Refugee Yoga: Healing for the Mind
When thinking of the services provided by a refugee resettlement agency, yoga lessons do not immediately jump to mind. Then, why is yoga on the list of IRC Tucson’s resettlement services?
While refugees are facing the challenges of starting a new life from scratch in a completely foreign place, many refugees are at the same time coping with traumatizing past experiences.
And this is where yoga fits in the picture.
At IRC Tucson’s Center for Well-Being refugees, asylees and asylum-seekers from all resettlement agencies, who experienced torture as defined in the federal anti-torture statute 18 U.S.C. §2340 A, can benefit from services for survivors of torture.
Case Manager for Survivors of Torture Andrea Heimonen gives examples of the clients she helps: “Some refugees were forced to flee Buthan. If they were not voluntarily fleeing, they were imprisoned, jailed and beaten by the national army just for being Lhotsampa [an ethnic minority]” and “in Somalia and Congo, simply based on what clan you were from, women would have to watch their families get beaten and murdered by rebels.”
These cruel experiences leave everlasting scars, both physical and psychological. Many survivors of torture suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which “includes feeling sad, excessive worry, abnormal fear, nightmares and flashbacks,” according to Heimonen.
These torture survivors need help to address trauma and permanent physical injuries. But as a refugee the U.S. health system can be hard to navigate. The intensive case management for survivors of torture helps connect these refugees to the right resources within the community.
Besides assisting with social security applications, referring to medical, psychiatric, dental and vision specialists, advocating and helping to relieve some barriers between the refugee survivor and the health system, the Center for Well-Being started offering a yoga class last March.
Yoga is a philosophy based on Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that aims to improve physical and psychological well-being through meditative, verbal and physical exercises. Heimonen explains, “Yoga is a good mind-body tool. It helps physically for the body, but it can also be very healing for the mind.” Forced postures and beatings caused some survivors to suffer from headaches and back pains. “Yoga is an accessible way of moving, slowly working through postures and poses in a safe way.”
Every Wednesday, volunteers Bradford Trojan and Julie Baron, both experienced yoga instructors, combine taiji, qigong and yoga practices into a special breath and movement class. Julie Baron explains, “We do a lot of focusing on the breath, learning how to do diaphragmatic breathing and we do a single nostril breath. Ten, fifteen minutes of deep powerful breathing seems to just relax them so much. You see shoulders drop and the body and the spine is standing up a little bit taller.”
The next step is movement and this is problematic for refugees suffering from permanent physical damage from their tortures. Baron explains that for this reason the exercises are designed around these limitations, “We do a lot of chest openers and basic range of motion with the shoulders.”
Focusing on breath and movement, mind and body, once a week for 60 minutes pays off.
Baron gives an example, “One of our clients was able to close his eyes and not see his torturers. That is just happened recently because of yoga classes, he can close his eyes and not relive that moment or those experiences.” In general, Baron sees “greater confidence, greater calm and greater ease within the body” and her students tell her that they experience “better sleep, better frame of mind and increased mobility within the body.”
The class is a success.
Refugees keep coming back. Heimonen says, “I notice that clients get excited that they can touch their toes and it is a good way to get out of the house. They feel a sense of community: they communicate and connect.”
Written by Kirsten Boele, Media Intern