The below was written by Teresa Carney, a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Facilitator and the Founder of Ioga Care & Connections. Teresa received a grant from The Yoga For Good Foundation in our most recent round of funding for her inspirational ‘Yoga for Afghani Women’ initiative.
In applying for the Yoga for Good Grant, I envisioned providing four yoga sessions for a group of Afghani refugee women as a fairly straightforward activity.
The women in mind were older women in their 50’s who have been settled in Australia in a regional Victorian centre for approximately 5-8 years. Apart from contact with family, they are relatively isolated within the community with many of them in vulnerable cultural traditional roles as house bound carers and home makers. Many also have mental health challenges associated with trauma related to their refugee and family life experiences. Other key challenges for the women include low literacy levels in their first language and hence challenges in learning and speaking English. All of which can lead to situations of social isolation.
Building on the back of a social connections project for vulnerable Afghani women I approached a key Afghani community leader with an idea to facilitate yoga sessions for the women. They were courageous to give something new a try and so my sessions were born.
I planned to facilitate Trauma Sensitive Yoga sessions with the assistance of an Afghani translator as the women’s English is very limited. I was aware that the language nuances in trauma sensitive yoga- invitational language, choice making and interoception, may well be lost in translation but felt the opportunity in itself may support the women.
The majority of the women have also never practiced any form of exercise or any form of self-care as family and others are always first. So, I also had to ensure my yoga shapes and facilitation format was accessible for everyone. Almost 80-90% of the women have non-specific back pain and other physical symptoms related to trauma from their harrowing life experiences.
I first provided a session for the women as part of their Social Connections Program (supported by Settlement Services /Philanthropy grants) in a culturally safe setting with trusted workers. I worked with a translator and facilitated a session where the women were given choices and modifications were made for individual needs.
I was able to build trust through the rapport and safety and fun, and the group requested more sessions.
Working within this model has its challenges as while on one hand everything such as transport, food, equipment, venue etc. is cost free for the women as it’s necessary to ensure access, it means that to ensure engagement there is an expectation of these same enablers from me as an individual versus an organisation specifically funded to provide support.
For my following individual sessions, I booked a local Community Neighbourhood House. For the first session, this included hiring 3 of the rooms, two for the yoga space and one for the childcare space. Some of the younger women wanted to come and this meant including childcare. There was also an expectation of food after the session due to the precedence set by the agency project.
These enablers were certainly successful with 27 women coming along to the session.
The women loved the session and there was lots of laughter and positive feedback. As mentioned, many women are not familiar with their bodies, with body movement or body awareness apart from the pain they hold on a daily basis. The inclusive body shapes and movements meant everyone could participate. The session was majorly amended from a ‘regular’ yoga class to facilitate a safe and inclusive space. Women are also not familiar with the usual format of a class and especially the concept and practice of relaxation.
To ensure access and safety, women also need to be able to have their phones with them and to be able to answer calls from male family members at home. So ‘phones on’ is an option.
Although these sessions are very successful, this format is costly and unsustainable without adequate funding. For the second session, in collaboration with the interpreter we decided to not include childcare to reduce our costs and also to make numbers more manageable. This resulted in 16 women attending which was in fact more manageable from the point of the room capacity and food was simplified and costs were reduced.
In collaboration with the translator, we spoke about educating the women on the components of a yoga class and how they might get the most benefits. I introduced the concept of the mind and body connection and benefits of body movement, breath work and relaxation.
The women said they enjoyed the session with the learnings and let us know that they felt really safe in the Community centre as it was only being used by our group (Saturday) so no men were likely to be around and they could remove scarves and be freer to do the yoga unrestrained.
In session three, there were requests again for childcare to enable more women to attend. Food was simplified to snacks. 14 women attended and I spoke again about tools they could take away for relaxation at home to manage anxiety as well as options for movement to support physical and mental health.
I did a longer breath work focus with the women in this session, and they were able to relax down and focus more. There was a few moments of quiet serenity.
They really enjoyed the session and once again requested for me to do weekly sessions with them.
While I had planned for 4 sessions, the costs meant I could only facilitate 3 sessions.
The women were disappointed to hear the sessions were limited and were not ongoing.
They valued the opportunity as they felt safe, trusted myself and the translator and were therefore able to engage. It also meant they were ‘allowed’ to attend as the venue was a woman only space.
One great outcome is that the women actually offered to make a small contribution to have classes continue which is a really positive outcome noting the value of the opportunity for them and that they are willing to invest in themselves.
You may note the lack of the typical yoga studio space, with nice décor, calm, feng shui with space for shoes and equipment etc. For me, I believe yoga can be made accessible for anyone anywhere. I feel that this environment which supported the women to feel safe, welcome, unjudged, met them where they were at and enabled then to be seen and valued is a super way to embody Yoga for Good.
If you would like to apply for a Yoga For Good Foundation grant in our next round of funding, make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter where we’ll be announcing the opening date for our next round of applications.