Aimed at disadvantaged, destitute and traumatised women in the Glasgow area our project will be offering "Yoga" - movement, body, mind, emotions, and soul - to unite and empower women. Please see our website: www.circleofwomenyoga.com
Our first project is aimed at female asylum seekers and refugees. Three questions often seem to arise...why yoga? why women? why asylum seekers and refugees?
Why yoga and why women?
Women play an essential (and often overlooked) role in society as individuals, caregivers, mothers & teachers of future generations. It is therefore important to help women to be able to better cope with these roles, using yoga to show women how to cope with stress, anxiety & depression, how to live healthier lifestyles, to develop emotional resilience, to sleep better & develop better body image, enabling people to feel better in their own skins. This knowledge can then be passed onto their children & families.
Yoga can be used as a therapeutic tool to help survivors of gender-based violence: trauma, rape, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation, domestic abuse. As Bessel Van der Kolk, clinical psychiatrist says: "If you are traumatised you are likely to have a distorted relationship to your body. When people are traumatised they become afraid of their own physical sensations: their breathing becomes shallow, they become uptight, frightened about what they feel. While talking, knowing what happened and being able to articulate it is an important part of treatment, the most important part is starting to regain ownership of your body." The project will aim to help women to deal with this through movement and breath, ultimately benefiting society as a whole.
Why asylum seekers and refugees is potentially a more emotive question. I always wonder why not? Rather than looking at asylum seekers and refugees as outsiders who have come to change or steal your society, jobs, money, perhaps we should see asylum seekers and refugees as what they really are...human beings exactly like you and me... but who have suffered the worst kind of trauma, abuse, and conflict. Despite what many people fear most people do not want to leave their lives, family, friends, jobs to come to the UK, yes some people do, but not everyone. Its the same as here, some people want to move to Spain and live a sunny life on the beach, but everyone doesn't want to do that.
Imagine for a moment your life, your family, your friends, your home, your job, your hopes, fears, ambitions, dreams.....
Imagine now that war has erupted, you feel uncertainty, insecurity, you experience and/or you see your family and friends murdered, tortured, raped. Or you decide to speak up against human rights abuses that you don't feel are just, and for this you are imprisoned. Its almost impossible to imagine how you would feel, its not something anyone should have to go through.
Now imagine that, although you might not want to leave your home, friends, family, you have to, so you escape to a far away country which is very different from your own. Here you know no one, you are alone,you can't speak the language, you don't know the culture, the rules, the food tastes weird, you have nowhere to live, no money, and no one believes you, you are scared, you have to repeat what happened to you over and over again, with the threat of being sent back into a troubling situation always hanging over your head. Imagine how this may feel....if this was you...
And now think about how lucky you are to live in a country where you are not imprisoned for your views, there is no war, and you have a passport enabling you to go anywhere you wish. You didn't choose to live here, you just happen to be lucky that you were born here. Why should you have any more entitlements than any other human being just because of your birth place? The asylum seekers who are here are here, and it makes sense to help them to integrate into this society to enable them to deal with the trauma that no one should ever have had to experience, to enable them to exist and communicate in this land, to ultimately make a better more peaceful society.
The changing season is upon us. The dark nights are beginning to draw in, as the weather starts to get colder, with our bodies and mind under stress, it is a time when we start to feel run-down, when our bodies begin to submit to having 'a cold'. It is important at this time of year to boost our immunity and overall wellbeing to enable us to fight off infection.
We can do this in a number of ways. It is vital that we take control of what we are putting into our bodies, the right fuel can help the body to fight off any potential infection. Key immune boosting ingredients to add to your diet: garlic- anti-viral, ginger - anti-inflammatory, chillies - decongestant, goji berries - support immune system and vitamin C, sweet potatoes - mild anti-inflammatory, prawns - packed with zinc which helps the body improve resilience from infection, coconut - anti-viral, shiitake mushrooms - powerful immune supportive, omega 3 fatty acids - help the body make its own anti-inflammatory compounds, and plenty of water - as colds and flu often dehydrate the body. (source: The Medicinal Chef)
Our bodies are unable to fight infections if we are feeling stressed, over-tired and generally run-down. Try and find ways to relax, perhaps take up a new hobby to enable you to take your mind off day to day matters. Include moderate exercise in order to get your body moving, circulation flowing and to avoid stiffness. Learn to breath properly, this may sound silly, but often people are so stressed that they don't realise they are breathing only into the upper chest areas. Try and become aware of your breath, slow it down, breath deeper - this will automatically calm you down. If you can develop this ability to slow and deepen your breath you can start to become aware of it when you are stressed and your breath has become shallow and fast, you will have the knowledge of how to moderate that breath and stress.
Finally you can help boost the bodies defences by including good quality supplements into your daily routine Be careful not to buy supplements which are laden with fillers and other non-essential ingredients. Here are a couple of supplements/herbs which may help you: (source: NYR training)
Vitamin C helps your immune cells mature, improves the performance of antibodies and macrophages and is antiviral.
Elderberries are high in vitamin C and Iron. They can be used as a prevention and also for treatment of a cold as they have anti-viral and immune boosting properties.
Echinacea enhances the immune system by boosting white blood cells. It has a powerful lymphatic action that clears congestion and swollen lymph nodes. It is great taken at the first sign of a cold to shorten its duration.
Olive Leaf helps to inhibit the growth of viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites.
Thyme has a warming quality which aids the circulation and helps to throw off chills. It is great to drink as a tea through the winter if you are susceptible to colds, coughs and infections.
We can also use essential oils in a burner or mixed with a carrier oil and either massaged onto the skin or added to the bath. Oils such as:
Eucalyptus which is antiseptic and antiviral. A few drops can be put onto a hankie or added to a steaming bowl of water, breathing it will help to decongest blocked sinuses.
Ravensara is distilled from the leaves and twigs of the tree in Madagascar. It can be used at the initial signs of chills, shivers and tiredness as it has antimicrobial and immunomodulant actions (amplifies the immune system).
These essential oils, herbs and supplements can help to boost your immune system, but don't forget the power of the mind on your health. Stress, grief and depression all have negative effects on our health. Stress produces corticosteroids which cause the adrenal glands to push excess sugar into the blood stream initiating our fight or flight response = more stress, and this in turn depresses immune function. Too much exercise can have the same effect. Moderate exercise like Yoga, Tai chi, or walking outdoors can boost your immunity, research suggests by up to 40%. These moderate exercises also help to improve your quality of sleep, as poor sleep can deplete our natural resources and our bodies ability to fight infection. Massage can also help by relaxing your body and mind and improving sleep.
Get ready for winter - what will you do to boost your immunity this year?
Disclaimer: Non of these suggestions are a substitute for medical examination, diagnosis and treatment. Do not discontinue any medication without consultation with your own doctor. If in doubt please check with your doctor.
I’m going to diverge a bit from the normal yoga blog and write about my recent trip to Iran. I did attend a yoga class in Iran which was described by my Aunt as “The Spiritual Yoga Class.” Unfortunately, most of this got lost in translation for me as I couldn’t understand a lot of the spiritual dialogue in the class. After the class, I discovered that we were seeds, growing, moving with the wind and changing with the seasons. I simply followed the movements which had aspects of traditional asana but with the flowing movements and hand gestures of Persian dance. I lay in silence listening to this spiritual women speaking during the final meditation. And left feeling a little sad. Later, my Aunt told me that this happens a lot; as this teacher speaks her voice brings up and clears old wounds and hurts from the body, expelling them with sadness or tears, ready to be replaced with new insight and light.
Yoga has in fact also taken off in Iran, and like in the west it has been embraced by women. Driving around you see the occasional Yoga studio sign and adverts in places like the museum in Tehran advertising Yoga classes for female employees. And with a country where at least 60% of people suffer from stress, yoga is needed to give people a moment of calm. It is, however, a shame that the men are missing out on this. When you spend some time in Iran you can understand just how high these stress levels are.
Forget what you hear in the news about Iran being anti-West, don't get confused with the events happening in the middle east - suicide bombers and crazy extremists, Iran is not currently at war and the whole of the Middle East shouldn’t be put into the same bag! Some Iranians are more like Hollywood stars, just hidden under a black cloth. They wear expensive fashionable clothes and shoes, trendy dark glasses and blingy gold purses. All under a black cloth. Of course there are people who are religious and want the country to remain an Islamic state, but there are also many others who are not and they want the freedom to express themselves. This is why there is a constant battle with women’s clothing in Iran, with monteauxs getting shorter and shorter, arms starting to appear and head scarves inching further and further back, sometimes falling off for a brief moment. In addition, nose jobs are becoming almost an essential activity, with boys and girls sporting new “cuter” noses. On the other side of the battleground, the religious morality (fashion) police stalk the streets pointing out these indecencies in clothes, sometimes arresting young couples.
The Lonely Planet guide tells you that Iranians are some of the friendliest people that you will meet; they will offer you their homes and their hospitality. Friends who have visited Iran have said the same. As a half Iranian I see this hospitality in a slightly different way, sure we are invited to various relatives homes, for dinner, for ice cream, to be taken on a tour of the city, but this causes a great deal of debate amongst our immediate Iranian family. Mothers are phoned, grandmothers consulted...what is the right response, is this Taarof? (this is a form of Iranian civility, it covers a range of social behaviours, including hospitality. Here the host is obliged to offer the guest anything they may want, the guest is obliged to refuse the offer, this goes on several times before they each decide whether the offer or refusal are genuine.) It’s always hard to determine what is the right response - do they really want you to go to their house for dinner? Would they be offended if you didn't or would they be put out if you did? This cultural aspect takes a lot of navigating with the help of the immediate family.
The drivers in Iran are some of the craziest I have seen in the world. There are no rules – whoever dares, wins. This includes crossing the road, which is like playing chicken with the cars. Red lights mean nothing - there are hardly any anyway, and there are not many road markings at all. Driving on a roundabout, for example, takes skill as no one seems to have the right of way. On one occasion we saw a driver driving with a baby on his lap, on another we were driven home in a “disco” taxi with blaring western music, speeding around cars. We saw cars reversing down the motorway, driving in the wrong direction (especially motorbikes), wedding cars with friends driving alongside literally hanging out of the window to film the bride and groom. We had a taxi driver pouring tea and offering us a cup whilst driving, we were offered Shiraz wine and Arak (firewater) whilst being driven around by family friends - "we party in our car, it is the only place apart from our homes where we can be free" they said, and then "many times we have had to escape the police driving very fast to get away." The penalty for being caught with alcohol is severe, so no one seems to stop if the police lights flash behind them.
This may all sound negative, but some of the problems are a result of the underlying tension caused by the politics of Iran. People are genuinely nice. Family is vital, revered. Everyone takes time to be with their family, helping each other, when someone is ill everyone joins together, people live in close family communities to enable this. Although women are hidden behind their scarves they still work, drive, manage, study. Food is another fantastic part of Iran, the food is truly delicious – fresh, using lots of herbs, garlic, yogurt, turmeric, saffron and made with love. These can be seen in the everyday phrases that are used. For example, the response to telling someone that the food is lovely is “thank you, I hope this food energises your life-force”. Iranians are proud of their culture, their rich history, poetry (poets are revered in Iran, poets like Rumi and Hafez underpin Iranian culture).
All of this serves to illustrate how there are so many wonderfully different cultures in the world. It also serves to remind us of many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives. Things we do not appreciate until we are faced with a culture where such things are not commonplace: freedom to wear what we want, to drink what we want, to speak to whoever we want to whenever we want to. Freedom to surf the internet and shop on ebay. Freedom to order and read books from Amazon. Freedom to say what we think, to live in a country without economic sanctions. And just as it is easy not to appreciate these things, it is also easy to get wound up in our daily problems, making mountains out of mole hills when our broadband connection is down or we are stuck in traffic. It is easy to get lost in the daily routine and pointlessly lose our centre.
Take a moment to think of all the things you are thankful for, all the little things that have annoyed you today – could you have dealt with things differently? Acknowledge this, learn the lesson and then forgive yourself and anyone else, let it go. When you start to feel yourself being pulled from your centre, take a moment to pause, become aware of your breath, notice: is it shallow? Take a deeper breath, this will help to calm you, and perhaps in this moment of pause, perhaps, you will have a new perspective on the current moment and instead of simply reacting, you will be able to act out of kindness.
I was invited to work in a Women's Refuge, teaching Yoga once a week. I was exited, inspired by the work of The Trauma Centre in Brookline who use yoga as a somatic therapy to help people who have suffered from trauma to reclaim their bodies. I felt that yoga would be of great benefit to the women in the refuge to help them cope with what they are going through.
The Wellbeing Officer at the Refuge was also hopeful that it could help, telling me she would be happy even if one person attended the class. At this time of crisis in their lives, many women are trying not to stop, not to think, not to have a moment of silence or to reflect. Yoga then, is very difficult as it requires us to stop, tune into the body, quieten the mind. In her opinion, any activity she could provide to give some relief, relaxation, a moment of tranquillity, that might help even one women was a success and worth a try. I had to agree.
As you might expect the population of refuges is always fluctuating as women move in and out of the flats depending on their current circumstances and needs, this obviously creates a difficult environment, as the women's lives are in a state of flux. Yoga however aims to help us all deal with the many fluxes and changes in our daily lives by giving us the opportunity to find space to be calm and relaxed even if only for an hour.
Why Yoga? How can it help the women in a Refuge?
Reclaiming Your Body after Trauma
Yoga is an age old practice whose aim is to unify the mind, body, breath and spirit, balancing mind and strengthening the body, aiming to keep people in the present moment through movement, breath and stillness of the mind. Yoga enables people to reconnect with their bodies, to regain control of them and the sensations they feel. The asana begin to allow the person to open, starting by physically opening the body. This helps to create the change from survival mode to inner safety, calm and coping.
Yoga can have effects by inviting change, adaptation and growth on all levels – motor, sensory, emotional, immune and psychological. It helps to reach a parasympathetic state. This state helps to activate coping hormones, improve sleep, reduce anxiety, enable the immune system to function better, enable digestion to improve, reset the nervous system; reducing stress and reactivity. As new research is constantly done on the benefits of yoga and exercise in general, researchers are finding what people feel naturally - that movement in general is great for the body, mind and spirit helping people to cope better with daily stress.
"Scientists found that the levels of the amino acid GABA are much higher in those that carry out yoga than those do the equivalent of a similarly strenuous exercise such as walking.
Although all exercise stimulates serotonin, what makes yoga different is the added element of keeping the mind quiet and focused, connecting the breath to movement. In fact, yoga can be thought of as a state, a state of union where everything is connected - mind, body, breath, spirit, so a 'state of yoga' can be achieved in many ways. The yoga that we practice today uses these particular postures to get us into that state. But these postures also help us to open the body, to free the restrictions within it, develop flexibility and strength and reconnect us to ourselves.
Finally yoga can help to develop a sense of community, strength and solidarity through practising together as a group, so for people who may have lost their sense of community this can be a great aid.
I feel privileged to be able to work with this group of women and look forward to my next session with them. It will be interesting to see how many of the same people turn up and if they attend regularly, whilst they stay at the refuge, what benefits they notice.