Teaching yoga to survivors of torture

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View from the balcony at Room to Heal, where we teach yoga to students recovering from torture

On the mat this morning, I had one of those moments which went on for I don’t know how long, where the only thing in existence was the breath. By that I mean that I felt no separation between my breath and my body and the mat, all the other practitioners in the shala and the first rays of dawn coming through the windows. No sense of time, only a sense of life in its totality. Not unusual on or off the mat, of course – just one experience in life’s many but I do love this one as the after effect is one of greater closeness with everything else.

These times feel like being the ocean and the waves and the sand and the sky all in one. The breath is the waves rushing into shore. You know when the sand on the beach is glossy and smoothed by the tide, when it fizzes and the surface water disappears as quickly as breath does when you breathe on the mirror?

In yoga, the breath, body and surroundings have the same relationship as the sea and the sand, and the sunlight and the sky.

Earlier this week, I was teaching a class to students recovering from torture. They are all seeking asylum or have refugee status. Many live with a huge degree of uncertainty hanging over them. Whether they will be given refuge in the UK or whether they will be sent back to their country of origin, where they will face certain death or persecution.

It’s not uncommon for students in this type of group to suffer acute physical and mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts and tendencies so it is good that we can offer them yoga, which they find calming and restorative. I teach this class with my co-teacher Martha and the concentration in the class is exquisite. These students get so present and we go deep, as well as having a laugh. After yoga, students generally seem more sunny and like the smooth sand and the calm ocean than a raging storm of night.

This class takes place at a brilliant charity called Room to Heal, which helps people heal from torture. After yoga, the group has lunch in a room overlooking a big garden. It’s basic with plastic chairs, school tables and photos on the wall of the group in the garden. There are floor to ceiling windows and a glass door that leads to a small balcony, where people smoke. Over lunch, there was discussion of who would do the washing-up and the fact that asking people to volunteer didn’t work as it was always the same old people who did all the work. One person said, “but if you’ve been tortured you won’t volunteer to do things, you need to be treated really harsh to do anything” – I paraphrase. It wasn’t acknowledged that she and the others who were always the ‘doers’ had also survived horrific experiences.

Anyway, after lunch I went outside to the balcony and stood and looked up at the sun, which was shining so brightly from behind fast moving clouds and the sky was blue. Two of the guys smoking were talking in a language I didn’t understand. I was struck by the intensity of what the woman had said and the fact that I could never truly understand what horrors she and the others had been through, and that that we are all human beings sharing this earth for a finite amount of time and how that conversation about how some people are lazy and others always rush to help could have taken place anywhere in the world between cavemen or androids of the future.

I’m reminded of a line in poet T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Yoga can be extraordinarily grounding and strengthening. It opens you up. You get to know yourself better. In facing yourself, you get to know reality better. You stop living so much in your head. Over time, the breath opens up your body like the sea moves and fizzes into the sand. So you feel you live more in your body and in the real world than in the annuls of the past and future of your mind.

It would blinding to experience all of life all the time, I think. It would be too much to bear. But layer by layer, the waves of the breath leave the body and the mind clearer so that more light can shine through. That’s one of the reasons I practice. It can be so easy to take things for granted but this life is extraordinary. Just look around. I count my blessings and I am so glad that the people at Room to Heal are safe right now and being looked after, away from the utter atrocity of torture that no one should have to bear. I hope that they are all given refuge so that they can stay that way.

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