September 30, 2014

Erasing Ethnic Divisions through Yoga. ~ Chelsea Winn

Chelsea Winn 1

Strengthening community in conflict zones through yoga.

I took my first yoga class exclusively for the physical benefits I hoped it would bring me. A single hot yoga class—I had heard—could help you shed two pounds of water weight.

Little did I realize, at the time, that yoga was something of much more value than a simple exercise.

A few months after I began practicing, I left Canada for the first time to volunteer at a youth center in a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although 15 years had passed since the brutal inter-ethnic war of the early 1990s, Bosnia was still very much in recovery mode.

A dividing line through the center of town separated the Muslim and Catholic neighbourhoods. In such a segregated town, the only place that Muslim and Catholic youth had the opportunity to meaningfully interact with each other was in the Youth Center located on the dividing line of the town—the youth center where other volunteers and I were tasked with coordinating programs to bring together the otherwise segregated youth.

Most of the time, the ethnic division between the children was palpable, even to an outsider like myself. Through our programming, however, we occasionally saw glimmers of hope, as children would seemingly forget the ethnic divisions that pervaded their existences and play with “the other.”

Armed with my newfound love of yoga, I decided to run weekly yoga classes with the children. Downward dog was quickly corrupted, turning instead into games of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” where I was the sole person in the room holding the posture as giggling kids crawled underneath me trying to avoid my inevitable collapse upon them at the end of the song.

As children forgot the social constructs around them, the pervasive ideas of what their identities ought to be, they could return to their true selves and accept one another beyond the confines of ethnicity.

In other words, the principles of yogic philosophy seamlessly translated into conflict resolution and community building.

I didn’t recognize the connection at the time. It was only when I began my Yoga Teacher Training— exactly five years to the day that I hopped on my flight to Bosnia—that I realized the tremendous value that yoga can have in post-conflict spaces.

The purpose of yoga, to alleviate suffering, is needed most in communities that have experienced extreme trauma and violence. Ahimsa, doing no harm to both oneself and others, is the most obvious aspect of yogic philosophy which applies to this idea. Asana, the physical postures of yoga, can relieve the physical and mental symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Pratyahara, the inward turning of the senses, can allow for the greater exploration of one’s own identity and their place within the conflict.

Most importantly, the sense of community that arises through group yoga practice can be the greatest vehicle for conflict resolution. Evidence of this idea exists in the laughter that erupted during yoga classes in the youth center in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Just as yoga classes in Canada create strong communities comprised of vast arrays of different walks of life, so too can such communities be recreated in post-conflict spaces.

The difficulty lies in creating a safe space where previously conflicting parties can come together. Once this space is created, the potential for yoga to reconcile differences and strengthen inclusive communities is tremendous.




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Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Author’s Own


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Chelsea Winn