Jess talks about her experience teaching Yoga to a group of Iraqi refugees
I’m often asked what got me into teaching yoga, and while I was drawn to yoga initially as my private escape from a stressful job, anxiety and lingering depression, I began to feel the healing magic that would come at the end of the class. I began to realise this was something I wished for everyone to feel. As a yoga teacher we often hear the phrase “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga” (uh.. you don’t go to French lessons because you can speak fluent French, right?), but lucky most of us reading already know that the asana –physical practice- is only just one element.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to teach group of Iraqi refugees. Most of these women had never exercised in the traditional sense, and never tried the physical practice of yoga. The intention of the class was to help these women slow down, find their breath and hopefully give them some practical tools to use when they were feeling overwhelmed.
I had no idea what to expect. I was unaware how raw these women emotions were and I had never taught with a translator before.
When I first met them they just looked like your average immigrant grandmother- most of them were mid 50s-60s, huggable bodies and determined eyes; something comforting and familiar that I’ve seen in the women of my own family. Yet their behaviour was reminiscent of a teenage girl’s sleepover- giggling and chatting, easily distracted. I was told that since they had been in Australia they no longer had that sense of community they had back in Iraq and whilst they were trying to adapt to Australian way of life they were often isolated in their homes with little contact with anything familiar. This weekend retreat was a rare chance for the women to get together and share their experiences and culture with others that truly understood. From looking at them you wouldn’t be able to tell they were harbouring a deep sadness from leaving their loved ones and lives behind.
We took things really slow- lots of guided breath and simple movement. Due to the delay of the translation there was an emphasis on the kumbakhas (retention or pause in between breaths). I could sense that breathing so deeply was foreign for these women, and similarly to when we are held in poses longer than is comfortable, they were being led by that discomfort and found ways to stop or fidget. I tried to keep the room focused and stripped back the movements to something even simpler. In that moment I was so grateful for the healthy body I have. Even on my tired and sore days I still had much more freedom in my body than these women had in theirs.
I focused most on the breath and soon brought them to the ground. The look of sweet relief washed over their faces as for some a standard standing forward fold was like asking them to do an advanced arm balance!
Once we were on the ground I could see the room shift into a much calmer, more relaxed state. They really began to drop into their bodies and were moving by intuition. I noticed their breath deepen and slow right down. Fidgeting and chatting lessened and they finally began to just…be.
I took them through a long guided (translated) mediation and watched as a much softer energy washed over the room. There was finally stillness.
For me, yoga is just as much about getting out of our heads and being really present in the current situation. This class with the Iraqi women reminded me that yoga can be accessible to everyone- beyond flexibility, lifestyle, social media, language, race, religion, gender. Once we take a moment to slow down and tune into our breath we allow for pause in our thoughts, in our reactions and can continue our days in a much calmer, more balanced state.
I feel so grateful that I was able to gift these women a taste of that, even if it were for just an hour of their lives. I also feel honoured to have held space with them, knowing I was in a room with women that despite their trauma, they were still able to giggle and dance as if no harm could touch them.
Yoga is an incredible practice; it brings situations into perspective, it unites and forms community. It also doesn’t matter if you are working on pincha mayurasana or just trying to hold your hips high in down dog; finding breath and finding focus…that’s the yoga. As yoga guru Krishnamacharya once said, “If you can breathe, you can do yoga”