A school psychologist finds that yoga aids children both at home and abroad.
by Donna Helm-Yost
Working as a high school psychologist, I often use yoga practices such as pranayama and meditation with my students to assist them in dealing with emotional challenges such as anxiety and depression. So when I started volunteering my skills in Ethiopia with the Australian non-profit Beyond the Orphanage, it became apparent yoga would indeed help me in my work with the children there as well.
With 5.5 million orphans in Ethiopia, orphanages struggle to provide care with the limited resources they have. Beyond the Orphanage offers an alternative solution, enabling orphans to remain living in their community under the care of their relatives. The volunteer-based organisation calls on counsellors, tutors and social workers, comprising local and international workers, to assist in supporting these incredibly resilient kids who have experienced so many challenges in their short lives.
I made my first trip to Beyond the Orphanage in July 2008. Concerned that I might struggle providing support to the children due to language and cultural barriers, I considered yoga—an energetic vehicle of change. Our first yoga practice was limited—we were in a small room with desks and not much room to move.
In 2010, I returned for the third time and gave a yoga class to 55 children. Some had limited yoga experience from my first two visits, while the remaining kids had never tried or even heard of yoga and were very open to the experience. We practised outside in the beautiful Ethiopian sunshine.
A social worker translated for me so that I could share a little bit about yoga—being in the present moment, breathing through the nose, and not worrying about what you can or can’t do. After that, we just practised, sharing the beauty of movement and breath together. Since we didn’t have yoga mats, I had to modify the class a little—but yoga transcends all barriers. The kids were smiling and laughing, and I enjoyed teaching this class more than any other over the past nine years.
Now I visit Ethiopia twice a year and the kids always ask me when we will be doing yoga. Because of their school schedule and the other work that I do while there (including both home and school visits), we only practise on Saturdays. However, even with limited practice, yoga becomes internalised and generalised in other aspects of life. Over the past three years I have noticed a real change in the children. I believe that the love and support that they receive from Beyond the Orphanage and yoga has inspired these changes.
They are open to trying everything without an ounce of self-consciousness. Throughout the class their smiles light up the room; their energy is inspiring and healing. I am grateful to have this opportunity to experience the beauty of yoga—uniting body, mind and spirit—with these kids.
My own non-profit, Karma Yoga Project, is thrilled to be partnering with Beyond the Orphanage. Our team believes that we can make a difference on the planet through the vehicle of yoga. And because of our success in Ethiopia, we have developed a yoga program at an orphanage in Quito, Ecuador. We are also creating a program for at-risk teens in the US. We have a huge vision of making the world a better place through yoga, and we’ve only just begun!