“Place a hand to your heart and a hand to your belly”
I say to a room of strangers – a hundred women who had witnessed the massacre of husbands, children, siblings and friends in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The female interpreter translates into Kinyarwanda as I demonstrate in the center of the circle of long, colorfully printed skirts and lithe fingers. It is my last day in this beautiful country and I am beyond nervous to be guiding a handful of exercises, breathing techniques, and meditation to this collective of women survivors. I don’t know their stories, and they didn’t know mine, but what I do know is that we all carry inside pain and loss.
Rwanda has shifted and made huge strides to be a progressive nation.
It has one of the largest growing economic markets in Africa with 64% of parliament comprised of women and plastic bags outlawed, but this booming country still has multiple generations, essentially anyone who is 25 years of age or older, live through one of the worst annihilations of humanity – over one million people slaughtered in one-hundred days.
While I will never know what it is like to be a survivor of genocide, I know what it is to be a survivor of abuse.
The black and blue marks on my body may have faded, but the feeling of fragmentation and pain remains. That stain, as much as I have tried to cover it, and have it fade into my past, is something that can’t be bleached out.
It has been Yoga – this idea of “union,” this practice that has kept me alive. I started my yoga teacher training at the height of my abusive relationship. I only realized how exhausted I had been eight years after the fact.
I was so drained and beyond depleted that I cried or broke down multiple times during the intensive training without truly understanding why.
This isn’t an original story.
It’s a story that has been told, and will, unfortunately, be told, over and over again. I don’t equate my actions of leaving with bravery. We all do what we need to survive.
I rarely share why I really started teaching yoga as the question, “Why didn’t you just leave?” would be the natural response.
Abuse is like a crock-pot – the slow simmering of loss of identity, self-worth, and lack of internal compass. It doesn’t happen immediately. It takes months and even years to truly lose the essence of you.
I had been given every opportunity to succeed on this planet
Privilege, education and familial support were at my disposal. But like so many women, my sense of self hadn’t been nurtured. I had to learn to nourish myself and try very hard to refill the void.
So, I went to my yoga mat.
I started going to classes every day, if not twice, just to reclaim and move expressively without the consequence of where it would take me.
This shape, these poses, this idea of being able to connect your breath, to the body, to mind and spirit is something I needed.
I could be anonymous on my yoga mat and stay protected and safe within the confines of the 2 x 6 perimeter – to just be without expectations. My body could be mine again.
My self-confidence started to rebuild.
That little voice that would plead not be hit seemed to be of yesteryear. Teaching was the next step, to be able to share and give gravitas to the practice, the life journey of what helped to rebuild my internal architecture. And it was through watching people cry in forward-folds or be elated when discovering they could do an inversion or arm balance that reaffirmed how the human condition is one of perseverance.
You might go to the same class week after week, and never know the name of the person who is next to you, but that connection of being in the same space moving as one, regardless of class, creed, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic standing is what creates community.
There are people, women and children in the world who have not had the same luck in the lottery of life to know the privilege of yoga.
When safety, shelter, and sustenance are at risk, everything falls by the wayside.
And so, it began to germinate in me – if I could empower myself through these ancient teachings, who is to say that commercialized yoga as we know it could not be transformed into a medium of social activism? These warrior shapes that we hold can lead us to being real warriors of the world. It can get us outside of our internal dialogue, that gnawing inside of what wasn’t, what should, or could have been, and realizing that we are not alone in our suffering.
My yoga journey has taken me to orphanages in Nicaragua, girls’ dormitories in Morocco, and elementary schools in Cambodia. It has taken me all over the world on a quest to help empower girls and women everywhere in the hopes of creating a global community.
And now sitting here, as I look into the faces of these women in a small town on the outskirts of Kigali, I feel so much gratitude to be in their presence.
They giggle when we make animal sounds for “cat and cow” and I take in the serenity that washes over their closed eyes as we practice even-breath inhale and exhales. Before our class is done, they teach me a special movement. “Shake out the bad and take in the good.” With arms raised they step forward with palms flexed to stop anything negative that might be in their path, then they make a circular embrace motion and step back, hugging themselves. I incorporate this special dance into our practice. We all laugh and move together.
As we sit cross-legged, with palms upward, I leave them with these words.
“Yoga can be anything. It’s when your mind, connects with your body, and connects to your rojo or spirit. Yoga is holding a baby, yoga is going to church, and yoga is sharing laughter with your friends. It’s when we are able to open up our hearts. That’s what real yoga is.”
As I get ready to leave, they hold me tight – deep, long, hugs that come from the most genuine places inside these strong, kind women.
One of them, a small, weathered woman with riverbed lines in her face, takes my hands in hers: “I did not know I could move like that. Not since I was a child”.
The essence of her words does not get lost in translation.