Bringing the Healing Power of Yoga to Those in Need
by Susan Post
For centuries, yogis have known about the healing benefits of practicing yoga. Not only can it help ease anxiety, depression and insomnia, it also helps practitioners to become more in touch with their bodies. Now, as more research causes modern science to validate yoga’s soothing ways, it opens the door for new groups of people to benefit.
The Yoga on High Foundation brings these healing practices to a variety of underserved populations across Central Ohio. Part of the mission statement of the Short North studio where the foundation originates is “yoga for everybody”.
“In order to fulfill that mission we knew that we needed a charitable arm of our business so that we could do this outreach work,” says Program Director Michele Vinbury.
Started in late 2008, the Yoga on High Foundation’s mission is to develop and deliver therapeutic yoga programs to communities or persons in need.
“We are aware that there are populations for whatever reason that haven’t been exposed to it or can’t afford it,” Vinbury says. All of the teachers involved have experienced the healing benefits of yoga and desire to bring that healing power to others.
“The early programs were yoga in schools and yoga for diabetes. It has grown quite considerably from its first inception,” Vinbury says. Subsequent program additions include yoga for: veterans, amputees, prisons, mental illness, those facing or recovering from cancer, and survivors of trauma and/or human trafficking.
“I think the hope across the board is to give the population tools to deal with whatever is arising for them – the joys and the challenges in their particular lives,” Vinbury says. Many classes offer a gentle practice, and instructors encourage attendees to do as much or little as makes them comfortable.
Yoga has a host of benefits that are advantageous for these populations.
“Yoga has been shown to reduce symptoms of PTSD,” Vinbury says. “It is helpful in cultivating feelings of self-acceptance, self-love,” she says. “It is good at increasing flexibility, both of the body and the mind.” Vinbury notes that flexibility of the mind also helps people stay calm and decrease reactivity.
There is often a learning curve for people new to yoga, especially those the foundation reaches. Vinbury notes that people who have faced trauma may have their guard up. For that reason, the Yoga on High Foundation likes to work with a group for 8 to 12 weeks to build trust. Being open with people new to the practice helps ease fears of what yoga is and is not. They make it clear that they are not coming in with any religious system or trying to impose an ideology; they just want people to explore the practice.
“With a lot of the programs, it’s just about being together as people,” Vinbury says. “I see you and your humanity and not the labels imposed on you or whatever challenges you have.”
While many of the individuals have faced serious or traumatic events, sometimes the practice can be a chance to cultivate a sense of humor. Vinbury cites an example of one of her classes at a women’s prison. The women were cranky and irritable with each other coming in to class, and she asked them to try some partner poses. By the end of class, however, everyone was rolling on the floor and laughing.
Some programs have a more serious tone, like EMBER, a 12-week trauma-sensitive curriculum for women who have faced sexual abuse, assault or trafficking. These classes focus on softer language and are less directive, allowing women to explore their comfort level. There are no hands-on adjustments, either. Teachers keep students aware of their presence in the room at all times, and the lights stay on.
“The aim of a trauma-sensitive class is to allow people to begin to feel their body in a way that feels friendly,” Vinbury says. Next year Yoga on High will also offer a 100-hour teacher training for trauma-sensitive yoga.
The Yoga on High Foundation continues to add programs to help underserved populations access the healing benefits of yoga. Classes not only build connections and community, but help people to uncover their inherent resilience and personal abilities.
Susan Post is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus. She enjoys writing about her city and the people and places that make it special. Contact her at Susan.Post.firstname.lastname@example.org.