Teaching Yoga to Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Swami Dharmananda Saraswati, Australia

In a world of political instability and violent power struggles, there are increasing numbers of displaced people. They arrive in Australia, or elsewhere, often after years of suffering, and find themselves in an alien environment where they experience new forms of vulnerability. Sheltering under the leaking umbrella of a boat person, asylum seeker or refugee, they are powerless and often lack even the means to communicate their need, confronted by a foreign language and culture.

As a teacher of English as a second language I recall a group of Chinese students who came to Australia in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. While officially in Australia to study English, most students were politically motivated and had many of the problems of refugees, from culture shock to the trauma of leaving families behind or having seen their friends killed. Even as students in ‘friendly’ Australia they were aware that they might be sharing a desk with a government spy, and could at any moment be reported and deported, finding themselves back in China as persona non grata in their own land. Many hoped to stay on in Australia, ‘somehow’.

Clearly, people fleeing their own country have undergone severe stress and trauma. They have most likely lost all support systems – home, possessions, job, family, friends. They may have been harassed or tortured, or seen those close to them tortured or killed. Living in fear of reprisal, the trauma is reinforced. They become hypervigilant, their nervous systems always on alert in an effort to protect themselves from further pain. In this state, there is no relaxation and sleep becomes difficult. The body and mind are filled with tension. Other problems emerge such as difficulties with breathing, digestion, anxiety, depression, and so on.

For these people, yoga has much to offer. In Australia, Satyananda Yoga teachers now receive some training in teaching yoga to this group. It is a specialized field requiring patience and creativity, as a class will usually be of mixed ethnic background and with poor English language skills.

By the time the yoga teacher meets them, they are experiencing not only grief and loss, but also the alienation of being displaced, disorientated and vulnerable. Their trust has taken a body-blow, their boundaries are shaky and it is hard for them to begin to trust again in the world and people around them, and also in their own capacities. The inability to communicate properly increases their sense of isolation.


If these people are to re-establish themselves, they need to be able to:

  • relax
  • gather their resources
  • rebuild confidence and trust
  • improve communication skills.

To meet these needs they require opportunity and support. This can only be achieved by providing a safe environment to expand in, along with the encouragement and respect of those helping them. For this, a classroom situation for learning English or yoga can be of great benefit, provided the fundamental support structures have been put in place. While the teacher is not a therapist, the way the situation is set up and how the teacher responds to them is vital in enabling them to start opening to learning and gathering strength. Then the techniques can do their work.


Communication involves much more than spoken words. Ninety percent of face-to-face communication occurs through body language and tone of voice. The remaining 10% of the message is given by verbal content. Bearing this in mind, the task seems easier. Demonstration, of course, becomes a most valuable tool. Verbal instructions need to be given clearly, simply and slowly. It is important to regularly check the students’ understanding, being discreet and sensitive as you do so.

Case study

Let’s take a closer look at a weekly yoga class offered at the Asylum Seekers Support Centre in Sydney. It follows an English class and is attended by anything from 4–14 people. Most have been in Australia less than one year and are staying with relatives or friends from their own country or in a charitable institution such as a Salvation Army hostel. Typically, there are people from Africa, South America, Russia, Iran, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and more.

The classroom is cramped, small and full of desks which have to be moved before and after class. The class begins with lying or sitting with the eyes closed for a short while, becoming quiet and still. Then they move into base position for some Pawanmuktasana 1. This is practised by mirroring the teacher. After one round with the eyes open, the teacher closes hers and the students usually follow suit, showing that they trust her. By mirroring the teacher in this way, the learning is non-intellectual, like the learning we do in childhood. By copying, experiencing, exploring and self-regulating, the learning happens very naturally, without any language barrier. The pace is slow and meditative.

After these warm-ups, asanas include Pawanmuktasana 3, dynamic standing poses and a range of other postures as appropriate to the group that day. Instructions are direct and simple: “Breathe in, arms up, bend forward, twist,” and so on, with demonstration reinforcing the instruction.

Pranayama can be included, starting with simple abdominal breathing using the hands as a guide. Bhramari is also beneficial and taught simply. Nadi shodhana is important for strengthening and balancing the nervous system. Yoga nidra can be adapted to find a way around language difficulties. The body rotation can be done standing or sitting, by touching and naming each part. The hour is completed with 7–10 minutes relaxation, including breath counting, followed by sitting and palming.

The students are obviously happy. They keep coming back to class. It’s important that the teacher continues to build ease, confidence and connectedness.

The return of joy

Fostering joy in the body is another aspect which has a deep effect. Such joy may have been locked out for some time. The teacher can help lure it back through choice of words and by showing obvious appreciation.

This came home to me strongly when I taught a man in India who had been attacked by bandits. He had been stabbed many times in the front and back. His family was untouched, but he had no rest for fear of the bandits returning. He was on constant alert, always pacing. When he came for his second class, I asked him to show what he had remembered and practised since our first meeting. He recalled everything. He showed me marjariasana (the cat pose). Never before had I seen such a panther, sleek and rippling from one end to the other. In sheer delight I cried out, “How beautiful! You should be pleased that you are doing it so beautifully. You should be pleased and smile each time . . .” I stopped because his face was changing, like ice cracking, and a wonky smile appeared. Joy had crept back in.