Yoga Mandala Project (Interview)

The mental and physical health benefits of practicing yoga have been heavily documented. A non-profit organisation Yoga Mandala Project provides psycho-social support and wellness through the physical and mental health benefits of yoga and TRE (Tension Release Exercises) to those displaced or affected by war and conflict.

After Trauma Sensitive Yoga training hosted by Yoga Mandala Project (YMP) in Galway City at the end of June, I sat down with the team of the YMP to talk about the mission, impact, benefits and future ideas of the project.

YMP was created back in 2014 and now the team consists of five members; I sat down and talked with four of them – Bella Hancock and Rula Wardeh Ananda (co-directors of the project), Susan Bainter Baghdadi (TRE trainer and trauma advisor), Claire Osborne (Yoga therapy advisor and trainer). The fifth member – Andrea Canepa (director) – at the time of the conversation is based in Colombia, where she is working in peace process, where her work is particularly focused on support for rural communities directly affected by war.

YMP volunteer as yoga teachers and trauma advisors within refugee communities, working in partnership with local community organisations. In addition YMP work to establish sustainable volunteer programs with yoga teachers in each locality by providing training for teachers in trauma informed yoga practice. The goal of YMP is to offer services that will help to build emotional resilience, providing simple self care protocols, which can be utilised to help relieve trauma related conditions, such as stress, tension, anxiety and depression.

09_YMP_Bella teaching yoga_photo by Alexandre Reisdorfer

My Good Planet: Please tell us about Yoga Mandala Project, how it started and what is the vision of this project?

Bella: Yoga Mandala Project started in 2014, even though it really didn’t get a name or a form as such till 2016. The project grew out of a natural impulse that arouse to go to offer yoga in refugee communities in Jordan. I went there in 2014, and at a time I had very little idea what it was going to be, but I just had intuitive sense to go. Yoga was received there really well and openly, and people were very appreciative, and found that their physical and emotional symptoms were helped, supported and alleviated by the yoga practice.

So then more people joined me – Rula, Susan, Andrea and Claire – and we started to form our idea and impulse to help into Yoga Mandala Project. We decided that the most useful thing was to start trainings for teachers in trauma informed yoga practice, so teachers then could volunteer. Our vision was to create something where yoga teachers could get equipped and empowered in themselves to be able to go into these hard situations and teach yoga with trauma informed approach.

That seemed like a model that worked really well, to engage teachers in the area and then hopefully give them tools that would empower them and equip them to go into these situations. In addition we wanted to create a community of teachers, practitioners, refugee communities and partner organisations, so we could all work together and support each other. This is also the vision of YMP – everybody is sharing and creating a community together.

My Good Planet: What has been the impact of the project?

Rula: Our main centre is in Jordan. So talking about the impact on local communities in Jordan, the project gives opportunities to yoga teachers to engage in karma yoga, and give back to the community. It has been a successful model to bring yoga teachers together for a good cause. The volunteers are always from the local yoga teachers and it is a growing circle of yoga teachers in the community. The training in Jordan is done once a year, people who have done the training can join as volunteers. Every time we have new teachers we create the schedule for the whole year to teach weekly classes in collaboration with Collateral Repair Project, which is our local partner in East Amman. However the base of YMP has grown, and we have started to go into camps, it is all slowly developing. At the moment we offer yoga classes in Azraq and Zaatari camps in Jordan.

Susan: As we get more teachers we can cover much more, spreading out all over Jordan and Greece.

Bella: We were really getting to the point where people saw the need for psycho-social support within community. People’s needs were being met in terms of food, they had that kind of humanitarian system, but they didn’t have psycho-social support system.

Claire: People recognise that yoga helps them and that the approach we use is really beneficial. We use breathing practices and simple meditation and relaxation practices, that really help people mentally; they have seen and felt benefits of the practice. People get exercise classes, which they love, but we thought really carefully what we offer; yoga gives something really specific, and it is more than an exercise.

My Good Planet: How does yoga help to heal?

Claire: As a yoga teacher and also yoga therapist, I really believe in yoga’s power to support people through difficult life situations. It gives them the tools to empower themselves and to self support. There are so many people in the world who could benefit from yoga, but they have various life situations or financial situations which doesn’t allow them access to yoga, because it is in a studio or seen in a certain way or costing so much money, etc. So seeing the need and recognising that yoga has tools that are simple and accessible and non-threatening, that people can use, we wanted to bring these tools to people and pass them on, making yoga more accessible.

Bella: There is something in yoga that empowers people; it brings people into their body. When people are traumatised there is a real disconnection, people are disconnected physically from their body, and they can’t feel their feet on the ground. Yoga practice is a really gentle way for people to come back into being embodied. And then they can start to feel their breathing and slowly, slowly everything starts to be re-inhabited.

The practices we use are really calming to help people address hyper-stress that people are in, insomnia, anxiety, high blood pressure, and other stress related conditions. Yoga practice is really useful for these conditions. The main aim is really to calm everything down in the body.

09_YMP_Bella teaching yoga 2_photo by Alexandre Reisdorfer

My Good Planet: What is TRE or Tension Releasing Exercises?

Susan: It is a way of switching on the body’s own natural release mechanism through therapeutic tremors, which release contraction and tension in the body. When we are holding a lot of stress we are contracted. It is kind of like shaking something off that has been accumulated in your body. It couples really beautifully with yoga, because once we start to release that contraction then we start to re-inhabit ourselves and then we start to feel a lot. We begin to have the ability to feel joy as well as sorrow, and the ability to start to see possibility for goodness in the world, which is really not there, when you are in the middle of situation, like being in a war or being displaced. So TRE is a way of coming back to self and it is directed by the body itself.

My Good Planet: What are the ongoing projects?

Bella: There are two strands of what we do – we run trainings for teachers and others who want to work in communities, where they see that yoga with trauma informed approach can be useful – and we volunteer and enable people to volunteer. We run trainings in Jordan, Ireland, Palestine and Greece. In terms of working in refugee communities, at the moment we have a strong connection with Collateral Repair Project in Jordan, Lifting Hands International in Greece, who at the moment are looking for yoga teachers, so we try and keep a connection with them, to see what they are doing and see how we can support them.