Yoga helps victims of genocide and sexual violence | The Daily Star
02:27 PM, May 30, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:30 PM, June 26, 2017

Yoga helps victims of genocide and sexual violence

A long line of women chatter excitedly as they rush into their yoga class in Kigali, Rwanda.

The classes are popular amongst the community of women, many of whom are affected by a history of genocide, sexual violence and infection of HIV or AIDS.

But in this yoga class they are able to relax their bodies and minds and take a moment to breathe.

Yoga instructor and genocide survivor Mediatrice Uwingabire is only too aware of the benefits of taking up yoga.

She joined a yoga group in 2008 and in six months she started witnessing changes in her life.

"Due to the consequences of genocide, I used to have a lot of anger and resentment," Uwingabire explains after the yoga class.

"But I started doing yoga, I slowly started healing internally, dealing with my anger and I loved it so much and now I feel I am a very smart person. Physically I also got healed."

Yoga was introduced in Rwanda in 2007 by a local medical NGO, Project Air, which provides medical and psycho-sexual help to many women who suffered sexual violence and who are living with HIV as a result of the genocide.

Deirdre Summerbell, founder and director of Project Air, explains why the ancient Indian practice is working in Rwanda.

"Why yoga? The answer is because it works. It does work. Possibly more effectively than anything else. Because it allows people to re-inhabit themselves," she says.

"When you've had terrible things happen to you want to escape yourself, your body is a prison, it's a prison. It's a prison of memories, it's a prison of pain, it's a terrible prison and there is no escape from it. There is no place to go beyond your own skin and body. And what yoga manages to do, especially if done carefully and done with a lot of awareness of the difficulties of the population you are working with and the challenges that they have, is that a body that was once a prison becomes a sanctuary."

Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual discipline which originated in ancient India and developed in the fifth and sixth centuries and has been credited to Hindu religious practices.

It has become increasingly popular in Rwanda with more centres popping up around Kigali, including in poorer communities.

The participants include genocide survivors and orphans, HIV/AIDS patients, orphans, former prostitutes and others with family and domestic conflicts.

One yoga enthusiast and HIV patient, Marianne Mukangera, describes how the classes make her feel.

"There are times when I would be asleep and hear good voices from our yoga instructor, and we go to a place which is fine, it is like being away from the earth, and feeling good because of the fine voices you hear."

Elsewhere in Kigali, the Yego-Yoga centre has been offering classes since it opened in 2016 as a profit-making company.

It was founded by Allie Huttinger, an American medical health and hygiene social worker.

Huttinger quit her job to start the first pop-up studio with some Rwandan yoga practitioners.

Since opening just over a year ago, Yego Yoga (which means 'Yes Yoga') has grown its clientele from 100 to 1800, serving expatriates, government officials and sportsmen and women.

With the help of Rwandan yoga trainers, the company also conducts free community yoga outreach sessions every Saturday.

And Huttinger has noticed that more and more experts are acknowledging the healing qualities of yoga for those suffering from trauma.

"In dealing with post traumatic stress, practitioners in that field, people who have done studies, written books, who are working with people in difficult situations, many of them have been turning to alternative therapies including yoga," says Huttinger.

Academics such as Professor Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the National University of Rwanda, include yoga in the list of growing techniques to deal with trauma cases.

"Psychotherapy, there are many ways, relaxation, sport, music - there is musical therapy which works very well. And, elsewhere and in Rwanda also, there are new efforts to employ music to treat cases of trauma," he says.

"And yoga is a new way of relaxation, these ways which are used not only in Rwanda, but elsewhere also. There are a number of ways one can use to treat cases of trauma."

In a country that continues to struggle with the after effects of genocide, yoga could be an unexploited tool to help Rwandan people deal with the challenges they face, in both mind and body.


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