Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of the highlights, successes, challenges and key learnings from the launch of the World Spine Care Yoga Project in Botswana this spring. The mission of the WSC Yoga Project is to support the global mission of World Spine Care by empowering individuals in underserved populations to share the practices of yoga.
For the past year, project co-directors Erin Moon and Barrie Risman created a teacher training program for communities served by World Spine Care. This program trains local people to offer free yoga classes for WSC patients. The first 10-day training was offered for the Shoshong and Mahalapye clinics last month. Free yoga classes are now being offered by our trainees at both clinics. Classes have been very well-attended with up to 30 patients!
After 1½ years of planning the morning had arrived, Erin and I were in Shoshong, Botswana to launch the teacher training we had created. Here we were with our 13 trainees and ready to begin - excited, thrilled even. And filled with anticipation of what was to come while being completely open to learn from and respond to what would surely be the unexpected unfolding of our very unique teacher training.
It started like every teacher training I’ve done, with an icebreaker. Everyone was asked to interview a fellow trainee, ask them these 3 questions and then introduce them to the group:
What’s your name? Where are you from?
And then the “fun” one:
What’s your favorite food?
To this last question, I answered, “ice cream” and my co-trainer, “chocolate.” The trainees had very different responses: “[sourghum]porridge, vegetables, salad.”
Through their answers, I was getting the message that this did not necessarily translate as a “fun” question for them. At our debrief that evening we talked about the idea that perhaps food was not something to be spoken of lightly, or casually. A better question might have been, “What is your favorite childhood memory?”
The trainees created their own nametags, so we could learn their names. I went around the circle trying to pronounce their long, unfamiliar names. I realized that it would take me probably the whole 10 days of the training to learn them all, which it pretty much did.
We introduced our manual, written in English, simply, with barebones instructions, and plenty of visuals so it could be easily translated and understood by our trainees.
We sat in a circle and talked about the parameters of the training, the intention of the training was learning how to teach 45-minute classes composed of posture, breath and mindfulness exercises to a population of back care patients that could not get down and up off the ground without pain.
Half of the group understood this directly. Of our 13 trainees, 7 were women in the 50s and 60s from Shoshong, a traditional village where WSC has one of its chiropractic clinics. All of these women had been through the clinic as patients, so they knew back pain. They had also been doing a 30-minute exercise program once a week, so they experienced first-hand the value of movement as part of the active self-care and psycho-social support so critical to caring for back pain. Here, sitting under a shady tree just outside the clinic, we were about to give them many more tools for managing their own pain and teaching others how to do the same.
After lunch we gathered again, though not in place we had planned. We planned on being in the kglota, the community meeting space in traditional Botswana villages. It is an open pavilion located in the center of the village and plays a multi-functional role of public meeting space, court of law and more. We thought we had reserved the kglota for the training in the afternoon, but when we arrived there was a meeting taking place, so we quickly arranged for another space to teach. This delayed the training by about an hour, the first of many such delays that we understood were part of the deal with doing this for the first time, and also in a culture with a much looser sense of timing than our Western ideas.
In our new space, we regrouped in a big circle and led our trainees through one of the sequences in our manual, 45 minutes of chair postures, basic mindfulness exercise and several breath exercises.
As we led the trainees through a sequence of chair poses, they followed along attentively.
First posture taught was how to sit well in a chair.
Then came breathing and mindfulness exercises.
When we taught the trainees beginning Ujjayi, I noticed that it was almost impossible for them to breathe without moving their whole torso. Breathing in, they would puff their chest up and even shrug their shoulders, breathe out they would collapse their chest completely. Something to work on, but at least they were paying attention to their breathing, right?
The room fell completely silent when we taught the first mindfulness exercise. As someone who has led meditation for years, I can sense when people go inside. They were there. Perhaps it is the rhythm of their daily life, which doesn’t follow the scheduled timings that we do, or just the ability to become present, but they were there, right in the moment. It was an inspiring, profound teaching for us.
A valuable learning for us on the first day was how to say “breathe in” and “breathe out” in Sestwana:
to be continued….