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The significance of (not) being an aid worker – and yoga as gardening

Thursday, May 8, 2014 by Marianne Elliott

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Amanda headshotToday’s post comes from Amanda Scothern, my co-teacher for the 30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers course (which begins on 19 May). Amanda has been working in the the humanitarian sector for 15 years, practising yoga for 10 years and teaching yoga for three.

Last night I was reviewing the transcript for one of the practitioner interviews to be shared in the upcoming 30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers course.

Geneva, an aid worker who is also an alumni of the first course we ran earlier this year, tells a story about gaining clarity when going out for a run during her time working with refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border:

I had this very interesting visual and it was that I was both the prisoner and the prison guard.  It was so clear that I could see myself sad and stressed out and feeling defeated in one corner, and in the other corner I was the one that was saying all of the things that resulted in the negative emotions.  And it was this really empowering moment because I recognized that I was the only one that could set myself free from all of the perceived stress in my life.

That experience while running made Geneva aware that moving her body was one thing she needed to do to deal with the effects of stress and overwhelm.  She continued to run, and developed a practice of yoga, meditation and journaling.

I recently posted on the WhyDev blog (read here) about a tweet chat on women and the movement to take personal resilience more seriously as an aspect of professional competency in the aid sector.  In that discussion it was pointed out that while a sense of purpose is important to resilience, we can also get stuck in our sense of purpose in a way that is counterproductive.

While the stresses associated with humanitarian work in the field prompted Geneva to develop a yoga practice, she also talks about how stopping field work turned out to be equally stressful in its own way.

One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a development worker is the transition into not being a development worker.  Working in the field seems so stressful and lonely, but it’s also empowering and very self-defining …You really feel this daily significance that you’re seeing the work and it’s tangible and you see the needs … You feel this constant significance in actively participating in helping solve the problems.  And when you move to your country of origin or to a comfortable situation there’s the sense of ‘What is my significance and who am I without this work day to day?’  Yoga in particular has completely shifted my way of thinking of what my role represents and of who I am without the intensity of being an international aid worker.

What is it about yoga practice that helps bring clarity?  

Scientific research suggests that it is something to do with the way yoga can be a practice of awareness – and of acceptance of the ‘starting from where you’re at’ variety.  Physiologically, movement combined with breathing can help connect us to a better sense of what is happening mentally and emotionally, at the same time as it redresses some of the damaging physiological effects of stress.  What I know, and I’ve heard from so many others, is that it works – and it works best when it is a repeated, regular practice.

Geneva says:

“You know, you look at it like a garden.  Flowers don’t just grow.  They have to have the sunlight and the rain and so I guess it’s the same of just kind of being your own Mother Earth ecosystem.”

Or for me, being your own gardener.  As any of you who have tried to grow something know, gardening is not a once-off kind of thing.  Even Aloe Vera, my favourite low-care plant needs water occasionally.  What I can tell you is that, like Geneva, my experience is that yoga and meditation are the most effective tools I’ve found to help me to be my own gardener, my own Mother Earth.  Like Geneva, yoga helps me find clarity about my sense of purpose even – in fact, particularly – through changing places, routines and jobs.

ME_aid_buttonRegistration is now open for the next round of 30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers – click here to learn more or to register. The course begins 19 May.

PS — Alumni, we’ve got a special Friends & Family discount for you to share with your loved ones! Be watching for an email with details from me soon.

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