This article was published in The Guardian on Tuesday 19 July
Mind over mat: how yoga is helping refugee women
Charity-run classes provide a breathing space for women who may have faced torture and sexual abuse
On Tuesday mornings female refugees like Eden come to practise yoga. The sessions are run by Ourmala, a voluntary organisation that every week gives around 60 refugee women a safe space to breathe, heal and rehabilitate.
Today, Eden, an Eritrean refugee, is joined in the modestly sized studio space in east London by eight other women from east and central Africa and Afghanistan. Many have experienced torture, trafficking and sexual violence, leaving them with nightmares and flashbacks.
They begin by lying on the yoga mats provided, closing their eyes in the dimly lit room. Ourmala relies on volunteers like Martha Winfield, a specially trained yoga instructor who is heading the class and gently encourages the women to slowly transition into different yoga positions, and synchronising their breathing with their movements.
Emily Brett, the founder of Ourmala, works her way around the room, helping women to adopt the poses, whispering encouragement. Rest and meditation are built into the class, which ends with chanting Om, a mantra that vibrates around the room. For a few minutes a rare stillness and silence washes over their bodies, they leave the room with a chorus of thank yous, calmer and more relaxed than when they came in.
“I used to have real trouble sleeping and was on high levels of antidepressants. Yoga has helped me sleep – if you can’t sleep, it is difficult to do anything,” says Eden, who was referred to the service by the charity, Freedom from Torture, two years ago.
There are four classes held every week in locations across London; on Mondays Ourmala runs a mother and baby session. It is not uncommon for the children who accompany their mothers to have been born as a result of rape. Women at the session survive on snatches of sleep, not because of their crying babies, but because of their trauma.
“Experiences like that leave a person shredded – the horror doesn’t stop when they reach the UK; we have a refugee crisis happening here under the radar,” says Brett, who volunteered as a refugee caseworker with the British Red Cross.
Travel expenses are covered by the charity and a hot lunch, English lessons, advice and support services are offered after the yoga. Some travel for as long as three hours to make the classes and for many, it’s the first hot meal of the week and a rare chance for friendly interaction, says Brett.
“Trauma has left them dissociated from their bodies and over time yoga starts to make the body a safe and inhabitable place again. The whole integrated service we offer helps restore confidence and self-esteem, it reduces anxiety and depression and it gives the women energy and hope,” she explains.
Yoga teaches the women to control their breathing, which calms the nervous system and in turn calms the mind – a valuable skill off the mat, when at the Home Office or encountering setbacks in their day-to-day lives. “It isn’t about creating dependency; it’s empowering them to rebuild their lives and integrate.” She says that women can be hostile and distrustful at first. “It might take weeks or even months, but eventually their chins lift, they look you in the eyes and soften into the beautiful, dignified women that they are, because they feel safe and can be start to be themselves again.”
The charity’s yoga instructors receive training from Heather Mason, founder of The Minded Institute, which advocates mind-body therapy for the treatment of mental health issues.
“Refugees who have experienced trauma struggle with sleep and often have a lot of shame around their bodies, particularly those who have been raped or tortured,” she explains. “Yoga puts them back in touch with their bodies and gives them grounding.”
Mason is campaigning to get yoga embedded into the NHS and was instrumental in Conservative MP Bob Blackman introducing an early day Motion in the Commons in June recommending yoga be included for NHS staff and patients. She has taught yoga to traumatised refugees in the Maudsley Hospital, and cites a report published by the mindfulness all party parliamentary group which estimates that bringing mindfulness into healthcare would save £15 for every pound spent.
“Yoga should be on the NHS as it offers preventive value for various chronic illnesses, is cost-effective and helps in the management of many long-term chronic conditions. It has not happened yet as it is a slow process, requires lots of infrastructure and also the NHS needs to understand yoga’s safety and efficacy,” she says.
Ourmala was inspired by Brett’s volunteering at Odanadi in Mysore, India, a charity that uses Ashtanga Yoga to help trafficked children, and her online research into Rwandan charity Project Air , which uses yoga to help genocide rape survivors, many of whom are HIV positive, to allay some of their trauma and mental health issues. “The women we help are overwhelmed by trauma in the way a prey animal can be by a predator, when you have experienced something like they have, you become disinhabited,” says Deirdre Summerbell, founder of Project Air. Within two or three yoga sessions with a particular group of women, who had been resistant to any pharmaceutical or talking therapies, they began to sleep throughout the night for the first time in fourteen years, when the Rwandan genocide took place.
Ourmala receives referrals from a number of charities including The Helen Bamber Foundation and the British Red Cross, and works with more than 20 other welfare organisations. It hopes to offer up to 20 classes a week by the end of 2017 and then roll out its services regionally. It is also piloting a scheme with the Red Cross with young refugees and asylum seekers. It largely relies on donations, sponsorship and income raised through a fundraising network called The Mala Initiative, which encourages the yoga community to raise money for Ourmala.
Government support payments for refugees have been cut and services reduced in the five years since Ourmala launched, and women and children are hardest hit. Sustained provision like Ourmala is even scarcer beyond the capital. In Glasgow, Rokhsaneh Khodayar Madeira has been running Circle of Women, an initiative aimed at female survivors of human rights abuses which offers yoga, English classes and childcare. But sustaining the offering has been a challenge. “We were lucky enough to get the room donated to us by The Project Cafe for free, but most places wanted to charge £15+ an hour and it was difficult to find funding,” says the yoga teacher, who is on maternity leave and has put the service on hold.
Khaleda was a headteacher at a girls’ school in Afghanistan before having to flee Taliban forces two years ago. Her husband and two children are still living in the country and she has been attending Ourmala for around six months. “I worry about my family because of so much war and danger in Afghanistan. [Ourmala] is good for my mind and my blood pressure – it helps to release stress and there are people here I can talk to”, says the teacher, who has been learning to speak English in the past eight months and would like to eventually work in a school in England.
Jacqueline, a businesswoman who fled her native DRC 14 years ago, now volunteers for Ourmala and says she uses what she has learnt in yoga to calm herself down and broaden her horizons. “I’d like the government to realise that we are willing to work hard and want to integrate into society; a lot of us don’t have families here and Ourmala is a beating heart for us.”
• Some names have been changed