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Yoga: How We Serve Survivors of Gender-Based Violence in Africa

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This is an interview with George Acire (whose name means "I have passed through pain"). George teaches yoga at Mandala House in Gulu, Uganda. Mandala House provides yoga training to locals who then fan out and teach in their own communities. Its programs focus on survivors of trauma, including gender-based violence and ex-combatants.

Each week George leads up to 16 yoga classes, at Mandala House and through NGOs, working with war-affected youth. At the ripe age of 20, he's trying to get more mental health care workers trained to use these tools to complement their ongoing therapies.

Rob: How did you get into yoga?

I used to pass the Mandala House. I had no idea what yoga was. One day I saw a friend there, Ivan Julius. He was with Eric, another friend. I asked what they were up to. They said they were doing yoga. I decided to try it out that evening. Lenny Williams, founder of the Mandala House, invited me to the teacher training workshop the very next week. I became a yoga teacher on June 28, 2012.

What was it like teaching your first classes?

I was nervous and in a hurry. I forgot to do one side of a posture. I kept finding myself accidentally ending early just because of nervousness. I began to feel like I was a good teacher only during the relaxation period. That's when I found my voice -- speaking when helping people to enjoy the resting poses. That's when I said to myself, "yes, I can be a good teacher." Now I feel more confident. I constantly practice, and teach twice a week in the Mental Health Unit of the hospital in Gulu, as well as in Gulu Prison with male inmates. I also teach on Sunday at St. Jude's children's home with orphans aged 11 to 15.

What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I felt that yoga has benefits. Every day I used to feel back pain. One day during the teacher training workshop we learned plough pose. The next morning when I woke up I remember thinking, "there is something missing." I sat on my bed and I remembered, "every morning when I wake up I feel back pain, but today it's gone."

Plough became my first best yoga pose because I realized it had the power to heal me. I felt yoga would benefit different people in different ways, and other people will get different benefits from mine. In Uganda yoga is a new thing. I want everyone in the community to be able to experience it and I want them to be able to benefit from yoga in their own unique way.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching?

Right now we are mostly focusing on teaching within the town of Gulu. Northern Uganda has experienced a war and it has affected people in different ways. Some people are traumatized.

When you talk with them they say "yes," but they might not really understand what you are saying. It's like their mind is somewhere else. They sit and look around silently; it's hard for them to concentrate. I hope that if they keep on coming they will improve. Now, I think I just have to try to give more attention to them, and observe how they are doing and support them in their practice.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach the populations you work with?

There will be some new teachers coming soon. I would say to them, you know teaching yoga is interesting and don't lose hope or get discouraged. In the beginning you will be nervous but that is normal and that is part of life. As you keep on teaching and the more experience you get you build confidence. I would advise them to: "teach to learn" and then "learn to teach." Because when you teach, you are learning and then when you learn, you are able to teach. That is my principle.

I would also advise them to be friendly with people, because if you are not it is very difficult to deal with people. Everyone comes to yoga with different backgrounds. People get an impression of yoga from you. You have to share ideas, be polite, share your personal benefits with them and ask them about their interests and experiences. You have to welcome people so that they feel they are part of the yoga community even the first time they come.

Also, some Ugandans think that since I'm working with whites at the yoga studio and NGOs that I make a lot of money. Some people might come to yoga initially because they are interested in making money. I've realized that if you don't have a genuine interest in yoga it won't work out. You have to be ready to serve the community. You have to be ready to see the benefits in people's lives. I'm ready to see Mandala House expand, ready to see yoga expand in Uganda! You can't teach yoga for money. It has to be genuine.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of "service yoga/beneficiary classes" in Northern Uganda in the next decade?

In 10 years if we will expand, and the more teachers we have the more people will learn about it and the more the community will commit itself to practicing yoga. In 10 years I hope that all the schools and NGOs in Gulu will be doing yoga.

How has this work changed your definition of service?

I feel like yoga brings people who are very different together and lets us share ideas. It builds a community. Certainly it has changed my life. Since I was young I was never patient; I did everything in a rush. In yoga, during some poses, you realize that you have to stay still in one pose. You have to say, "Today I am here. Tomorrow I am there." Some people want to force themselves to be somewhere else, but it takes a journey. In yoga, the most important thing is not the postures you're going to do but the steps you're going to take. It doesn't matter where you're going to go but where you are right then, and I think this can benefit the community a lot.

Others are asking, like the prison inmates, "If I get out of prison where can I do yoga?" and they ask if they can also become yoga teachers. I think that's a good sign.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Interview assistant in Gulu: Holly Porter

To stay connected with Give Back Yoga Foundation as we share the gift of yoga, one person at a time, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Learn how you can help underserved populations experience the transformational power of yoga and meditation by visiting our website.

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved populations? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. The Yoga Service Council is also welcoming submissions for their new Journal of Yoga Service. For more information, visit their website at or email editor Kelly Birch.