For many people, yoga is an art form. For some people, like Bilyana Simonoski, it is much more than that. It is a lifestyle. It is a therapeutic and healing force. That healing force has a very powerful and personal impact on Simonoski, who uses yoga as a vehicle for change in her nonprofit organization Tough as Milk. Through yoga, she empowers and inspires victims of domestic violence.
“I grew up in Middleburg Heights, but we moved around a lot. I’ve lived in every west side suburb. I went to high school in Brunswick and I went to college at Ashland. I’ve been athletic my whole life. When I was younger I did soccer, tennis, and horseback riding. Then the attack of 2011 happened, and it basically tore my world apart.”
The incident impacted Simonoski and her mother, Milka (affectionately called “Milky” by her friends and family). Simonoski fondly recalled her mother painting and baking, creating landscapes across canvases and decorating cakes. Milka hosted a radio show, and off air she often created silly lyrics to well known songs with her children. Milka showered her children with love, and she shared a particularly special bond with Simonoski.
“My mom and I were best friends from the beginning. As I grew up we got closer. It was difficult in my household, because though she was amazing, there were bad times. My father abused her, and whenever the police were involved he talked his way out of trouble. It felt like we were trapped.”
On August 21, 2011, he attacked her and her mother with an ax.
On her nonprofit website, toughasmilk.org , she writes, “I grabbed the ax with my right hand, but not before he hit my left hand with it, splitting it in half. He brought the ax down on my head. I pushed up on the handle, so it couldn’t make complete contact. He swung at my mother and hit her in the head. Down went the most important person in my life.”
Her mother was lifeflighted to a Level 1 Trauma Center where she underwent 6 hours of brain surgery and was placed on life support. Still in a coma after a week, a CAT scan was administered and revealed that the damage to her brain was extensive and might impact her ability to comprehend or even breathe. But the brave and tough Milky never stopped fighting, and she began to defy the odds. Today, nearly six years later, she is living in a nursing home. She is fighting to find her words and to learn to walk without a walker.
In the last six years, Bilyana Simonoski has undergone remarkable recovery as well. She has a streak of humility, though, and I do not believe she understands what an inspiring person she is. As petite and delicate as she appears, she radiates strength. She has harnessed that strength to inspire and heal others through her unusual art form.
In 2015, she first conceived the idea for Tough as Milk. She had reached out to the Cleveland Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center when the weight of the attack and subsequent traumas had pushed her to a breaking point. She was diagnosed with PTSD, for which she met with a therapist weekly. Through her therapist she learned of the importance of meditation, and she transitioned from dabbling in yoga to practicing it daily.
“I realized how much yoga helped me heal and relax, so I got a group fitness instructor certification and set out to make a difference. I always wanted to be in the nonprofit industry. I wanted to create a way for people to feel that they had control. After everything that happened, I had felt like I was not in control of my own life. The name Tough as Milk just came to me, and it’s been guiding me since. I believe that you can still be kind and cope in a healthy way even though life has not been kind to you. That is what my mother shows me and what I want our clients to know. We had our first class in January.”
Yoga has ancient roots in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization and dates back thousands of years. The word “yoga” comes from the Rig-Veda (one of the sacred Vedic Sanskrit texts in Hinduism) translates as “spiritual discipline,” and involves the use of postures and breathing to increase strength and flexibility. It takes the regrets of the past and the uncertainty of the future out of the equation by encouraging practitioners to focus on their breathing and the here-and-now, says Simonoski.
“That is such a powerful moment,” she explains, “To focus on self-awareness and to find the strength to begin the healing process. It will open the door to healthy relationships and higher self-esteem, and it will make it easier to find help. I view Tough as Milk as a supplement. It’s one tool they have in their toolkit to help them learn to love themselves again.”
Since early January, Simonoski has been celebrating her mother’s legacy with a creative and artistic flair through Tough as Milk. She has been offering free classes to survivors of domestic violence through shelters and referrals from licensed agencies, as well as offering low-cost classes to members of the community to fund survivor classes and further expansion of services. She hopes to one day have a physical space through which she could offer a variety of fitness and cooking classes to those impacted by domestic violence.
“Your confidence goes up when you’re in a healthy environment,” she says. “And healthy exercise routines release endorphins, which help trigger a good mood.”
She points out that although yoga accompanied by a strict regimen of self-love is a good way to alleviate trauma, conversation and education within the community are still necessary to prevent it from happening in the first place.
“There seems to be shame in admitting you’ve been abused because of how people talk about abuse victims. People say, ‘Why did they stay?’ We should be asking, ‘Why do people abuse?’ I think it is important to address this because without people bringing it out into the light and addressing it, the survivors—and I was like this, and my mom, too—they stay hidden and they stay in unhealthy relationships. If there was less victim blaming, if we start the conversation, we could make a world of difference.”
To network with Bilyana Simonoski or to find upcoming community events, visit toughasmilk.org. The Battered Women’s Shelter of Summit and Medina County has a 24 hour crisis hotline that can be reached at 330.723.3900, and through them you can discover additional resources for overcoming domestic violence.