Wednesday 26 August 2009

Yoga in Rwanda

Ive been teaching 8-10 classes a week. A We-Actx driver comes and picks Hanna, my co-teacher and I up and takes us to various places venues around Kigali where we hold the yoga classes - spaces in clinics, local community halls, etc. Co-teaching has been an interesting and, at times, challenging experience. Hannah and I have been gradually synchronising our ideas and methods of teaching, drawing on strengths, supporting weaknesses and slowly finding a pattern that works for both of us. On the whole Hannah talks through the classes while I give adjustements and direct the poses and flow of the class, suggesting modifications as needed. Of all the classes I’ve been teaching with the We-Actx-yoga programme, the following have been my three favourites.

The Inyange Girls Yoga Group

Inyange is the name of a bird that can be found near cows - and sometimes water - and is the name that has been chosen for the teenage girls group I have been teaching for the last two and a half months. In Rwandan culture, Inyange signifies purity, good nature and a welcoming demeanour. Inyange is the image painted by the traditional Rwandan dancer; simple and genuine, graceful and light, with arms spread like wings. Adding the tools of yoga to this cultural sensibility has created a healthy bag of tricks to support the young girls through puberty and beyond.

The project director and coordinator was particularly keen for us to start this new group for teenage girls in order to support their physical health and strength and to bolster confidence and self-esteem. Not least so they have a better chance of warding off any unwanted sexual advances that might come their way. I was sad to have to stop teaching the children’s yoga group - they are joyful bundles of love and immense fun to teach. Hannah now teaches this group, sometimes with the help of interns or volunteers who often go to the children’s class to hang out with the little ones and share in the love. Meanwhile I have had the pleasure of starting up the new group for teenage girls and have been focusing on Astanga sun salutations and standing poses. A few of them have done yoga before but all are taking to the practice like fish to water. They work well, with enthusiasm and commitment and are improving steadily.

Clara shone out as a natural leader and soon became my assistant. When I arrive for class she comes straight up to greet me, takes out the yoga mats and calls the other girls to get ready. I invited her to join another group we teach on Mondays so she could progress a little faster than the others. She brought two friends along, Natalie and Anna, so I now have 3 assistants under my wing.

All of the girls are HIV+ and a few of them are orphans, cared for by older siblings or relatives. The girls who live with their families are happier and more emotionally stable than those who have been taken in by members of the community. A couple of them had been very depressed since discovering their HIV+ status and one girl used to sit near her counsellor every time they met and cry. When asked why she was crying, she said it was because the counsellor reminded her of her mother. Another of the girls was so despondent she didn’t want to wash or have water on her skin. Now with guidance and support from the counsellor and regular yoga classes, both are much happier and have a stronger mental state.

I talked to them a couple of weeks ago about how they were finding the yoga, what profession they’d like to pursue and to demonstrate their favourite yoga pose. Here are some of their responses: -

“Feel well. I have better moral and no longer feel unhappy. My mind is calmer and my thinking is settled. I want to be a translator.” Mary demonstrated forward bend.

“I feel more healthy. I want to be a doctor”. Fatima demonstrated Triangle pose.

“ I feel a change in my body. My bones and body feel stronger, I feel healthy. I want to be a doctor and to teach yoga.” Amanda demonstrated Side Angle pose.

“I no longer feel my bones twisting. My body feels stronger. I want to be a musician.” Sandra demonstrated the dancer pose.

“I used to have aching muscles, not so much now. My chest pain is reduced. I want to become a nurse.” Na’weh demonstrated Chair pose.

Hearing this feedback from the girls was music to my ears and encouraged the idea I had of training up my assistants to talk through Sun Salutation A and B and a few standing poses, so that the group could keep going through the month of September while the yoga programme is suspended. Two new teachers arrive in October.

Last Sunday I got each of the assistants to talk through Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) A with the whole group. They all did extremely well, showing variations in confidence in speaking out and leading the group. Clara was most confident in her delivery and had an inventive use of language - I learned some new phrases that I can add to the ‘Kinyarwanda for Yoga’ notes Hanna and I are compiling as a teaching aid for future volunteers. Salima had the firmest grasp on the sequence, was very clear in her instructions and kept a good eye on the group. She got the group to count the five breaths during Downward Dog in English! Anna was the most shy in her delivery but nevertheless gave a fine example of rising to the challenge of steering the group and moved through determinedly despite others trying to take the reins from her. Where one of the assistants forgot to remind the others to lengthen through the spine, she remembered to draw attention to the breath. Where another was not so strong in her voice projection, she was good at keeping an eye on the group and reminding them with “ fatanya ibirenge”(feet together) and “rambura ibirenge” (toes pointed). Between the three of them I am confident they will keep their group going until the new teachers arrive. It was a joy to see and praise their strengths and support them when they faltered. After this, other girls shot their hands up, wanting to lead the group. “Teacher? Me, me!” So we did one last round with them all talking through together.


Another class I do is at the Ineza sewing co-op on Wednesdays and Fridays. The group has been doing yoga for a couple of years and they are very competent. We arrive at 3pm and wait a while for them to wind up their sewing for the day, move the machines to one side, sweep the floor and get their kit on, while laughing, joking, bickering and making fun of each other. The group is of mixed ability, some strong and agile while others have limited mobility, largely as a result of injuries sustained during the Genocide years. One woman wears a leg brace as a result of Polio, another has limited movement because of scar tissue on her back, and a few of the women have limited movement in shoulders, hips and ankles. The group have appreciated getting a few more modifications so that the less able ones can also join in and feel integrated into the group.

The Ineza group are so deeply bonded and take such good care of each other that being witness to this has been an education in itself. I have slowly got to know them as individuals - their sense of humour, physical idiosyncrasies and other foibles - and slowly became comfortable and confident enough to joke and lark around with them. Hanna and I have danced, sang songs and exchanged bits of information about our families and personal lives. I’ve painted their nails, bought a few of their products and helped cut cloth for items they are making. They have made me a pair of trousers and customized products, shared fragments of their stories and marveled at my dreadlocks, incredulous to the fact that they are real and not extensions. We have hugged and kissed and taken hundreds of photos. We are a yoga family and we will all be sad to leave each other. The women find this 3-month changeover difficult - just as they get to really know, trust and love the teachers, the teachers leave - again and again.

At a recent meeting, one of the group members asked if teachers could stay for longer. We explained that we would love to stay longer and that, as much as we have enjoyed working with them, we have family and jobs/ studies to get back to. Of course, the group understood but still they had to ask. They told us a story of when they were offered sewing training from We-Actx a while ago. The training was to take place in a town a few hours away from Kigali and would run for 2 weeks. They discussed and discussed who would make up the delegation to receive the training and bring it back to the group. In the end, no one was willing to go because they didn’t want to leave their families for two weeks. The separation after the bonding is a sad part of the process that all volunteers and the groups we teach have to go through. Still, we all have photos, memories and stories to share.


The last group I want to talk about is the Nyabugogo group. With this group, play is a big part of the practice. The group has a counseling session first, during which they share problems, worries, stories and news. We sit with them, listening and watching, not understanding what is being said as each woman takes her turn. We 'hear' their bodies speak and the tone of their voices recount their experiences. Sometimes they cry. The whole group is enveloped by the sorrow but there is a sense of lightness too. We are all held by deep love until the one with tears feels calm enough and ready for the next woman to talk. All tears are heard - the understanding of the counsellor and the empathy and kindness of the group is inspiring and supports the women when in distress.

When the circle is complete we can start the yoga. Not everyone practices every week. Some feel too tired or weak so they sit against the wall to rest and watch, but nevertheless enlivened by the yoga activity and energy. Slowly, coaxing the women into a place of movement, we warm up, moving away from the sadness to slowly enter into the breath and body as a place of fun, discovery and healing. Children join in too, and if the woman with newborn twins is there, she sometimes hands her babies to the resting women so she can also join in. It is a pleasure to see sheer surprise on the women’s faces when they find something new. Sometimes awkward or a little shy or embarrassed; they seem to be discovering their bodies for the first time. I imagine they are marveling at the unknown, untapped wonder of their multilayered physical, emotional and mental being - delighted to be alive.

We play with the sun salutation sequence, make mandalas with standing poses and have fun with balances. We teach poses that incorporate eye gazing and mirroring, poses that build stamina, challenge coordination and get the group smiling. We are constantly reading the group, modifying and adjusting them as required. On the floor we rock and roll the spine, hold poses for longer and slowly move back to stillness. By the end of a class we have moved through all the sadness, physical discomfort and worry. The heart is salved, the body is bolstered the mind calmed and laughter has soothed our souls. We all leave feeling happy, together, loved and looking forward to the next week.