When you envision the word yoga, it is often accompanied by a mental image of its modern day interpretation; young, privileged, hyperflexible women posting photos of themselves on Instagram in various poses wearing matching pastel-hued outfits – possibly with a quote from Rumi as the caption and probably with hashtag #blessed somewhere in there. The image that does not come to mind is of refugees in camps across Jordan – men and women, young and old, displaced by war and conflict in their own countries – practicing yoga together.
Except the latter is very much the reality of the Yoga Mandala Project, a Amman-based NGO founded by five women, whose core focus is to impart the physical and mental health benefits of yoga to refugee communities. “The project grew very gradually and organically as a response to the refugee crisis,” says Bella Hancock, the original founder of the initiative.
In 2014, the Irish native travelled to East Amman to volunteer with the Collateral Repair Project, a grassroots organisation that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees arriving to Jordan from Syria and Iraq – and is now the base from which the Yoga Mandala Project runs the bulk of their operations. “I offered my service as a yoga teacher as I had a deep sense that yoga could really offer support to people in this situation of displacement and trauma,” she explains, “And that’s where the idea was born.”
What was initially intended to be a six-week volunteer trip spiraled into what would eventually formulate the Yoga Mandala Project, which officially came into being in early 2016. Hancock, along with two more yoga teachers, Jordanian Rula Wardeh, and Irish Claire Osborne; a trauma expert, American Susan Bainter Baghdadi; and a silent partner Andrea based in New York, came together, realising that their respective strengths could have an impact in aiding refugee communities. “There’s a certain swath of the population that do and teach yoga – it’s not necessarily across all economic backgrounds,” explains Susan, “And I think it often has a hard time reaching people that need it the most.”
There’s a certain swath of the population that do and teach yoga – it’s not necessarily across all economic backgrounds. And I think it often has a hard time reaching people that need it the most.
When the project first began developing, the practice was largely a foreign one among the community they were trying to bring it to, but it soon became apparent that it had a positive impact on those who had been affected by trauma. “The idea of yoga was quite unfamiliar to the refugee community I was working with and yet it was received very openly and people responded very positively to the practice,” recounts Hancock, “And there was a definite feeling that people wanted to continue and to do more.”
“It’s not just for refugees,” Wardeh clarifies, “It’s for anyone suffering from trauma.” Yoga practice is underpinned by a notion of connecting the body and the mind - connection which is often fractured for people who have undergone trauma – and a strong emphasis on the present. “Traumas are really stored in our physical bodies so we can talk about it and understand but in order to heal it we have to let those experiences integrate with the body and be mindful about it,” explains Bainter, who also uses talk therapy and trauma releasing physical exercises as a way of helping people deal with their circumstances.
“Yoga is not only about the poses. It’s all about being present, and for people in their situation, they are constantly thinking of the future – which is very insecure – or the past – which is very sad. So yoga makes them feel present and, sometimes, happy again,” Wardeh elaborates.
The women teach two classes a week at the center, for around 20 students each, and go at least once a week to teach at the camps outside Amman, depending heavily on fundraising and word of mouth to finance the project.
But more than teaching yoga directly, the project’s central aim is also for the founders to expand their network of yoga teachers, in order to create an ever-swelling ripple effect. “We started seeing positive responses and experiences from the classes, so we were thinking ‘how can we really grow this?’” Wardeh recounts.
Yoga is not only about the poses. It’s all about being present, and for people in their situation, they are constantly thinking of the future – which is very insecure – or the past – which is very sad. So yoga makes them feel present and, sometimes, happy again.
From that question, they created a programme for how to train yoga teachers to give classes for people with trauma. “The vision of the project really arose when we saw that it could be possible to create a project that empowered and equipped yoga teachers to volunteer in refugee communities,” says Hancock.
More than 650,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Jordan but there are more than 1.5 million in the country as Jordan is the third highest country to absorb the exodus from the war-torn nation. “We decided to work with locally based teachers and invite them to come and volunteer and in exchange we would offer them training in trauma informed practice.”
By altering and adjusting elements of yoga practice and allowing for fluidity, the women managed to create a system of training that would allow teachers to deal with the various aspects of conducting a trauma-informed practice. “In the training we highlight the importance of catering for the different needs in the room, and keeping it safe and secure, because it’s very important for people to feel welcome,” Wardeh explains, “Sometimes we’re teaching and someone shows up on a wheelchair. Or on crutches. So you can’t just go ahead and teach a set sequence; we have to improvise.”
The NGO has trained almost 50 people in the past year, also reaching beyond Jordan to countries such as Ireland, Greece, and Palestine where the project’s intentions continue to swell, as many of those they have trained are now doing voluntary service in their nations, or ones they visit. They’re set to conduct another training session in Ramallah in 2018, partnering up with the local yoga community to spread their message.
And as the project continues, they’re working on reaching more people inside the actual camps in Jordan, which can hold up to 80,000 refugees, and creating a programme to impart the training on them.
“There’s been so much positive feedback, wherein people start to understand that they can regulate their emotional state through breathwork, self connection, and self care. And how, even if it’s just for a few moments, peace can be felt,” Bainter concludes, “So what we’re constantly striving for is broadening the scope of who gets touched by this amazing practice of yoga.”
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