Namaste: A Peace Corps Yoga Movement in the Eastern Caribbean

A group of fourteen people lay on the grass in the Botanical Gardens in St. Vincent on a pleasantly warm Saturday morning. Their breathing is slow and calm as they practice the final resting posture, Savasana (Corpse pose), at the end of a one-hour yoga class underneath the cool shade of breadfruit and coconut trees and a partly cloudy blue sky.

The group that has come to practice this morning is made up of local Vincentians, Peace Corps Volunteers, ex-pats, and visitors. Many are regulars at the bimonthly yoga classes that have been offered at the Alliance Française in Kingstown since January 2011, while others are completely new to the practice.

As class comes to an end, students approach me with questions about poses, to introduce themselves and to share observations of how differently they felt at the end of class compared to the beginning. The relaxation, peace of mind, and sense of community are palpable as each person moves with noticeable ease and lightness in their energy at the conclusion of the session.

Such is the remarkable magic of Yoga, which in the Hindu language of Sanskrit is translated to ‘yoke,’ or ‘union’. This ancient practice whose origin can be dated back by some scholars as early as the 3rd millennium B.C. continues to become increasingly popular in the westernized world as a means to improve the body-mind-breath connection, thus improving overall health and well being.

Its benefits include increased sense of presence; improved flexibility, strength, and circulation; better concentration, focus, emotional regulation and mental clarity; and heightened levels of peace and compassion for self and others.

In our work as Peace Corps Volunteers, it is no surprise that this mindfulness practice is incorporating its way into an ever-growing number of service projects. Already on three of our six island posts, PCVs are using yoga to help us in our mission to promote a lasting sense of peace and friendship, one island at a time.

Grenada

Last summer PCV Katie Randall (EC83) was introduced to REACH Grenada, a group-based youth curriculum that seeks to support the health and wellbeing of Grenada’s most vulnerable youth. As part of the Bartholomew Lawson Foundation for Children, a New York based non-profit, REACH Grenada provides a supportive space for healing and recovery through self-expression. Utilizing mediums such as song, dance, games, art and yoga, children who have experienced early trauma in the forms of neglect, abuse and abandonment build positive coping mechanisms and to release negative emotions constructively.

Six months into her service Katie introduced this curriculum to a group of teenage boys in conjunction with the caregivers at a residential home where she had helped run a summer program. Her background in yoga paired with her desire to positively impact these youths’ lives made for an ideal secondary project. “Life skills in the form of anger management, conflict resolution, self-regulation, and being in the present moment wrapped up in awareness of this safe space,” Katie says, “is a crucial element of life for young, vulnerable youth.”

St. Lucia

PCV Sarah Templeton (EC83) began teaching yoga to a group of four women at a holistic wellness center in St. Lucia in August 2011. After recognizing the need for increased exposure to the concept of healthy living, she moved her yoga project to a secondary school where she discovered that greater numbers of people would come to class each week. “I found teaching the teachers was really effective because it helped them with stress management and better breathing techniques, which maybe would help in their day to day,” said Sarah.

One major challenge she faced with newcomers was disarming their preconceived notions that yoga is an expression of negative forces or anti-religious associations. Despite these misconceptions she found that the classes have continued to grow and that her students express a genuine curiosity about the practice.

In May 2012, Sarah began offering yoga classes to the youth at Upton Garden Girls Centre. Their reception is promising she says, and her hope is that they recognize the benefit of emotional regulation through breath and movement. Sarah hopes to continue the expansion of yoga in St. Lucia through starting classes for secondary school students and supporting the emergence of community classes around the island.

St. Vincent

In addition to teaching at the Alliance Française and Botanical Gardens, my own service has included an offering of yoga and meditation sessions to students and graduates of the Community College Art Program. Twice a month since November 2010, I have gathered with these leaders of the country’s creative youth movement to aid in facilitating their growing sense of awareness about themselves, their environment, and their work as emerging artists in SVG.

After nearly two years of yoga in the Art Room, student Sean Roache has found that starting his day with Sun Salutations has led to increased productivity and decreased stress. In June he also found himself turning to the practice to help in easing the emotional pain from the untimely loss of fellow artist and yoga practitioner Jennifer Lewis, a dear friend of the Art Room and cherished member St. Vincent’s creative community. Sean’s practice has also led to the revelation of profound insights about resilience and interpersonal connections. “The ability to maintain sanity in loss is a greater reward than simply rejoicing in victory for your wins,” Sean says. “I’ve learned that yoga is a powerful tool that can bring people together.”

It is this spirit of togetherness that reminds us the practice of yoga is one that extends beyond the space in which we practice. On the mat we practice cultivating peace within ourselves; off the mat we practice taking that peace out into the world as we show up more present, more loving and more compassionate, ultimately helping to make the world a more peaceful place.

And isn’t that was Peace Corps is about?

Namaste.

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Copyright © 2010-2012 Camille Aragon

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