Why yoga practice and teaching is an integral part of my humanitarian work…

yoga class couple sitting (Ambro)I’ve just had the privilege to join a group of 15 aid workers at a 3-day pilot workshop at Garrison Institute in New York that draws on some of the most up-to-date research in Contemplative Science to develop a curriculum of resilience tools for aid workers. I was pretty excited to be part of this pilot that integrates some of the tools I’ve found so valuable in my own professional and personal development over 15 years of aid work. I thought it might be interesting to share a bit more here about my own experience and why yoga is for me an integral part of my humanitarian aid work.

Over a decade ago when I was introduced to yoga via Astanga classes in Wellington, NZ, my yoga practice was mostly about trying to fit in a rigorous asana (poses) practice as often as possible. It was the 90-minute practice or nothing, and I got frustrated with myself for not having the ‘self-discipline’ to practice every day.  Now, on any given day I might spend just 5 or 20 minutes, or 2 hours, or none on asana and breath practice depending on what else is going on. My yoga practice includes breathing, movement, mindfulness and means I work to incorporate those practices and ways of thinking that I learn and explore ‘on the mat’ into my daily habits.

That might mean taking a few deep slow breaths when I’m stressed or nervous and knowing that just that is having an effect on my nervous system, on the clenched muscles in my back, neck and jaw.  Or stopping for a moment when I am feeling uncomfortable to take notice of why – is it because I am doing something that really doesn’t feel right in which case maybe this is a good sign to change direction, or is it because I am extending my comfort zone.

I became a teacher by chance more than intention – when my yoga teacher left Timor Leste, I began to lead the group practice, so that the group of us for whom it was a sanity-saving essential could continue. Since then I’ve studied with some great teachers, completed 310hrs of teacher training recognised by the International Yoga Alliance, and been involved as a co-facilitator of Off The Mat, Into The World leadership training.

I enjoy teaching and it provides a change of pace from my work, but fundamentally I teach because yoga led me to the tools I needed to cope with stress and trauma, and I know that it has done the same for others.  I began my humanitarian career in Gaza and West Bank in 1998.  I learned what PTSD and vicarious traumatization were for the first time when I returned home to New Zealand three years later and was asked to set up a community development program for an organization providing counseling and resettlement support to survivors of torture and war trauma.  I went to my first Astanga Yoga class at this time looking for a way to ‘stay in shape’, and discovered that the even-paced breath and movement combination also left me feeling calm and more centered.

I returned to yoga in desperation a few years later, needing a way to deal with the stress I was under working with a UN Peacekeeping Mission in Africa.  A starting goal of 3 ‘sun-salutes’ (a basic sequence of yoga poses taking 10-15 minutes to complete) every morning made a difference almost immediately. The daily panic attacks I was experiencing disappeared.   I stopped being angry at everything and everyone, moved from feeling isolated to making connections with others and found ways to change the job I was doing so I could feel confident of the value of my contribution. I also found the 10-15 minute practice often grew into 30 or even 60 minutes if I had the time, as even on the days I struggled to get out of bed and onto the mat, I frequently felt so much better after 10 minutes that I just wanted to keep going.

After this mission I began to seek out teachers and organized holidays to include opportunities to learn and practice yoga and other body-based stress management practices. Unlike running, my other passion, I realized yoga was something I could do almost anywhere and didn’t require any special equipment (a mat can be helpful, but is not essential).

As my practice developed I found that what I learned ‘on the mat’ carried into my work and life generally.  Self-compassion and non-judgment in asana practice translated to better listening skills, readiness to consider other perspectives and try it someone else’s way; flexibility when carefully-laid plans had to change, and the realization I wasn’t responsible for everything.  Loving-kindness meditation, breath-work and poses that opened and stretched my stress-contracted body helped me let go of anxiety, be more aware of and able to recognize my reactions and triggers, become less defensive and able to manage my reactions more effectively and quickly.

The daily reminder that change is not a smooth line, and the most profound changes are most often the culmination of many small increments helped me appreciate the small steps and the less obvious impacts of my work when I felt disillusioned and overwhelmed by my inability to affect the big picture.

For the last nine years my ‘other’ work has focused on organizational change process facilitation with local and international humanitarian organisations.  From this I’ve learned that transformation at the community or organizational level doesn’t happen without transformation of the individuals involved.  As a humanitarian worker, I have learned that the way we cope – or don’t – with the stresses inherent in the work has an immense impact on our effectiveness in being of service.

My own practice continues to support my work, and by teaching I am able to create a space for others to discover, practice and develop their own tools for better health and performance. From that early Astanga class I went to for strength, fitness and flexibility, yoga practice and teaching has become an invaluable means of enabling and an enhancing the work I am passionate about.

It is not the only tool, but it is one that has worked for me. If you would like to find out more about the Garrison Institute program, or get on the mailing list for the next workshop, have a look at their website here.