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02 January 2018

Yoga and Women`s Rights

Yoga offers women affected by violence a chance to practice self-care and mindfulness, which is why medica mondiale offers yoga exercises as part of its training courses. Alena Mehlau, graduate psychologist and Trauma Officer with medica mondiale, explains how yoga works in this interview.

You train specialists from northern Iraq. How did you come to include yoga exercises in your training?

 For many years now, we have been training local specialists in many countries to adopt a trauma-sensitive approach when they work with women who suffered violence. This includes knowledge of how people can become more aware of their feelings and experiences – which applies to the psychosocial counsellors and project managers, as well as whole teams. From our 25 years of experience with women who were raped in war zones, we know that being in good contact with ourselves is a prerequisite for building up a respectful relationship with others. Yoga is useful for this. It helps to improve self-awareness and self-care.

Both are very important for people working in crisis regions. What type of women do you work with in this way?

We include yoga in training courses for staff and clients of a women’s safe house in Dohuk, northern Iraq, for management staff from non-governmental organisations and for specialists at the Ministry of Health. For example, in the safe house in Dohuk there is an exercise room with yoga mats. There we can teach simple breathing and meditation exercises as well as movement sequences from Vinyasa yoga. We devise the exercises in an empowering way, which means we encourage both staff and clients to demonstrate the exercises and lead the sequences.

It is great to see a woman ‘come out of her shell’ when she demonstrates an exercise to the others, in spite of all her problems. We also use yoga when working with management staff, especially with regard to enhancing their ability to self-reflect. This is essential for them if they are to support and stabilise their teams. The staff and project’s own approach to stress and the dynamics of trauma is of immense significance to their work with survivors of sexualised violence. Yoga helps here because it increases self-awareness. It also resolves tensions and helps people become ‘softer’. Less stiffness, more flow, more flexibility and more empathy: these are the benefits we are looking for.

How old are the women who take part?

In the women’s safe house, the ages range from 15 to about 40. Men take part in our training courses, too, and in the work with management staff the oldest participant is around 50.

What is particularly nice about using yoga?

I am happy whenever I demonstrate exercises and then see the facial expressions of the participants relax as tension is relieved. Some smile, others develop a faint blush on their skin. And after yoga, people often have a more careful way of relating to each other.

Are the women also able to practice yoga on their own?

Our exercises are chosen so they can be repeated alone and, for example, fit well into everyday office life. There are yoga exercises which can be done while sitting in a chair. These are very effective because stressed people are often more easily persuaded to try out sitting exercises than prone ones. And then they can be repeated while sitting at a desk.