Earlier this month, I traveled to Rwanda as part an intiative to teach contemplative practices as means of self-care for humanitarian workers. This initiative, Contemplative-Based Resiliency (CBR) Training, was organized by the Garrison Institute. The faculty had multiple experts in the field, including a meditation teacher and psychologists, in addition to me as the movement/yoga instructor. To diverge topics briefly, but worth mentioning—before I left, many people asked if I were concerned about Ebola. I wasn’t. I didn’t want to go into a geography lesson with every conversation, but the perspective is important. Below are distances from Rwanda to the closest countries with Ebola outbreaks:
– Liberia: 4458 km / 2770 miles away
– Guinea: 4573 km / 2841 miles away
In comparison, from my home in Atlanta to the nearest contracted cases of Ebola, which were within the US:
– Dallas, TX: 1253 km / 782 miles away
Africa is an enormous continent; in Rwanda I was more than 3 times the distance from Ebola that I have been at home. In fact, for the concerns of Rwandan immigration authorities at the airport, I was the threat. I couldn’t take a photo, of course, but all the people in line at immigration had their forehead temperatures taken. And the customary immigration form had clearly been updated recently to include questions about any recent travel to west Africa or any flu-like symptoms. My bigger safety concerns were baboons and malaria. Prominently displayed in my room was a page with baboon warnings, cautioning me not to tease or try to feed baboons of any size at any time. Apparently they have no fear in trying to snatch food and can quickly become aggressive. So I was very diligent and always kept my distance. Malaria was never fully out of mind; the frequent mosquito sounds at any hour of the day could feel ominous. And it was rainy season and I was staying at a lodge in Akagera National Park, overlooking Lake Ihema, one of the largest lakes in Africa.
Anyway, I spent a week and a half in the land of a thousand hills. Participants came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR); most were African nationals. The latter is one of the most unstable places on the planet—one person, who had recently visited Syria, said right now she would be safer there than in CAR. Though the few expat staff members were familiar with yoga and meditation, very few of the national staff had ever heard of either. Some people had broad ideas, such as meditation being akin to concentration. As an instructor, I found this lack of familiarity useful in many ways. Rather than first discussing yoga and asana as related to the body or discussing what people had seen in magazines or online, I directed discussions immediately about why do these practices at all.
One of the best questions was “What’s the purpose of yoga?” It has, of course, countless answers. In my experience, I have had students who practiced asana and yoga for the sake of pain relief, recovery and training for exercise or sports, maintenance of optimal health. But in this context, with humanitarian workers who endure intense stress and often security risks, we talked a lot about yoga and asana as some of many ways to manage their frequent stresses, traumas, and responsibilities.
This time last year I posted about why I practice yoga—that it’s not about the asana or the outer layer of the body. I care about integrity and grace, compassion and vulnerability. Transcendence. At that time, I had no idea that a year later I would have a completely different experience, in which I would still teach the same idea. Though I love teaching asana and hope that those opportunities are always available, I am much, much more concerned with how asana relates and affects life off, rather than on, the mat. To that end, this training regalvanized my intentions of offering workshops with those same intentions. My favorite comment about this mentality came from one of the participants. He shared a saying common to his culture, which is to have a “heart like a river.” Learning about mindfulness in thought and movement helped him maintain that attitude.
I have never lived near any sort of water for more than a couple of months—water tends not to be a dominant metaphor. But I have kept this idea close to heart and mind, in the hopes that my my spiritual practices will help me continue to flow and surge and move and churn and gush and swirl and cascade, my heart like a river. SK © 2014