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Why my yoga practice & teaching is part of my humanitarian work

Thursday, October 2, 2014 by Marianne Elliott

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Amanda headshotToday we hear from Amanda Scothern, my co-teacher for the 30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers course (which begins on 6 October). Amanda has been working in the the humanitarian sector for 15 years, practising yoga for 10 years and teaching yoga for three.

 

Why my yoga practice & teaching is part of my humanitarian work

I began my humanitarian career in Gaza and West Bank in 1998, over three years experiencing a range of challenges that many aid workers will recognize, from bad management and forced emergency evacuation to witnessing cruelty and human rights abuses and experiencing being under shellfire for extended periods.  On return home to New Zealand three years later I was asked to set up a community development program for an organization providing counseling and resettlement support to survivors of torture and war trauma.

In the process I learned for the first time about the science of stress, trauma and resilience – including the existence of such things as PTSD and vicarious traumatisation.  I also went to my first Astanga yoga class at this time looking for a way to ‘stay in shape’, and discovered that the even-paced breath and movement combination also left me feeling calm and more centered, something I’d struggled with since my return from the middle east.

I returned to what I could remember of that Astanga practice in desperation a few years later, needing a way to deal with the stress I was under working with a UN Peacekeeping Mission in Africa.  A starting goal of 3 ‘sun-salutes’ (a basic sequence of yoga poses taking 10-15 minutes to complete) every morning made a difference almost immediately.

The daily 4am panic attacks I was experiencing disappeared.   

I stopped being angry at everything and everyone, moved from feeling isolated to making connections with others and found ways to change the job I was doing so I could feel confident of the value of my contribution.  Meantime I found that the 10-15 minute practice often grew into more if I had the time as I frequently felt so much better after 10 minutes that I just wanted to keep going.

After this mission I found opportunities to learn more about yoga and related  practices like lovingkindess or compassion meditation.  Unlike running, my other passion, yoga was something I could do anywhere – irrespective of security-related constraints on movement, and needing no equipment.

I became a teacher by chance more than intention – when my yoga teacher left Timor Leste, I began to lead our group practice.   Since then I’ve studied with some great teachers, completed 310hrs of teacher training recognised by the International Yoga Alliance, taught classes to fellow-expats and locals in a various countries and co-facilitated of Off The Mat, Into The World leadership training.

I enjoy teaching and it provides a change of pace from my work, but fundamentally I teach because yoga led me to the tools I needed to thrive in the face of stress and trauma, and I know that it has done the same for others.

As my practice developed I found that what I learned ‘on the mat’ carried into my work and life generally.  Self-compassion and non-judgment in asana practice translated to better listening skills, readiness to consider other perspectives and try it someone else’s way; flexibility when carefully-laid plans had to change, and the realization I wasn’t responsible for everything.

Loving-kindness meditation, breath-work and poses that opened and stretched my stress-contracted body helped me let go of anxiety, be more aware of and able to recognize my reactions and triggers, become less defensive and able to manage my reactions more effectively and quickly.

The daily reminder that change is not a smooth line, and the most profound changes are most often the culmination of many small increments helped me appreciate the small steps and the less obvious impacts of my work when I felt disillusioned and overwhelmed by my inability to affect the big picture.

Much of my work has been in organizational change process facilitation, and working with groups to develop and manage community-based projects.  From this I’ve learned that transformation at the community or organizational level doesn’t happen without transformation of the individuals involved.  As a humanitarian worker, I have learned that the way we cope – or don’t – with the stresses inherent in the work has an immense impact on our effectiveness in being of service.

My own practice continues to support my work, and by teaching I am able to create a space for others to discover, practice and develop tools that help them to both ‘do well and be well’. From that early Astanga class I went to for strength, fitness and flexibility, yoga practice and teaching has become an invaluable means of enabling and enhancing the work I am passionate about, for myself and my community of fellow aid workers.

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