Introducing Jessi: OMPowerment Kenya 2019

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“This work is heart filling and life giving for everyone involved”

I discovered trauma informed yoga after a three year period of transformation and healing. My time working in the aid industry and spending time in conflict zones taught me a lot about war – both between humans / communities as well as the war within. Following a stint in South Sudan during an especially violent period of the country’s history, I started to explore the violence within me – my own trauma, self-judgment, self-loathing, harmful or self-destructive behavior, etc. I used yoga and its practices as a tool to help me on this inner journey and found them to be incredibly healing. It occurred to me that if this yoga stuff worked so well for me on my journey of inner peacemaking, then it was something I wanted to bring into my career. The link between trauma and conflict had already become very apparent to me. After I finished my 200 hour yoga teacher training, I attended Hala Khouri’s 40 hour Trauma Informed Yoga Training in California. 

I had been leading a yoga for trauma program in Kibera slum with young survivors of gender based violence, and had recognized the need to make the program more sustainable so that if I left, the benefits of the program would continue. I also recognized that the survivors themselves, if given sufficient capacity building, would be better placed to help their peers heal because they are more intimate with the wounds they carry than I will ever be. Additionally, a non-profit in Nairobi that supports young refugee women with psychosocial care, among other services, had reached out to me to ask if I could bring yoga for trauma to their population. The young women they serve have lived through conflict, familial violence, sexual abuse and/or rape, abandonment or neglect, female genital mutilation, and, and some have witnessed their family members harmed or killed, and have not had time to grieve or recover. I knew trauma informed yoga would have a tremendous impact on this population, but didn’t think I could take on another volunteer project. Enter the OMPowerment Project. Julia reached out at a time when I was feeling the call to spread the practice in Kenya, but did not have enough support or capacity to do it alone.

The most memorable moments happened during the first training, watching the young women shift into their inner wisdom, strength, and power. In particular, one of the young refugees had started the week mostly disengaged and seemed to be somewhere else mentally. On the second day, she almost didn’t show up, and even when she did, she told everyone she felt like she was forced to come. There was a lot of resistance to participating. On the fourth day, something shifted. I remember we were doing a strong standing practice in the morning and she was suddenly all in. She was breathing so deeply her body shuddered in down dog. She lifted up into Half Moon, legs strong, rooting firmly – all the essentials we had been teaching and thought she wasn’t hearing. Then she came into warrior III for the first time, and I’ll never forget the look on her face. Her eyes widened and revealed a look of amazement, followed by a huge smile. She happened to be wearing a shirt that said “SMILE” that day, too. It was so beautiful to witness the embodiment and aliveness of words and phrases we throw around in yoga communities and spaces like “opening,” “transformation,” “find your strength,” or “take flight.” Moments like this and other similar ones served as reminders to me of how truly powerful and universal the practice of yoga is, when you understand yoga as noticing your breath, bringing attention to your physical and emotional body and being okay with what you find there, discovering your inner strength, practicing self-acceptance and self-love, and cultivating inner peace and wisdom. I firmly believe that if we all practiced yoga, the world would be a much more peaceful place. 

My comfort zone was challenged during the second week when I led the OMPowerment training in Kibera. Kibera is a tough environment, and even though I’m there often, I had never entered for five consecutive days and tried to lead a six hour training each day. It was exhausting, and, at times, I felt defeated. It felt like nothing was happening in the ideal way I had imagined, and certainly not as smoothly as the training the week prior. In the middle of mindful awareness activities, a large crowd would break out into song or someone would start yelling outside the window. The group was younger, so generally had a harder time mastering the material. Rainy season arrived and streets turned to mud, making it an extra effort to arrive to the school where we were teaching. It was definitely a challenging context in which to facilitate my first OMPowerment training!

I think the OMPowerment Project is a good example of how the yoga community can have a positive impact on the world. There has been a surge of people earning their yoga teaching credentials in the last decade. Imagine if every yoga teacher taught a class to an underserved and in need community once a week, whether that’s refugees, elderly, children with cancer, inner city schoolkids, the incarcerated, former child soldiers, victims of domestic violence – imagine the collective, global impact of giving 1 out of 168 hours in the week to passing on, for free, the benefits of yoga.

My role in that process is to serve communities where I live in Kenya. I also do my best to use public platforms like Instagram and Facebook to talk about the healing and less superficial aspects of yoga, rather than contributing to the popular image of yoga as an activity for physical perfection and achievement. My role is to get more people on a yoga mat, connecting with themselves in a way that is strengthening, inspiring, and meaningful. The last thing I want people to understand about yoga is that it’s another vehicle for achievement, and with that, self-judgment and criticism, comparison, and often feeling not good enough.  

I’ll continue to serve the two populations we trained in Kenya to reinforce and expand skills and mentor them as they grow into stronger leaders of this practice. OMPowerment’s impact will live on in Kenya.  

Julia Midland