By Danielle Ancin
Giggles and nervous whispers echoed in the room as forty men, women, and children took a ginger seat on their yoga mats. For these families, expelled from their rural Colombian homes by threats and violence from armed groups, this would be the first exposure to yoga and perhaps the first opportunity to experience profound, intentional relaxation since they found themselves homeless more than two years ago.
Due to the country’s ongoing armed conflict, Colombia has the most internally displaced people (IDP’s) of any country in the world. An estimated three million Colombians have been forced to flee their homes because of violence and threats, and this number continues to rise. Displaced families must abandon their communities, belongings, and sources of income-generation. They usually migrate to urban areas, where they are confronted with discrimination and an unfamiliar economic environment in which they need to quickly integrate in order to survive.
For the past two years, over 200 recently displaced families in southern Colombia have been working with the international development organization Mercy Corps and its local partners in a program funded by the US Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. As part of the humanitarian assistance program, participants were supported in developing income generation plans, securing safe housing, building entrepreneurial skills, and caring for their reproductive health.
As a capstone to the program, participants were invited to two yoga workshops each, in which they explored practices for stress reduction, back health, emotional regulation, and relaxation. Activities were taught in a way that encouraged participants to take ownership of the practices they deemed most helpful and continue practicing them at home. At the end of the second session, each family was awarded a yoga mat, strap, and photo-guide to take home. As one participant commented after her first session, “Yoga is really good because we feel a lot of stress. Yoga helps us alleviate the pain we feel, and we feel better mentally too.”
Those displaced by the conflict suffer extreme emotional, mental, and physical strain as they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings and carve out a living for their families. In addition, they carry any number of past traumas, from witnessing the killing of family members and friends to suffering physical and sexual abuse. The yoga workshops created the conditions for participants to experience deep relaxation in a safe and supportive environment, which is a necessary first step toward being able to understand and deal with trauma.
Throughout the workshops, participating families experienced treating themselves and each other with non-violence, which is not a universal value in an environment soaked in decades of conflict. They learned techniques for managing energy and difficult emotions and accessed the calm space within themselves to help them handle stress. Emphasis was placed on reconnecting with the body and reinforcing personal boundaries, important practices for victims of physical and sexual abuse. By constantly bringing the attention to the body and breath, participants experienced a sense of grounding and stability that they could invoke in their own bodies, wherever they happened to be.
As the men, women, and children slowly got up after savasana, many faces were physically changed. A sense of calm coupled with renewed energy settled on the room. Not all participants were able to relax into yoga the first time, but those who did were easy to spot by the luminous eyes, relaxed shoulders, and faces freed from their usual wrinkled foreheads and tensed necks. The road for these families was still long and full of obstacles. But they now had another tool to help them in the struggle, a tool that was theirs to keep.
Danielle Ancin is a yoga teacher who has been working in Colombia with the international development organization Mercy Corps, integrating Yoga and mindfulness practices into humanitarian assistance programs for families displaced by the Colombian conflict, as well as into violence prevention programs for at-risk youth. She is trying to raise awareness about Yoga as a tool for international development. You can contact Danielle at: [email protected]