As aid workers our lives can involve lots of travel, long and irregular hours, exposure to disease, pollutants and violence, stressful work conditions and a general lack of control over diet, sleep patterns and physical activity.
It’s a great life, and we love it. Sometimes, at least. But it also takes a toll.
We all know it, and we do our best to stay healthy and do a good job. But maybe you’re one of the many people looking for more tools to ‘do well and be well’. Maybe you’ve been thinking that yoga might be one of those tools.
These days I’m a yoga convert, a lover of all things yogic, mostly because I’m convinced that yoga is one of the most powerful, transportable and adaptable tools available to help development workers maintain our physical and mental well-being.
But it was not always so, I was once a yoga-resister.
When I arrived in Kabul, in the last days of 2005, my friend Kate kept inviting me along to the yoga class she attended on Monday night in a hall out the back of a restaurant. I had been doing a little bit of yoga in New Zealand – one class a week to stretch out after my runs – but I struggled with yoga. It moved too slowly for my impatient, busy mind, and I found the relaxation pose at the end especially excruciating.
Left alone, in silence, with my thoughts for ten minutes I would reach a point where I couldn’t stand it any longer. Every week, about mid-way through the relaxation pose at the end of class, I would decide to get up and leave, only to find I was too self-conscious to walk out in front of the rest of the class. I was always so relieved when the teacher rang his little bell to signal that savasana was over.
So in Kabul, I made up excuses not to go to yoga with Kate. But even as I resisted it, a part of me guessed yoga might be exactly what I needed. So one week, about a month after I arrived in Kabul, I went along.
I’m not going to lie and tell you I loved it from the first moment. To start with, I struggled. I’m not naturally flexible, so many of the stretches are uncomfortable for me, and my inability to force my body to stretch further frustrated me. The slow breathing at the beginning of the class, meanwhile, stumped me. I couldn’t seem to make my breath go as slowly as the teacher, leaving me – again – frustrated.
But even through the frustration and the struggle, something was happening. In the relaxation pose at the end, I actually felt myself drop away, for a few moments, from the constant train of worries running through my head. And by the time we came out of savasana I felt more relaxed than I had since landing in Kabul.
Before long, Monday and Thursday night yoga classes became the highlights of my week. As soon as class was over I started looking forward to the next one. Eventually I decided I couldn’t wait three days for my next yoga fix and started teaching myself yoga at home. I’d repeat the poses I was learning in class, working out which poses left me feeling most relaxed, which helped release the most tension from my overwrought body and mind.
Over the two years I spent in Afghanistan, I came to the conclusion that a little bit of yoga every day could make more difference to my well-being than a long class once a week. And that’s what I want to share with you today – a short and simple yoga practice you can do at home every day. Download the free yoga video.
This short video is designed to be accessible to most people, but if you find that any of the poses just don’t work for you, feel free to adjust them so they suit you better. Yoga is not about forcing your body to fit someone else’s standard or ideal, it’s about meeting your body – exactly as it is today – with kindness.
Once you’ve done the practice a few times, you may find that you don’t need to see what we are doing anymore. So I’m including an audio-only version of the practice as well that you can put it on your portable sound device and take it with you wherever you go. And you’ll never have a reason not to do yoga again! Download the audio-only version.
And if you think that you’d benefit from a more regular yoga practice, my friend – fellow aid worker and yoga teacher – Amanda Scothern and I have created an online yoga program specifically designed for aid workers.
30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers is an online program designed to support you to begin or restart a regular practice of yoga. We’ve shaped it specifically to meet the needs of aid workers, which means it’s designed to help you take yoga with you wherever you go, and to adjust to your changing needs.
You can read more and sign up on my website. Registration is open until 7 February and the program begins on 10 February.
Featured image is Marianne practising yoga. Photo from Marianne Elliott.
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