Well, they don't — ever. 

"We don't hit anyone and you don't hit anyone back," said Jivraj. "Just the idea of having a punch come toward your face can be quite triggering regardless of your past. That's not part of the program."

We don't hit anyone and you don't hit anyone back. Just the idea of having a punch come toward you can be quite triggering.- Tania Jivraj, Shape Your Life program coordinator

Instead, participants learn how to safely hit things like heavy bags, speed bags and hand pads.

Self-empowerment is at the heart of the Shape Your Life program, according to its co-founder, Savoy Howe. 

"I get to witness women being transformed in a very short period of time," said Howe, who is also the head coach of the program and owner of Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, the gym it calls home in the Carlaw Avenue and Gerrard Street East area.​

Savoy Howe teaches Shape Your Life participants how to punch safely in her "playground for hitting things" at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"Sometimes women are told they're the weaker sex, or they're a piece of crap. Here they get to see very quickly that's not the case," Howe told CBC Toronto.

The program has a lot of anecdotal evidence to support that change. Since Shape Your Life started in 2007, more than 1200 women have graduated from the 14 week program and many have shared their stories with organizers.

Now a decade in, one of the co-founders is starting to study the outcomes of the program with new funding from the federal government. 

Cathy van Ingen is one of the three founders of the Shape Your Life program. New funding from the federal government is now allowing her to study the effects of the program on women who've experienced violence. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"This is the first time we get to measure the actual kinds of health outcomes that we're seeing and hearing about through stories," said Cathy van Ingen, a kinesiology professor at Brock University.and one of the co-founders of the program.

"We're actually measuring the way this program is making women more resilient, increasing their social supports, increasing their mental health, increasing their physical health, so they walk out of here different people than when they walked in."

Van Ingen says most of the women who go through the program have experienced domestic violence or different kinds of interpersonal violence. 

"Some of the women we have are refugees who've come from other countries in conflict where there's been lots of violence in their lives," said van Ingen.

Katharine Peters is participating in the Shape Your Life program and says the women in her class have become like family. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Others like Katharine Peters, a current participant, have been involved in other programs over the years but say nothing has been like Shape Your Life.

"What I really like about this program is we don't connect in our stories, we don't connect in our pasts or what happened to us or anything like that," said Peters.

"What we connect with is in our possibilities and in our strength and in our power, which is such a different way of working with people who have been victims or survivors of violence. We don't connect as victims, we connect as powerful women."

Shape Your Life classes are held here at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club on Carlaw Avenue near Gerrard Street East. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Peters says you could tell that everyone was a bit timid at her first class. She was nervous because she knew she'd be the oldest person there at 60, but several weeks in a lot has changed.

"It's a different group of people than it was," said Peters. "There's a camaraderie and a friendship and a joy amongst us all and a power in us that wasn't there before.

"We were a bit meek and we're certainly not meek anymore."

Van Ingen puts some of that difference down to the fact that there aren't a lot of places where women who've experienced violence are allowed to express anger about it. 

The Shape Your Life program allows women who've experienced violence to express their anger in a safe environment, according to organizers. (Nicole Brockbank/CBC)

"Shape Your Life is really about getting your body back under your own control," said van Ingen. "When you experience violence you lose control of your body for that period of time."

Ten years after participating in the program Jivraj still feels sad sometimes when she realizes how strong she really is.

"I wish I'd known a long time ago," said Jivraj. "But it gives me great strength to know that I can show my daughter this, and know that she can have this strength now, she doesn't have to wait till she's 40 to figure it out."

About the Author

Nicole Brockbank

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nicole Brockbank is a reporter for CBC Toronto's Enterprise Unit. Fuelled by coffee, she digs up, researches and writes original investigative and feature stories.