Yoga for Peace

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Cutting Edge Research / Yoga Stories / Yoga Stories in post-conflict contexts

My first yoga class was in December 2009 and since the first yoga class I have done yoga ever since then. After […] I felt like a very big burden has been removed from my body and, you know, kept down after doing the first yoga class. […] It’s the feeling that I felt. And it’s like I became someone else. I was away of my mind, I got away of my body, I got away of my environment. […] Yeah, I felt like I was carrying some weight, you know, in my mind, in my body, but after the class, it’s like it’s taken off and put aside, and I was looking at myself and the life that I live, you know. And I knew I needed to make a change.

– Vicky, Africa Yoga Project, Nairobi, Kenya; Skype interview with author, 12 January 2015

Social constructivist theory holds that we create the social structures and systems that we live in. Hence, if a social change is to happen, it has to come from the individual level, bottom-up and inside-out, such as the above quote suggests. If a social change is to be advocated for, the strategy must address the individual level one way or the other. However, most of the peace-building missions (no matter how robust or complex), strategies and research struggle to include the individual psycho-social work.

This individual level is mostly addressed in the framework of conflict transformation approaches, which use (among others) arts, music, dance, theater, or sports – such as yoga – as tools to induce transformative dynamics. This study focused on yoga initiatives in post-conflict settings of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. About fifteen interviewees shared their own (and/or their students’) experience with yoga practice and teaching, as well as large-scale violence. Two experts also kindly provided their experience with using yoga as a facilitation technique for non-violence (Krishna Alathur, Bodhi Alathur) and trauma healing (Linda Germanis, Yoga Fusion).

It is truly one-of-a-kind study: the use of arts, music, dance, theater, or sports in peace-building remains under-researched despite their use in the field. In the context of violence, yoga has been studied with the narrow focus on trauma and PTSD. Although these two topics are of great importance in peace-building and reconciliation processes, the processes themselves involve many more aspects. And so the research looked into what is the potential of yoga: What does yoga do in post-conflict setting? And what other aspects of peace-building could yoga address?

It turned out that yoga is and can be a very effective component of larger comprehensive missions. Based on the self-observation testimonies collected, yoga facilitates deep individual transformative changes, such as better emotional management, improved ability to think, constructive and problem-solving approach to challenging conflict situations, or non-violent attitude. Yoga practice gives a sense of calmness and inner peace, which somehow ripples into the external world and relationships of yoga practitioners. From the inner sense of peace they literally create peaceful realities of their lives – despite the fact that they live in rough post-conflict environment.

It was intriguing to investigate how the effects occur. Yoga asanas work with the physical body and have physical healing effects. Interviewees reported relief from chronic back-pains or better sleep for example. Through the host of the physical body, the practice allows to access the mental and emotional dimensions. Particularly sleep is important for memory processing – crucial in reconciliation and forgiveness.

The second that you give a new memory to the body, […] eventually you can influence the mind – automatically. It doesn’t lose the memory, it loses the emotional reaction to the memory, over time, in a different way.

Linda Germanis, Yoga Fusion, Skype interview with author 6 January 2015

In addition, conscious deep breathing (and/or breathing exercises) helps to control thoughts and emotions, such as fear or anger. This results in constructive, problem-solving and non-violent attitude in yoga practitioners’ relationships and daily social interactions. Over time, emotions management and memory processing lead to gaining strength to deal with the past and supports reconciliation dynamics. Interestingly, yoga practice also facilitates increased self-confidence and empowerment, a key element of any bottom-up peace-building, ultimately of any sustainable social change.

I do breathing exercises when [I] am frustrated, tired, or annoyed. […] Thus, yoga helped me to conquer my fears, helped me build more confidence where I felt less confident.

– Riccardo, Mandala House, Uganda; Facebook chat interview with author, 18 January 2015

In addition, yoga sessions provide a social opportunity. Depending on the session, it facilitates interactions that would never happen otherwise. The testimonies suggested that yoga can serve as a valuable community building tool. Furthermore, interviewees reported increased levels of tolerance towards members of communities other than theirs, concluding that we are “all the same” humans anyway. This finding was particularly interesting in the context of Kenyan society strongly divided by tribal discrimination. Considering this potential of yoga to facilitate overcoming discrimination and structural violence, it would be certainly worth to explore how yoga could be used in conflict prevention.

I would say there is change in how I see the world, because nowadays I know every person has a different way of living and culture. And I respect that. […] Now I know that […], if I need people to respect my religion I need to respect other people’s religion and also be mindful when I am speaking about it, who is around me, am I offending anyone, you know. […] You know, in Africa Yoga Project, we have this big community class where we have about 200 people who come to the class. And in this class, there are very rich people who come driving and people who do not have even clothes. And when we start practicing you cannot know. Because we are breathing together and going to mountain pose, as we fold together we are exhaling, we are all the same. And when its time to have a lunch we all eat together. And from that I started picking things like you can relate to anyone no matter what.

– Vicky, Africa Yoga Project, Nairobi, Kenya; Skype interview with author, 12 January 2015

To conclude, the study has shown that yoga can be and is an effective component of post-conflict reconciliation and healing processes. Its great advantage is that it works bottom-up, providing a sense of empowerment to the individual practitioners. Given the transformative effects in terms of non-violence and tolerance, as well as in terms of overcoming deeply rooted structural violence, yoga could be a similarly effective component of preventive measures. Although more research is and will be needed, the optimistic results of this study should encourage everyone to seriously consider, advocate for, and/or directly use yoga more in peace-building initiatives (provided that cultural and political contexts are thoroughly taken into account).

For more detailed information on the effects of yoga, how they occur, as well as on the methodology, theoretical framework and potential flip sides, enjoy the full text study here.

By Klara Srbova

Yoga Fusion PAR Network Member

Click here to check out the personal story behind Klara’s research!

The Author

A Participatory Action Research on Yoga in Action for Post-Conflict Reconciliation

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