This aphorism from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali describes, in essence, what yoga is. The physical practice of yoga encourages the mind to be focused on the breath in the body as we move through asana (postures), giving the mind a constant thread to come back to when it wanders off to ruminate on the past or worry about the future.
As part of our Outreach Programme at Edinburgh Community Yoga we have recently been fortunate enough to deliver a 12 week yoga programme for women participating in ‘The Living Room’; a project run by Cat Grant, women’s worker for COMAS http://www.comas.org.uk/ supporting women in the community who have experienced trauma. Women who attended were dealing with a range of mental health issues including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The class was developed and delivered keeping trauma sensitive principles in mind which meant focus was on creating a safe environment, offering choice by using invitational language and no physical adjustments for many weeks, when they were eventually introduced it was always following discussion and only for women who felt OK with physical contact on that day. Women were invited to use grounding practices to begin to develop body awareness, and eventually to explore the connection between body and breath.
Evaluation at the beginning and end of the 12 week programme showed women who attended regularly found an increased awareness of breath and physical sensations and an increased sense of support and optimism for the future. They also felt that the class improved their self-esteem and confidence by getting them out of the house.
“It is kind of a sanctuary in the middle of the week that I could look forward to and always know that no matter how bad I was feeling beforehand yoga is good for my mind and my body and I would always feel better afterward”
They were able to explore the boundaries of what felt safe for them and had grounding techniques that they could come back to if they ever felt overwhelmed in the class.
“Issues of dissociation between my body and my mind came up in the class but I was able to explore these safely. Focusing on my breath helps me to self-regulate and tolerate distressing thoughts or feelings and keeps me in the present moment”
They were also able to take some of the practices from the class and use them in stressful situations in other parts of their lives.
“Quite a few times I’ve been on my own and been really ill and out of control and I’ve come back to hearing the yoga teachers voice which has helped me through difficult times and helped me realise this is temporary things will get better soon. Especially when I was withdrawing from a prescription drug and I was violently physically sick the words ‘I am safe I am safe healing has already begun’ (the sankalpa used in the class every week) kept going through my mind and it helped me through one of the worst times in my life”
The women found that the small size and all female nature of the class and the opportunity to gradually explore body sensations and breath in a supportive environment helped them to feel safe and able to explore connections between the body and mind.
“I did things I never thought would be possible again. I shocked myself with what I could do. I feel stronger in my body and calmer in my mind and I want to do more yoga”
The class couldn’t have run without the support of COMAS women’s volunteer Alison Rae who has provided invaluable emotional support for the women throughout the programme and was always on hand afterwards to discuss any issues that may have arisen for women during the class.
“I felt really safe and supported. Having the yoga teachers understanding and ability to gauge the support each woman required was invaluable. Having Alison’s support and emotional intelligence to help in the class was great”
We are so grateful to Cat, Alison and all the other women’s support workers at COMAS for their hard work support throughout this programme. I strongly believe that yoga outreach programmes are best delivered when partnered with an organisation that has expertise in supporting the people who attend. As an organisation working to develop yoga outreach in Edinburgh we have learned a lot, and as a yoga teacher I have been inspired and encouraged by the women who have participated in this programme and turned up on so many weeks, despite the challenges they face.
In keeping with sutra 1:2 Yoga citta vritti nirodah it seems fitting to finish with a comment written by one of the women at the end of the course.
“Practicing yoga has allowed me to begin living in the moment…”
Sadly this programme has come to an end as but we are hoping to be able to secure funding so that we can continue our work. Lorraine Close, Edinburgh Community Yoga Outreach