I’ve been told yoga helps cultivate mindfulness. That somehow, between the stretching, breathing and meditating, our minds are calmed and our bodies strengthened. I’ve tried it a few times at our local gym. Some sessions were highly culturally appropriated while others didn’t stray too far from their heritage. I went for fitness and flexibility. Supporting my mental health wasn’t really on the agenda.
But I recently came across a story of a woman who co-founded a program using yoga to assist people who have experienced trauma.
Her name is Danielle Begg and she, with the support of the Vasudhara Foundation, founded the Yoga Impact Charity. The charity started a pilot program, The Refugee Yoga Project, that worked with refugees traumatised by conflict and torture and has rapidly grown to almost 200 classes during the past two years.
We met at Balmoral Beach one Saturday morning, in the leafy northern suburbs of Sydney, almost a world away from the bustle of the city’s south-west suburbs where the classes take place. We sat on a shaded bench and started talking about the project and the people who are being supported through the work.
“Many of the participants have lost loved ones and display a range of emotions that stem from grief,” explains Danielle.
“There can be a lot of anger or sadness, depending on the individual and their journey. Many talk about ruminating on issues and suffer from sleepless nights. There are instances of PTSD and depression that we help them work through.
“Sometimes our participants will talk about physical pain that may not have a particular medical diagnosis. The classes help ease some of those symptoms of pain in the body.”
I ask what a typical class looks like. Danielle smiles and gently suggests there is no such thing as a typical class.
“Classes change according to the people who attend,” she informs me. “There is usually an interpreter and a counsellor who come to assist. There are also the basics of movement, breathing and relaxation, but how that is applied changes depending on who is in the room.
“For instance, when we run a class with school children, it is usually more active with more movement. However, some of our classes with older women, particularly women who are living with the physical consequences of torture, much of our class will be done in a chair. We will concentrate more on relaxation and meditation, rather than movement.”
It seems like the project offers a brief moment of refuge to people who may be bombarded with the pressures of life. While some may say it is indulgent when they are desperate for affordable housing, a sustainable income, to master English and adjust to the culture of the country, there is evidence to suggest these classes are helping.
A review of The Refugee Yoga Project by partner organisation STARTTS found that these classes reduced symptoms of depression and PTSD. Not only did it reduce symptoms, in some instances it shifted participants from requiring regular contact with a counsellor to no longer needing that support.
“The most common comments we get from the people who attend our classes are of lightness and relaxation. Many say they have experienced better and deeper sleep, free from the nightmares that can often plague them,” says Danielle.
“Some have found a way to connect with the community through coming to these classes. It has given them an opportunity to spend time with others and share their lives.”
One Mandaean woman, who escaped persecution and conflict, was struggling with grief. She had lost her father and brother in Iraq and was not coping with severe stress. There were many times she admits she was quick to anger.
Slowly the techniques used in her yoga classes began to transform her life. Over time, as she became able to let go of negativity, she became calmer. She started studying and enrolled in English courses, work skills courses and many more. She has also been able to relax and this has had an impact on her children and family.
For Danielle, “It’s a privilege to play a small part in someone’s story; to be able to facilitate their own empowerment. There are so many people who have been through so much sadness and injustice, and I am inspired every day by their resilience, grace and strength.”