(WOMENSENEWS)–Deirdre Summerbell’s first response was no.
That was in 2007, when a nongovernmental group focused on women’s health asked her to teach yoga classes in Rwanda to women who were HIV-positive and survivors of rape and other traumas from the 1994 genocide.
"Like most people, I thought the last thing that was needed was yoga," Summerbell said in a recent interview at a cafe in New York’s East Village.
But after about a week she recontacted Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment, WE-ACTx, which has its administrative headquarters in San Francisco and a local program office in Rwanda. Soon after, she traveled to the East African nation for a three-month experiment.
"I knew that we were onto something by the second or third class," Summerbell said, "because one of the women came up to me afterwards and said that she had slept through the night for the first time in 14 years after the preceding class. And then more and more women began reporting the same results."
The experiment continued and after about a month Summerbell had some unexpected good luck.
A friend forwarded an e-mail from Summerbell to superstar Madonna, who donated $250,000 to the project. With that, an experiment turned into a program within WE-ACTx. Last spring the program separated from WE-ACTx and became its own organization, Project Air. It’s the first yoga initiative to gain formal endorsement by the United Nations.
Project Air joins other efforts to use yoga as a trauma therapy, such as those aimed at U.S. war veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
The number of women who could be candidates for sex-trauma therapy is vast in a world where the United Nations Development Fund for Women estimates at least 1-in-3 women in her lifetime has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused.
Gender Violence’s Ripple Effect
That statistic is particularly high in Rwanda, where between 250,000 and 500,000 girls and women were raped during the genocide, according to a report by the Special Rapporteur to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, now the U.N. Human Rights Council, in Rwanda.
Because of the strong role women play as breadwinners for their families and primary caretakers of children, the elderly and those living with HIV and AIDs, gender-based violence can send a ripple effect through an entire community, said Maria Jose-Alcala, an advisor for the Ending Violence Against Women Section at New York-based UNIFEM, in an email interview.
"Violence against women has long-lasting and severe health consequences for women, including depression, various physical ills, sexual and reproductive health problems, as well as diminished productivity and lost wages for each incident of physical abuse with obvious economic costs to the entire community," Jose-Alcala said.
Survivors report that the mental and emotional effects of abuse linger after physical scars fade.
In and around the Rwandan capital Kigali, Summerbell teaches an athletic and vigorous form of yoga to about 250 to 300 girls and women, most of them survivors of some form of assault or abuse. Many contracted HIV as a result of being raped during the genocide.
Although the women are quite physically strong–they are responsible for carrying water and looking after children–their traumas have created a disconnect with their emotions as well as their bodies.
Women Find Joy
In a note on Project Air’s Web site, Summerbell writes that this separation is evident in the attitudes women express about their physical strength before and after taking yoga classes. In the beginning, the women lamented that they were too old or too sick to take the classes, but once they started Summerbell found that a shift occurred.
"This was something below the level of thought, below the level of memory, below the level of conscious feeling even, but when it was sparked, it was as if–and I don’t know how else to put this–it was as if the women became able to feel again and to love again the life that was in them," she wrote.
Beyond the benefit of improved sleep, the women also find happiness in taking her classes. "There’s a palpable feeling of joy in a class we give in Rwanda that I’ve never met anywhere else," she said.
At the same time, Summerbell faces criticism in Rwanda, where some evangelical churches characterize yoga as Satanism and devil worship. As her students are not members of the middle class, who are those that mainly hold such views, the apprehensions don’t reach her students, she said.
Organizations Express Hostility
But Rwandese staff members of nongovernmental organizations, including some members of WE-ACTx, have demonstrated considerable hostility, she said.
As a policy, Summerbell confines yoga, which has deep ties to Buddhism and Hinduism, to a physical practice and tries to steer clear of religious arguments.
Lenny Williams, a certified trauma-sensitive yoga instructor in New York, shared why she believes yoga helps people recover from trauma, during which the brain triggers fight-or-flight responses that leave deep, recurring memories.
"What’s happened to trauma survivors is that you get stuck in a rut," Williams said. "It’s like a record that’s got a skip. You keep remembering, you keep remembering and you get into these circular thoughts that whatever triggers you, you’re right back there."
Learning calming techniques, such as yoga, allows the body to send impulses that inform the brain that no one is in danger.
In November Williams, herself a rape survivor, founded Mandala House, an organization based in New York, dedicated to training survivors of gender-based violence abroad to be yoga instructors.
She is planning a trip to Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of March and then Sri Lanka this summer to provide the trainings.
Lensay Abadula is a freelance writer living in New York.
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