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April 2012

 
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Dear Family, Friends, Colleagues, Yogis and Yoginis,


It’s been almost three weeks since I returned from my trip to Haiti, and after jumping right back into work, teaching and the chaos of life, I’ve been taking some time to reflect on my 4-day journey with Project Haiti. Since each of you played such an important role supporting me on this journey by contributing to my fundraising efforts, I wanted to share some of my reflections (and pictures!) with you.




First, however, I would like to thank you again for your interest, enthusiasm and financial support of this project. Not only was I able to reach my goal of $3500, but together, the Project Haiti team (including myself and fellow fundraisers) raised over $50,000. Most important, based on my experience in Haiti, I can confidently say that the money contributed is having a powerful and life-changing impact on the lives of many Haitian people.


I would also like to acknowledge the amazing and inspiring efforts of the two women who have given life to Project Haiti. Sue Jones is the deeply committed and compassionate Founder and Executive Director of yogaHOPE— a Boston-based non-profit organization providing access to yoga-based mindfulness classes for underserved women in trauma recovery. Sara Wolf, another deeply committed and compassionate woman, is the Education and Protection Coordinator for Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team (AMURT)-Haiti—the Haitian-based branch of an international humanitarian and development organization promoting rights-based strategies to eradicate poverty by building capacity, trust and harmonious balance between socio-economic development, environmental sustainability, and personal and collective interests. A key aspect of Sara’s work with AMURT-Haiti focuses on creating safe spaces for healing among women and children who have suffered from sexual violence in the tent cities that have formed following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Amnesty International has documented this rash of violence against Haitian women in a recent report titled, Aftershocks: Women speak out against sexual violence in Haiti’s camps.


Together, these amazing women have formed a beautiful partnership working with Haitian community leaders to provide women and children with a powerful Trauma Informed Mind Body (TIMBo) program that integrates the healing practices of yoga, meditation and mindfulness. I am deeply grateful and honored to know both of these women who not only dream of making a difference in the world but have taken the necessary action while inspiring many others - like myself - to do the same.




Thanks to Sue, Sara and the Project Haiti team, my adventures in Haiti began on April 14, 2012 when I landed at the Port au Prince airport for four days of TIMBo training and had the opportunity for an inside look at the incredible work of AMURT-Haiti. Reflecting on my journey, I came home with a bunch of pictures, many wonderful memories, new friends, a few mosquito bites, and simple yet profound lessons on trust, faith, hope and love which I share below. However, since my written words are quite limited in capturing the richness and beauty of my experience with Project Haiti, I would like to share two video clips which help bring to life my amazing time in Haiti and the work of AMURT-Haiti (click on video links below).


Project Haiti with yogaHOPE—Fundraisers’ Perspective: Video 1

AMURT-Haiti—Public Health In Action: Video 2















Trust


Despite many great travels across the globe, each time I land on foreign soil, I feel a bit overwhelmed and a wave of uncertainty about how my trip is going to unfold. Whether it’s Haiti, India, China, London or even New York City, my biggest “worry” is always where to go and what to do when I step off the plane, and more specifically, figuring out how to find my way from the airport to the hotel. Upon landing solo at the Port au Prince airport, I had been cautioned by the yogaHOPE team (and I knew from my past experiences) that I would be overwhelmed with offers for cab rides and assistance to my hotel destination. So, I found myself anxiously looking around for “the person with the yogaHOPE sign,” wishing that I had taken the time to learn a least a few phrases in Creole like, “No, thank you. I don’t need help.” Within just a few minutes, an elderly Haitian man approached me and explained in his best English possible (which was of course much better than my best Creole or even French possible)—that I needed to leave the airport building and walk outside to the parking lot area to meet up with “the person with the yogaHOPE sign.”


Feeling pretty skeptical and thinking maybe he was trying to scam me for an over-priced cab ride, I looked into his tired but warm, kind eyes and I knew that I had to trust this man especially since I had not yet seen the “person with a yogaHOPE sign.” I followed him outside as we walked down a long sidewalk corridor. I stopped several times to say that I should go back and meet the “person with the yogaHOPE sign” inside the building, but he insisted that I follow him. Finally, after what seemed to be a 10- or 15-minute walk (which in reality was really only a 1- or 2-minute walk), I saw the “person with the yogaHOPE sign” along with a couple of Americans that I had met on the plane who had connections to AMURT. I turned to the elderly Haitian man, thanked him profusely, and offered him a tip which he graciously declined.


Lesson #1: Despite the uncertainty, a little bit of trust can land you exactly where you need to land.




Faith


My first full day in Haiti involved lots of mango for breakfast (yum!) and eight hours of training with my fellow American travellers and the Haitian community leaders. Sue led the training mostly in English as two other women seamlessly translated her words into the French-sounding language of Creole. Training consisted of discussion around the effects on trauma on the body—physically, mentally, and energetically— partner and group activities, and literally hands-on training providing compassionate and healing touch through the practice of yoga asana, breath work, and meditation.


On the second day of training, we spent the morning doing some sight-seeing. We visited the ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral of Haiti. Once a beautiful and thriving place of faith for the Haitian community, the remnants of the Cathedral now only serve as a reminder of the past to those living in the tent housing in the surrounding area. At the ruined grounds of this once magnificent church, several women made pleas for their babies because their breast milk had dried up and they were worried that they could no longer feed or provide for their well-being. We also visited the earthquake-ruins of the Haitian Presidential Palace and the thriving Iron City Market. I left wanting to launch a big fundraising effort to re-build the once faith-filled Cathedral of the Haitian people, and I felt a sense of sadness and frustration thinking that there was really not much I could do to meaningfully impact the lives of the people I had met and seen at the Cathedral.





 

Later in the afternoon, we spent more time in training learning how our hands and breath can be powerful sources of healing energy to trauma survivors through a gentle yoga practice consisting of healing touch therapy. We further discussed how the emotional experience of trauma (whether from a natural disaster such as an earthquake or at the hands of another human being) affects the nervous system and literally begins to invade and consume the body. Trauma first appears as physical sensations in the body (e.g., increased breathing, heart rate, and heat) and when held in the body, it can eventually lead to chronic pain, illness, disease—and yes, eventually premature death.




We closed that day with a gentle yoga practice and we practiced providing this healing touch to one another. For those who have taken a yoga class, you know that the yoga practice typically ends in a final resting pose called Savasana—also known as “corpse” pose. Although the word “corpse” might sound morbid to some, it’s actually a quite beautiful pose reflective of the natural cycle of birth-life-death. In Savasana, we allow our bodies to rest—physically, mentally, and energetically—so that we can give birth to the powerful presence of love, peace and joy that exist within all of us.


As I rested on my back with my eyes closed, my body felt physically tired but rested and my mind felt calm and steady, especially as I listened to the breath of the two Haitian yogis resting in Savasana beside me. Energetically, I felt connected—almost as if the physical confines of my body had softened and I began to feel that spiritually I was deeply connected and loved by something far greater than me. I felt the warmth of the sun, coolness of the gentle breeze, and the love and peaceful hearts of the yogis around me. I felt peaceful, full of love to share, and full of being loved.


Most important, I felt a deep and profound sense of faith - of fully belonging to the very moment while also knowing that it was the most difficult parts of my life that had landed me in this very beautiful moment of peace and love. This sense of faith and awareness is one of the many gifts of yoga. And, I came to the realization that although I might not be able to directly help the women we met at the Cathedral, I was there to help share this amazing gift of yoga with people who could and would make a difference.


Yet, I also realized that while we were teaching this gift “on the mat,” the Haitians were teaching us this gift “off the mat” with their joyful presence of song, dance and embracing hugs and with their deep sense of faith. I will forever hold these Haitian yogi and yogini leaders in my heart including Steeve who led us in song and dance daily (I pray every day that he reaches his goal of coming to the United States to study sound engineering) and Kettlie - a mother of six and provider of eight - who cooked us amazingly delicious and healthy meals for lunch every day (including the yummy Haitian pumpkin soup, known as Joumou) - with generous helpings of course.


Lesson #2: To connect with the peace and joy within our hearts, one must also have faith - even during the most difficult of times.




Hope


On my last day in Haiti, as I embraced the gifts of yoga on and off the mat with my fellow American and Haitian yogis and yoginis, I then had the opportunity to visit Sant Felisite Sineyas - the Integrated Education and Healing Arts Center in one of the local tent communities supported by AMURT-Haiti. During our visit, I witnessed first-hand how Amurt-Haiti practices public health - a field that I have been pursuing professionally for the past 15+years.


What I discovered is that AMURT-Haiti’s “evidence-based” practice of public health is not about publishing journal articles years after the project has ended, analyzing people as mere numbers or statistics, or writing lengthy reports by people living in large, extravagant compounds who have barely taken the time to learn Creole or how to prepare Haitian pumpkin soup. AMURT-Haiti’s evidence-based practice is about empowering people and inspiring change. It’s about building eco-friendly classrooms and a children’s library so that the children living in the tent cities can learn math and how to read while also embracing life and finding a source of healing through the gifts of art, dance and yoga.




AMURT-Haiti’s “evidence-based practice” is about building community gardens and growing moringa trees that provide children and pregnant women with delicious and nutritious greens for their diets. It’s about safety and providing solar-powered lights to keep women and children safe at night. It’s about dignity and exploring new technologies that provide clean drinking water and sanitary waste compost systems that are not only odor-free but also provide material for safe and effective composting and nutrient-rich soil.


AMURT-Haiti is truly making a difference while also providing the Haitian people with the opportunity to make a difference in their own lives. It’s about giving people hope and the opportunity for a better life.


Eventually, the work of Sant Feliste Sineyas will be left entirely to the Haitians living within the tent city, and AMURT-Haiti will be on to serving the next lucky tent city community. In public health, we call this “sustainability” and yet, like so many public health programs that have the potential to truly make a difference, they are in need of funding.


Lesson #3—For there to be hope, one must also take action.




Love

We smiled and laughed a lot in Haiti. And yes, there were also tears—tears of joy, sadness, reflection, wonder and love. This is the gift of yoga.






Lesson #4: Live each day in gratitude regardless of your circumstances.


Each of us is a lake of love, yet strangely enough, we are all thirsty.

Swami Kripalu


To each of you, I am deeply grateful.

Namaste ;)




Allison



For more information, please visit yogaHOPE and Project Haiti.


 

In Search of Yoga and Public Health—Allison’s Venture to Haiti

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