On Wednesday December 17th 2014, after an exhausting bus ride on bumpy, dusty, and unpaved roads, we finally reached Kyaka II. We were traveling to this refugee settlement in western Uganda as part of the Equator Peace Academy’s (EPA) two-week program “Coping with Refugees in a Foreign Land,” which was devoted to the refugee question. With time before dinner and tired from the long hours in the bus, members of our group requested that I lead a yoga session.
After doing a few Urdhva Hastasana, Badangulyiasana, Utthitha Trikonasana poses, the group became aware that two young girls from the refugee camp behind me were copying our moves. With a big smile, we invited them to join us. They were soon followed by a six-year-old boy. These little children all beamed with joy to be practicing with the grownups, just as their presence infused tremendous joy into our session. We did not need to communicate in any other way; yoga became our common language.
Feeling the togetherness and the joy, I decided on the spot that after almost two weeks together, the group was ready to try some partner work. As one person became a wall, his or her partner adopted a modified Adho Mukha Svanasana. The children worked together. Both partners benefited from the stretch: one stood in Tadasana, while the other gently lowered the trapezius muscles on entering into the modified pose. We then graduated to a modified partner Utthita Trikonasana and Virabharadasana II. We felt a wonderful sense of togetherness. Practicing with these little children from the refugee camp brought energy and a sense of purpose; it was one of those moments when we touch grace.
This practice time in Kyaka II with the small children was the culmination of our yoga work. Almost every day we had learned basic asanas for 30 minutes. I was amazed to see how quickly the group, the majority of whom were from East Africa, the United States, and Canada and had no prior yoga experience, took to the yoga practice sessions. Many expressed their surprise at the power of these simple movements, which helped them center and let go of stress after a full day of activities.
At the beginning of the program we scheduled yoga practice every two or three days, but as people asked for more, we added sessions whenever possible. Yoga proved most helpful after long trips, which is how we came to practice together with the children in camp Kyaka II. Yoga brought us together in a fundamental way. As one participant observed, “we had fun, we could laugh together, and it also rejuvenated us.” In addition to giving us the power to bring our group of strangers together, yoga enabled us to reconnect to our bodies after emotional and intellectual activities. Integrating our bodies and mind reinvigorated each of us and nurtured our togetherness.
The EPA is an affiliate program of the global educational network CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion), where I am the staff member in charge of reflective practice. In our programs throughout the years, yoga has become part of our methodology, one of the different containers created to engage the whole person. This methodology, created by CEDAR and implemented in Uganda by the EPA, focuses on learning together how to engage with our differences. For more than 12 years we have developed programs that integrate the many ways in which we humans learn, creating an awareness of how we see strangers and the baggage we bring to these meetings. Lectures, site visits, and facilitation sessions in which we personalize our learning prompt participants to connect with their deep-seated assumptions regarding strangers.
As CEDAR’s program grew, I gradually started sharing my passion for yoga with our group participants. Iyengar yoga in particular supports my efforts toward reflective practice. One of the first things I tell each CEDAR group is that in meeting our “others,” we must become aware of our assumptions and act, not react. We need to stop and become aware. In a way this approach is like the yogic principle of Svadayaya, self-study. Only through stopping and feeling can we understand our own bodies’ reactions when we encounter strangers. How can we encounter our “others” if we are not seated in our bodies and aware of our own reactions?
I remember the first time, in Bosnia in 2004, when some joined in my daily practice after a very tense day, exhausted by the sheer destruction we had encountered in Mostar. Without words, we pushed the chairs away and created a space for opening our chests and ourselves to life again. Since then, I have brought my love for yoga to each different yearly group. Organically, yoga has grown in my own life as well as in our programs and has become an integral part of our routine. In our CEDAR groups, yoga has the power to bring us together, to experience joy, but also to accomplish the difficult task of bringing our bodies into sync with our minds. Meeting strangers and our differences can be scary at times, and yoga also teaches us to confront our boundaries, the places where we are afraid. Achieving the integration of body, mind, and soul is a lifelong process, but we take a small step toward it during these programs. In yoga as well as in the rest of the program, we practice with the group to face up to our places of discomfort as we encounter difference.
I am always humbled to see people who, during these two weeks, start the process of returning to their bodily sensations in a very methodical way and find these difficult places. They become aware of their body parts and the places where they hold tension, discomfort. Participants love the new feelings of openness, as well as the realization that these simple movements are actually not so simple. The feeling of well-being that comes at the end of a practice is indeed well earned. While we enjoy the process, we also meet with our boundaries, as we do in our groups. Yoga is one way we bump up against our physical boundaries. Sometimes, we learn that these boundaries are not set in stone, and that we can push through our discomfort to find a new way to engage not only our bodies, but also the stranger among us. Yoga has proved itself a most valuable ally in this process. It teaches us to look at our boundaries, the places where we are afraid. As we learn to face our own bodily sensations and feelings in yoga, we become conscious of the social boundaries within our groups and learn to confront them too. Both in our yoga practice and in our encounters with strangers, we have begun the work of learning to live with discomfort and difference.
Rahel Wasserfall is the CEDAR Director of Evaluation and Training and a Scholar in Residence at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) at Brandeis University.
 Upward hands pose, upward bound fingers pose, triangle pose
 Dog pose
 Mountain pose
 Warrior II pose