For starters, please tell us about Casa de Paz SLV.
We are a new nonprofit formed in 2019 in response to the trauma experienced before and while immigrating to the US from Central America. We provide holistic trauma support for asylum seekers and new immigrants in Mexico and in the US.
What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
After relocating to our off-grid ranch in a remote location in South Central Colorado, I took a break from my active international private practice and consulting. Two years passed and I was ready to be of service again. During the supermoon lunar eclipse in January 2019, I was doing qigong on the beach in South Padre Island (SPI), Texas and asked how I could be of service. Assisting at the border came flooding into my awareness. Many opportunities to serve at the border showed themselves quickly. It was clear that I was being divinely guided to provide this service.
Since January 2019, we’ve conducted five border missions. These last from seven to ten days. Holistic trauma support practitioners from all over the country join us on our missions. We are now forming a Rio Grande Valley based team that will serve bimonthly on Saturdays at shelters and centers at the border. Most of our clients speak Spanish. However, some asylum seekers who have immigrated from Africa and Asia speak English.
Could you please describe the bimonthly Sembrando Salud Mental (Cultivating Mental Health) program? What impact have you seen?
This program started in April 2020, but because of the pandemic, we turned it into an online program. Our volunteers have created twenty-two videos on our YouTube channel of holistic trauma support practices such as art therapy, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, trauma informed yoga, meditation, pranayama, mental health practices and music therapy. We also created a private Facebook group where we share the videos, inspirational memes and announce in-person services available. In April 2021, we did our first in-person mission since the pandemic began.
What emerges when we share holistic trauma support with asylum seekers and new immigrants is immense gratitude, joy, and inner peace. Many migrants have had multiple traumas and fear the unknown; they experience homelessness concerns, feel anger (after US detention) and a sense of despair. They experience a few hours to be present and not worry. We also show our clients that there are people in the US that care about their well-being.
What’s your advice for yoga teachers and yoga therapists who are interested in working with asylum seekers at the border and newly immigrated families throughout the United States? How did you get started?
First, become trauma informed and be prepared to provide comfort. While working in Mexico, it’s important to become aware of your own privilege and to release expectations. Things are always changing at the border and it’s important to be flexible. For example, meditation and breathing exercises where props are not needed are important, because typical yoga supplies are unavailable.
Serving at the border on the US side can be very conservative and religious; it’s important to be able to blend with this culture and adjust yoga teachings to fit their spiritual path. Those in leadership roles at Christian-based centers and shelters appreciate Christian-style yoga. We usually invite prayer and mention God in our yoga classes. For example, I may invite prayer to ask a question of God when in meditation. When we reach for the sky, we may call it heaven and we may also mention God. Injecting Christian philosophy and prayer into yoga flows pretty easily. This type of practice is more familiar and helps to bridge experiencing the benefits of yoga. Most participants relate to yoga better when it’s assimilated into the culture in this way.
We are not in a position to provide long-term care at this time, so we provide referrals to mental health practitioners. We don’t want to open up clients to the trauma they have experienced unless they are in longer term therapy. If they want to unburden themselves and share their story, we listen, reflect back, and offer resources that are available.
I think you would agree with me that “yoga really is for everybody.” But how do we overcome the fact that wealth and disposable income play an important role in access to yoga classes, and training?
Our classes are designed to help asylum seekers teach each other yoga and do it as a community. We also provide a postcard with links to our YouTube channel and private Facebook group, so asylum seekers can continue to practice on their own. These are short, simple practices that are repeated and easy to remember and access during stressful times. The donation of yoga mats from Give Back Yoga and lululemon provide a reminder to practice and a sacred space for that practice. Many asylum seekers found us online after the April 2021 border mission.
I’m not sure why, but right away we became known at the refugee camp as “The Yoga Team.” I think spectators were captivated by seeing large groups of children and some adults doing yoga together. Deep down everyone knew it was good for their body, mind and spirit. A break from their harsh reality. More than one tear was shed observing the smiles and peace on our students’ faces as they did the trauma-informed yoga flows in community. Let’s continue to find ways to make yoga accessible to all.