Despite tensions in Somalia, yoga offers wellbeing and community to UN staff – by Ania Zolkiewska

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Context

News of the Ethiopian airlines plane crash spread quickly through the humanitarian community in Somalia. The sudden loss of colleagues and friends adds to the ongoing list of tragedies and shocks.

The attack on a popular hotel in Nairobi in February, the mortar attack on the UN compound in Mogadishu in January, and the disturbingly regular reports of attacks and explosions in the capital and around the country.

A few suggestions to cope

While organisations continue to review their staff safety and security protocols, some considering how to reduce their numbers and movements inside Mogadishu, other staff have found a different way to cope.

The Mogadishu Yoga Society comes together twice a week to unroll their mats in one of the many bunkers found in the UN compound at the International Airport, where most UN offices and staff are based.

For an hour this group of staff puts aside the residual stress and ongoing tragedies to focus solely on breathing in and breathing out, moving through a series of challenging poses, dripping sweat onto their mats in the low-lit reinforced concrete room.

Uniformed and civilian personnel from various countries – South Sudan, Germany, Kenya, Finland, Uganda, Poland, Chad, India – all struggling to relax their clenched facial muscles while balancing precariously on one leg in Eagle Pose.

How it all started

Mitch Dufresne, the founder and a qualified yoga instructor, has been offering free yoga classes at the UN compound in Mogadishu for almost two years, spontaneously creating the Mogadishu Yoga Society.

It started in May 2017 as one class a week in the former UNMAS bunker. I started holding one ‘extra’ ad hoc class before or after I went on leave and it soon turned into a regular schedule of two times a week, many more participants and our own yoga studio space,” Dufresne recalls.

After the mortar attack on the UN compound, the class moved to a reinforced bunker. The heavy steel doors are a reminder of the security measures deemed necessary to protect UN staff working in Mogadishu.

Part of the reason I qualified as a yoga instructor was to be able to bring a skill to the community wherever I am in the world and, if its people wish, contribute to overall health. Guiding yoga practice is a pleasure for me, and if it can help others, all the better,” Dufresne adds. “These hardship environments are often extremely unhealthy for many reasons and yoga serves to curb that.

The outcome

The classes offer a much-needed sense of community and wellbeing, bringing together a varied group, humanitarian workers, military and police advisors, human rights officers, public health specialists, planning officers and logistics staff.

The benefits of the class are clear. “It allows me to release stress. It calms my body my mind and body,” says G Lokuju Peter, an OCHA staff member. “The yoga class gives me an opportunity to meet other yogis, and make friends with people other than colleagues at work and at the place of accommodation.”

Seh Lih Long, a Human Rights Officer and regular participant, looks to yoga “as a form of relaxation and exercise.” Daiana Banciu, a fellow Human Rights Officer, gives a number of reasons she practices yoga with the Mogadishu Yoga Society, “todestress, to relax, to find peace of mind.” She adds, “doing yoga in the bunker adds a certain flavour to it.

At the end of the workout (and yes it is a workout!), Mitch calls the class to move into ‘Savasana’. “Rest, lie back, relax, the hour is over, I’ve done it. I know I will sleep well tonight!” says Simon West, a Brigadier and Senior Military Advisor at UNSOM.

Dufresne’s favourite part? “The participants and an environment where it does not matter what rank you are, for which Organisation you work or if you are female or male – it is a great equalizer.

Dufresne’s grounded and low-key attitude transform the atmosphere of the heavy doors and concrete walls. Twice a week the bunker becomes a space to practice calm and stillness in the middle of a fragile and unstable environment.

“Breathe,” Dufresne tells her class. “Remember, this is temporary.”