Healing trauma through yoga

Monday, March 30th, 2020 00:00 |
Girls try out the triangle pose during a yoga session at the Shofco Kibera School for Girls’ library. Photo/PD/ COURTESY

With the usually misunderstood practice, JESSIE WOLZ has found a way of connecting with girls in Kibera and helping them recover from distress

Harriet James  @harriet86jim

Deep in Kenya’s (and arguably Africa’s) largest urban slum, every Monday, young girls assemble at Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco) Kibera School for Girls’ library at 4pm.

On this day, it is a space of healing through yoga. The girls sit in silence, eagerly waiting for their instructor, Jessie Wolz, to begin the session. 

Ideally, the room should be quiet and with less movement. It should be a safe place.

However, even with a ‘No disturbance’ notice on  the door, other curious  students, still pop in and out. 

Research indicates yoga can be used as a supplementary treatment for victims of trauma, depending on the severity of the case.

Having lived in Kibera, the young girls in the library have faced different kind of trauma, including bullying and sexual abuse, with many  anxious about the future.

Understanding the power of yoga in healing trauma, Caroline Sakwa, who is in charge of the gender department at Shofco, tried to find someone to have sessions with the girls as part of their social work programme that includes talk therapy and case management services.

Incidentally, they reached out to Jessie’s friend, consequently leading to Jessie taking up the role as she had a background in trauma informed yoga.

Therapeutic powers

Jessi discovered the healing power of yoga after working in South Sudan during the 2013 -2014 war.

She turned to it to deal with the trauma of the war and of some events from her childhood.

This experience  inspired her to share the gift with others, especially in low-resource areas where people cannot afford a therapist. 

Jessie Wolz, the instructor at the school. Photo/PD/COURTESY 

It’s been two years now and she is proud that 20 young girls in the programme are more comfortable in their skin.

“Whenever we got down to meditation, the girls couldn’t be still; they would move their arms and feet, their eyes roaming around the room.

This told me something is not calm within them. Their constant movement is a reflection of the inner state. Presently, they are still and their bodies are relaxed.

Even the social worker says the girls now have an expanded vocabulary for their emotions.

One parent has even noted their child is more confident, which happens naturally with yoga,” says Jessie, who has 200-hour yoga certification, 40 hour training in trauma-informed yoga and is registered with Yoga Alliance. 

One of the students, Shirley Adongo, aged 12, has been doing this for two years and has noticed a huge difference. She experienced bullying in school, something that traumatised her and affected how she related with others. 

“Yoga has taught me to be bold in class, answer questions, to speak out and not be scared,” she narrates.

 Trauma-informed yoga usually focuses more on breathing to encourage the nervous system to relax, bringing calmness to the body.

Trauma affects how victims control their body, hence yoga assists in regulating and calming the nervous system where the flight-fight response is, helping to balance the nervous system.

“Survivors learn how to feel calm in their bodies again. It also helps to strengthen the front part of your brain, which will help to override the feeling of fear whenever a memory of trauma comes up.

Yoga assists them have an option of feeling safe in their body again, which is one of the most primordial needs of a survivor,” explains Jessie.

It’s important an instructor  learns how trauma changes the body so they can design sessions and poses to assist trauma survivors regain safety in their bodies. 

“You design the entire sequence with the trauma in mind. There are certain poses you would not teach, for example happy baby, which for someone who’s been sexually abused would be quite triggering as it involves spreading the legs towards the ceiling and that may be how the person was violated,” explains Jessie.  

In addition, an instructor has to be trained and should be able to understand the human anatomy, poses and how each one of them affects the energy systems in the body.

Due to sensitivity, such a teacher is not supposed to touch an affected person in the class without their permission as it might trigger a memory. The class, too, should be free so that triggered students can always leave. 

Jessie’s session includes girls expressing their feelings. “I encourage them to say whether they are angry or sad.

This gives them a chance to identify how they are feeling, notice it, then express and be accepted for how they feel in that moment,” she explains, saying she later incorporated music in the session after holding off initially to allow the girls to practice their breathing.

They sing and dance or watch videos on mindfulness, techniques and education videos on what they doing. 

While for some people regular yoga is enough to heal, others need  a deeper level of practice, depending on the severity of their symptoms.

Notably, yoga is not the only component that brings healing; having close relationships and going for therapy also restore people.  

While the session are now fun, Jessie had to create and build trust with the girls, who initially bullied and hit each other. She  also had to address some parents’ concerns. 

“Some people think that yoga is spiritual or a religion. Yoga can be a spiritual practice, but it doesn’t have to be.

It can be a tool, a practice to connect to yourself. I take spirituality out of the practice and refrain from using spiritual words to make every girl from different religions comfortable,” she concludes.

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