OPENING A SAFE SPACE FOR SURVIVORS: OURMALA

Words: Emily Brett and Jill Damatac Futter // Images: Carl Bigmore // Video: Julia Mills and Katie Mark

Compassion. Service. Devotion. We use these words so often when we talk about yoga, but how often do we really practice what they mean? Participating with Ourmala, a nonprofit London-based organization that provides yoga classes, English classes, and a community of warmth and safety for survivors of human trafficking and violence, is one way we could live our yoga. Watch this beautiful short film on Ourmala's work, below, and read on for heart-opening interview with founder Emily Brett on how teachers and students can help.

Breathing Space: a short film by Julia Mills & Katie Mark

What led you to begin Ourmala?

Emily: I've been practicing yoga since 1998, 1999...and it's been something in my life that's taken me to the most extraordinary places. And yoga has just shifted so much internally, and I've met the most wonderful people in my yoga journey, and it's given me such a beautiful call to life. I've always been extremely sensitive, and I feel like I've known yoga all my life. I practiced for years, and in the back of my mind, I'd always thought that one day I would love to be a yoga teacher, but for me, it seemed so far away from who I was and my perception of myself, and of my perception of who a yoga teacher was, as well.

I was living in France at the time, and I read a magazine article about a woman called Bonnie who was working in Kabul, and she was teaching yoga to war orphans. And in savasana, they totally blanked out, because of the trauma--the memories came back, but they felt safe, and it was not traumatic. And when I read that, I knew that I wanted to do that--to teach yoga and use it for some kind of therapeutic purpose.

A teacher of mine used to say that you would have, in life, your peak experiences, and your deep experiences. So one day, you may have an amazing deep experience on the mat, and the next day, it's just, you know, a bag of tea in a cup of hot water, and you're just moving through every day life. And the Buddha said that your job is to live by the light of your deepest experiences of what life is. And I really took that to heart. If I tread that path, what does that mean? 

AND IF THERE’S ANYTHING THAT I CAN DO WITH MY PRIVILEGE—AND BOY, ARE WE PRIVILEGED—IF THERE’S ANYTHING I CAN DO WITH THAT AND WITH MY YOGA PRACTICE, THEN THAT’S PART OF LIVING BY THE LIGHT OF MY DEEPEST EXPERIENCES.

I did a 30-day silent meditation retreat in Northern India in 2008, and when I came back to London, a lot had changed internally, in my inner world, and Ourmala took shape. It's like an external manifestation of my devotion to everything that is greater than me, of the energy and the love that I feel. It's also part of my yoga practice, not separate, just like asana practice, or sitting practice, or drinking cup of tea practice, or having a glass of wine practice...Ourmala is a part of it all, but it's a much more concentrated part of that practice. 

I do feel, so strongly, that life isn't fair. There are such dark parts of it, and the women that we work with--they are essentially my sisters. As a human family, they are our sisters. And if there's anything that I can do with my privilege--and boy, are we privileged--if there's anything I can do with that and with my yoga practice, then that's part of living by the light of my deepest experiences. 

I began Ourmala in 2011-12, as a pilot year. It was called Hackney Yoga Project at the time, because it was, well, a project, at that point, and it was just one yoga class. I was volunteering for the British Red Cross, and they have a group called The Vulnerable Refugee and Asylum Seeking Women's Group, and it's for just that--women who've experienced gender-based violence and are either destitute or nearly destitute. So apart from, arguably, undocumented refugee and asylum-seeking women, this group is the most vulnerable. And quite often, they have children. So I was teaching yoga to them on a voluntary basis, maybe every five or six weeks, and the women just found it so useful. It was their favorite session, and it gave them all of the benefits that yoga gives us all, but also they found that the effects lasted away from class, off the mat. Some of them fell asleep in savasana, having not slept for nights and nights. It was just brilliant. The women wanted to do this every week, but we couldn't do it every week, because there were competing priorities, understandably.

So I started Hackney Yoga Project at Hackney City Farm, so that women who do want a weekly class can come, with a little bit of refunding for their travel costs, because if you're seeking asylum, you're not legally allowed to work, and you can be seeking asylum for years. A couple of the women have been waiting for ages--one has been waiting for sixteen years. And these are quite educated women...but their cases are delayed or have been lost, and it's just utterly horrendous. So refunding travel is a big part of it, and we give them a hot lunch after. So that was Hackney Yoga Project. 

Emily Brett, founder of Ourmala, teaching a class of survivors.

Emily Brett, founder of Ourmala, teaching a class of survivors.

On OURMALA'S website, it's stated that decision-making comes from love, not fear. How is the idea of love shaping all your decision-making helping to shape Ourmala'S growth?

Emily: We now run two regular classes in London: one in East London, and one in West London. We have a waiting list of, I think it's currently 35 women, for one of our classes; we also have 15 organisations, including the British Red Cross and Freedom From Torture, who would like us to go and run yoga classes at their centers for these women. We also have men on the waiting list and refugee children. So I would love to just put on the classes immediately, but in order to really create a safe space for these survivors--well, safe means sustainable, it means steady. Sthira and sukha are absolutely at the center of what we do. 

It would be very easy to say "ok, can we have some volunteer yoga teachers; we can come and give you training, and share what we've learned", but as an organization, if we really want to serve--which is what we're doing, serving the community--if we want to do it properly, really from love, it means going really slowly and taking such care where we walk and with our actions, so that when we put on a class, we're confident that we can carry on regularly and consistently. That means being able to refund the travel, giving a hot lunch, and for quite a few of the women, it's the only hot lunch that they'll have in a week. So putting on a class, growing steadily, and coming from that place of love is about doing something with real intention which won't get cut in the future because we've run out of a grant. 

IT’S LOVE, COMING FROM LOVE, PASSING ON LOVE, AND HOPEFULLY CREATING A RIPPLE. THERE’S A PURITY THERE, AND IT’S NEVER BEEN ABOUT MAKING MONEY. I DIDN’T WANT TO COMPROMISE WHAT YOGA IS, TO ME.

I think that's the center of it. It's also about respecting and loving the team that we have because our team is really small, and apart from one person who's paid one day a week, it's all voluntary. So long-term, we're looking for funding so that the whole organization is more sustainable. 

Around that team, we also have a team of 20-30 volunteers who work on an ad hoc basis. We've also started the Mala Initiative program for teachers who support the mission, and this year, we've started Warriors for Women, which is our annual fundraiser. So this year, we've really tried to say, "look, this is what we're doing; anyone who wants to help and believes in what we're doing, let's do this together". That's what Ourmala is all about: it's our world, our choices, and the results we reap from those seeds that we plant. 

So coming from that place of love means opening up to everyone else and also not over-extending ourselves, so that anything we give is steady as a rock. These women have had so much instability; the last thing they need is to have something really valuable be inconsistent. For a lot of these women, the yoga is the only regular thing in their week that they really love. They might go to the Home Office quite regularly, but for them, the yoga is an anchor; something that they can hold on to. And as long as I'm in charge, I wouldn't be able to live with creating any more uncertainty for them. It needs to be really, truly safe. 

In the beginning, we had an open door policy. We took referrals, but also, anyone could come. And then we realized, during our pilot year, that actually, if we intended to grow the organization and serve more people, that as part of our duty of care, it's essential that we know exactly who we're working with--we often have a contact within an organization. We need to know that the woman is receiving care and support from somewhere else. Many of them are receiving counseling, but many are not. Many may just be picking up a food parcel. But it's regular contact within another organisation that's important. And if we don't see a woman for a few weeks, we'll phone her to make sure that she's ok, and having a backup organisation to help ensure her safety is very important. That comes from love, and really thinking about the care that we put into what we're doing as well as we can.

Ourmala is not a business. There are a lot of people making a lot of money out of yoga as a business, and I suppose, why not? But that's not what Ourmala is about. It's love, coming from love, passing on love, and hopefully creating a ripple. There's a purity there, and it's never been about making money. I didn't want to compromise what yoga is, to me. 

Besides yoga classes, there are also English classes and also skills that Ourmala helps teach these women. Could you tell me more about that? 

It's really simple. We have tea and social time, then we have the yoga class, and then we have lunch. So the women will either sit down and have lunch, or they can take it away in a little box, and we do pretty regular, maybe once per term, nutritional advice in a more formal setting to talk about food. On an ongoing basis, kind of around lunchtime, we try to find out a little bit about what the women are eating at home. Maybe they don't know what the vegetables are in this country, so we can help show them what's seasonal, what's affordable, what has good nutritional value, that kind of thing. And we have English classes, which some of the women in the yoga classes come to. The English classes are open to any refugee and asylum-seeking woman, whereas the yoga, they have to have a certain level of English so that they can understand basic instruction, and most importantly so that they can tell us if something feels wrong. So if a woman wants to come to yoga, but her English isn't quite there yet, then she can take some language classes to catch her up so she can come to yoga.

IT’S TO SAY “DON’T GIVE UP” AND “YOU’RE SO PRECIOUS FOR BEING WHO YOU ARE”...THAT’S WHAT THE PROGRAM IS ABOUT.

We also have our Access Program, where we find out if people want to do any free education, or volunteering, or maybe they need help with housing, or maybe the want to take an art class because they always used to that back in Bolivia, for example, and it's a part of who they are. Maybe they'd like to do sewing. So we find out from the women, and then we look at what their options are. Quite often, we do a lot of hand-holding to help them get to where they want to be. So we don't just give them a piece of paper and off they go. Often, there's a confidence issue. So it's a mixture between wanting to give them all the information so that they're empowered to go and make their own choices, and also saying, "if you'd like us to help you make this initial phone call, then of course we will. You sit next to us, and why don't you speak to the person on the phone". Really, just giving them the encouragement that our loved ones give us. That's a real part of it. 

Quite often, after yoga, their English is amazing! They come in oftentimes, and they're quiet, and there's tension in how they carry themselves in their prison of a body, and the English can have a really tough time coming out sometimes, if they're having a terrible day or are having a particularly anxious or low week. Even if I know that their English is actually pretty good, it can be rubbish when they come in on a bad week. But after a yoga class, it's wonderful! There's all this talking, "lalalalalalalala!" and so convivial, and just a cacophony of communication and laughter. It's beautiful to see how yoga can be so stabilising and grounding, and allows them to open up to others and to opportunities. 

So that's our Access Program. It's to say "don't give up", and "you're so precious for being who you are". We don't say that to them, but that's what the program is about. These survivors have so much going on, that they don't know half the options open to them.

How can we help, as teachers and students, no matter where in the world we are?

Emily: There are different ways. For yoga teachers, we have our Mala Initiative. This is our program dedicated to teachers who'd like to support our mission. It's very simple--this is for yoga teachers and yoga centers. They can put on a regular class and donate all or some of the proceeds to Ourmala. And this isn't restricted to the U.K. only. Now, we understand that yoga teachers don't always make loads of money, so it might just be, say, doing a class every two months. And it doesn't need to be a new class, it can be part of your existing schedule, and you call it your Mala class. So then, you're joining Ourmala's Mala and the community.

And the key is regularity, because even if it's just £5--you know, that gets a woman to yoga and back for one day's class--and all of the funds that we raise through the Mala Initiative go directly to providing these services for these women. It's also a really nice way for us to really get to know teachers, and we have meetups here in the U.K. for those involved.

We've also, this year, started Warriors for Women, which happens every June, over Refugee Week. It's an annual fundraiser where yoga teachers and studios can put on a Warriors for Women event. We give them lots of tools to help them share on social media, and then all of the proceeds is spent directly on Ourmala, as well. So if you're looking for a one-off, then Warriors for Women is your thing. If you'd like to be regularly involved, then it's the Mala Initiative. Every little bit helps.

We're growing our pool of teachers for Ourmala gradually to meet the need, so we're always looking for well-qualified teachers. Looking ahead, we'll look for permanent teachers to join our team and take on new classes when we have funding for them. There's a teacher criteria on our website.

If you're a yoga student, a practitioner, you can take Mala Initiative classes or ask your teacher or yoga center to get involved--and that can be a tricky one, as teachers and sometimes studios often don't make a lot, but if it comes from a place of love, then by all means. It's about making it realistic. There are also volunteering positions in our office, helping, or volunteering remotely, which are all on our website.

When people do volunteer, we get to know them, and that's really lovely. It feels like an extended family now! It used to just be me in my bedroom, scribbling away on a little notebook, and now, it's beautiful! It's this mala of people. And of course, there is donating. If anyone likes writing blogs, taking pictures, helping to spread the word about what we're doing, it's all incredibly useful, because you never know who that will touch.

Every little bit helps, and what is very little to us means so much to these women. What was it that Guruji once said? "Practice. Practice, and all is coming".


ABOUT EMILY BRETT

A longtime yoga student, Emily is also a certified teacher through the British Wheel of Yoga's intensive two-year program. Having founded Ourmala in 2011, she has grown her organization into a registered charity in the United Kingdom, and has dedicated herself to helping asylum-seeking refugees seeking a safe space and community through yoga. Find out more about Ourmala on their website, and find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.