Yoga for Refugees with Ourmala
By Laura Sugden, Freelance writer
Walking across cobbled stones, the unmistakable musk of farmyard in the air, bees merrily buzzing overhead, we could be a million miles away from the vibrant, creative streets of East London. And yet, that is exactly where we are. As yoga mats unfurl across the uneven wooden floor and cockerels crow outside the window, it’s clear this is a far cry from a usual yoga class. People start to arrive at this unconventional studio in colourful, mismatched clothes, not a hint of Lycra or Luon in sight. Some shuffle in with their shoulders hunched and heads down, others make shy eye contact as they enter. There’s an occasional hug between friends and hellos in unfamiliar languages are heard as they start to settle on to their mats.
The teacher, Ourmala founder Emily Brett arrives, and the class smiles collectively, emanating warmth towards her. We begin with breathing exercises, inhaling hope as we bring our hands together, then physically extending our arms out to push away stress, fear and negativity as we exhale. With each breath, we focus on becoming more alive and present. Then, Brett asks the class to make a silent wish for themselves and it’s clear from the poignant silence and the expressions on closed-eyed faces that this is about far more than the physical practice of yoga
"Yoga has the unique ability to connect people to themselves, through breath, movement, and meditation. It builds peace from the inside.”
Emily Brett, founder of Ourmala
Brett began Ourmala, a non-profit yoga organization in 2011 while she was volunteering for the British Red Cross. After experiencing the healing properties of yoga first-hand, she asked herself what it meant to truly practice yoga with all her heart in her everyday life. Ourmala is part of her answer. “Yoga philosophy, which is so practical, and the tools and techniques yoga gives us, can help enormously in times of difficulty - as well as in happy times,” says Brett. “There is this huge group of people seeking asylum in the UK, living in limbo that could benefit greatly from that support.” Brett trained as a yoga teacher after practicing asana and meditation for over a decade because she wanted to work with the refugee community —and the rest is history.
Ourmala offers specialist yoga classes, practical support and community for people seeking asylum or with refugee status. They have expanded from a weekly women-only class at Hackney City Farm to now offer nine classes every week across London for women, men and young people as well as offering significant support to refugee mums and babies. People regularly travel for up to two hours each way to come to yoga, and travel refunds are provided to everyone so they can afford to come. Ourmala is working towards putting in place more classes to reduce journey times, but for now, clients seem happy to make the journey.
“Yoga can be profoundly transformational,” says Brett, of its effects on this marginalized group of people. “It has the unique ability to connect people to themselves, through breath, movement and meditation. It builds peace from the inside.” And, for those who have fled from war zones, sexual trafficking or torture, and are suffering from symptoms of PTSD, depression or insomnia—being able to rebuild inner peace is huge
“When I went into the yoga practice, even on my first day, I felt transformed. I have found a place I can call my home.”
Jane, single mother from Nigeria
Although provisions are made for the housing and basic medical and legal care of refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK, they are legally unable to work until they are granted refugee status—often waiting years with just £5.28 per day to live on. This is a fact that is unlikely to change in the near future—but through yoga Brett is trying to create a space for her clients to heal and find a genuinely caring community. A stable environment where they can feel safe, make friendships, and get the support they need to help them to integrate into UK society.
“The first time I came (to Ourmala), the first hug when I walked in the door, I have never gotten that kind of warm welcome before,” says Jane, a single mother from Nigeria. “When I went into the yoga practice, even on my first day, I felt transformed. I have found a place I can call my home.
”Most of Ourmala’s clients are referred by psychotherapists, counsellors and humanitarian support workers as a means to help with stress and anxiety, and all teachers have specialist training to work with refugees. “We teach yoga based on Ashtanga, focusing on grounding. Our programme is evidence-based and sensitive to trauma, gender and cultural differences,” explains Brett, “There are certain considerations that are essential to be aware of in order to make sure the yoga practice is the most beneficial to our clients.”
Brett says that although they are sensitive to their clients’ pasts, the focus in class is firmly on positivity and empowerment. “We teach that in yoga, we practice with an open heart and our chins up.” Yoga philosophy is taught as practical tools that clients can take off the mat, to help in their everyday lives. And, at the end of each session, there’s always time to socialize over tea and biscuits or a hot lunch.
“It’s a place where you can take time for yourself and put the bad situation that you are in to one side” says Maude, an Albanian refugee who has been awaiting her status with her young daughter for five years. “Things are difficult for us but at least there are some spaces where you feel okay, let the other things go, and just feel relaxed and calm there. After trying yoga for the first time I could really see the benefits that it has, especially for people who have been through some really difficult times like us.”
It’s the environment created by the yoga at Ourmala that stands out the most, along with the feeling of inclusion, joy and connection created between people with shared horrors that they are trying so hard to move on from.
“Practicing yoga together, we are all one, it doesn’t matter about your ethnicity or your background,” says Kate, who was a victim of sexual trafficking and has been awaiting her status for 11 years. “It lifts everybody out of the pain we are going through and makes us feel free."