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Refugees Healing Scars With Yoga

To mark International Yoga Day today, we explore how the ancient mind-body practice is helping women and men escaping conflict to heal some of the emotional scars that they carry with them.

Written by Sara-Duana Meyer Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Indian Muslim students practice yoga ahead of International Yoga Day celebrations, at a school in Ahmadabad, India, June 15, 2016. The second International Yoga Day will be celebrated on June 21, 2016, when thousands of people across the country will join Indian prime minister Narendra Modi leading a yoga session in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. AP/Ajit Solanki

BERLIN – Yoga has become an inescapable global phenomenon, with studios popping up across cities around the world. The yoga industry totals an estimated $27 billion dollars annually but, for thousands of years, yoga has been much more than a lifestyle choice for the affluent. A philosophy rooted in the ancient Indian Vedic traditions of South Asia, the practice is founded on the principle of non-violence and is believed to help the mind and body connect, thus initiating a gradual healing process.

Healing is what draws a group of refugee women and girls from around the world to a small room in a former French school in a suburb of Berlin. They regularly take part in yoga classes in their temporary home, which was transformed last year into one of Germany’s “initial reception centers” for roughly 150 newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees. Despite being in the middle of a residential area, this shelter is cut off from the local neighborhood and has become something of an island.

Last year, more than 800,000 asylum applicants arrived in Germany alone. Reception centers, like this one in Berlin, are where many of the refugees and asylum seekers register their cases and await the state’s verdict.

In the starkly lit room where the yoga classes take place at the shelter, there are no incense sticks and there is no soft music. There is barely enough space for ten mats. Halfway through the class, young boys bang against the door, calling for their mothers. Yet the sessions continue unhindered under the watchful guidance of volunteer instructors, who initiate gentle stretching, deep breathing and (wobbling) partner exercises. There is a lot of laughter. A few headscarves come off and stiffness is released.

Olga is one of the few women in the class in proper sports attire. She misses the gym and dislikes the long wait on her asylum application, she says. The Russian gynecologist has a natural ear for languages and manages to translate for two Iranian sisters, and for a Syrian mother and her two teenager daughters.

Olga left Russia to marry her Syrian husband when she was 25, only a couple of months before the first Syrian uprisings in 2011. Going to Russia was not an option for the young family due to visa restrictions for Syrians.

In early 2016, Olga arrived in Germany with her husband and two young sons. “I stay here,” she says, and repeats the sentence, like a mantra. Those around her who understand nod emphatically. The relaxed atmosphere from the yoga session once again tightens; shoulders that were relaxed creep back up toward ears.

There are hundreds of reception centers like this in Germany, including many in refurbished former army barracks. Conditions in the centers vary widely. German volunteers with different backgrounds and skills frequently offer courses to help provide some sense of stability for people without any routine in their lives.

The stay in an initial reception center can last from a few weeks to several months. The uncertainty of the in-between takes its toll. Relocation often takes effect literally overnight, which means the displaced people can’t settle into a routine. While Syrians are being granted a de facto refugee status, other groups are not guaranteed such admittance, making their waits even more unbearable. Rejection of their claims would mean repatriation to their countries of origin – the worst-case scenario for most asylum seekers at this center.

How can yoga help? Janna Aljets, one of the yoga instructors and organizers of the sessions, says she doesn’t believe that “yoga can save the world.”

“But,” she says, “apart from its benefits for the mind and body, it’s a fantastic tool to create safe spaces to encounter yourself and others.”

Teaching refugees, many of whom have fled extreme hardship and physical and psychological trauma, is not easy. Several of the students’ bodies bear visible marks of torture, war and abuse. Some of these experiences turn into physical reactions in the students, sometimes even during yoga practice.

“The fundamental issue in resolving traumatic stress is to restore the proper balance between the rational and emotional brains, so that you can feel in charge of how you react and how you conduct your life,” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, wrote in the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Dr. van der Kolk, a specialist in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), later teamed up with David Emerson, an experienced yoga teacher, to tackle deeper levels of trauma that psychological work alone could not reach. The book that Emerson wrote subsequently, titled Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, is quickly turning into a compendium for teaching yoga to refugees. It served as a manual of sorts for the instructors at this particular Berlin reception center.

A yoga teacher is certainly not a therapist in the conventional sense. But a trauma-sensitive practice can help release stress by bringing greater attention to the physiology of a person and ultimately integrating this awareness with an opening up of the mind. A combination of physical postures, called asanas, breathing exercises and meditation can help ground, empower and relax both the body and mind.

The word “challenging” comes up as often as “rewarding” when instructors describe their experiences with refugees. The results are often visible in how people carry themselves differently, even after just a few regular sessions. When a student comes up to the teacher after a class to say they felt relaxed for the first time since leaving home, it is no small achievement.

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