Real people, real lives, real struggles.
That’s what I encountered when I spent a day with Lorraine Close from Edinburgh Community Yoga Outreach. She and her colleague Laura Wilson actively seek to take yoga into the darkest of places. Yes, we all talk about and believe in the transformational power of yoga, but can it really make any difference in the chaotic lives of those seemingly trapped in mental health and addiction struggles?
I try not to think about the long term and encourage people to be in the moment and to take a day at a time. I’m not here with an agenda to fix them in an eight-week course. I just think about it as providing one hour of relief and relaxation in a potentially really stressful day to day life, while being aware of the potential long term benefits with continued practice. Lorraine
The first class is in the Hive, an activity centre and coffee bar for the in-patients of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. The class is run specifically for women struggling with self-harm issues. Lorraine has no idea how many women will turn up. She never has any idea how many to expect. These women have a lot going on in their lives and cannot commit to being there every week. There are six in the class. The start is rather chaotic. Two arrive late. One leaves five minutes into the class. Another receives a phone call that she has to take. Lorraine goes with the flow. She accepts each interruption and then brings the focus back to the breath. The poses are all very simple. Adaptable for sitting in a chair. She brings all that she has learnt about trauma, mental health and addiction into her choice of language, her breathing exercises, her poses.
This is your yoga.
She repeats this throughout the class.
This is your yoga.
I join in. This is my yoga.
Some keep their shoes on throughout the class. Some wear jeans. Some choose to opt out and simply sit. Anything goes. This is truly meeting people where they are at. Bringing yoga to them rather than bringing them to yoga. In an environment that they know and feel comfortable in. A safe place.
Lorraine then takes me to the Serenity café. It’s in the centre of Edinburgh, a bustling place with lots of coming and going. Scotland’s first Recovery Café, run by people in recovery for people in recovery. Of course, members of the public are welcome too. The food is great and the atmosphere cosy and vibrant.
There I meet Laura Wilson, founder of Edinburgh Community Yoga. She’s just returning from maternity leave – her baby Gracie is now eight months old. Laura was a dancer. She’d danced all her life and attended the London Contemporary Dance School. But she came to a point where she realised that dance wasn’t for her. She wasn’t coping with the pressure and the stress was too much for her. She rejected everything about dance but journeyed slowly towards yoga. She carried the strength and flexibility of her dancing years into her practice and responded to the need to open up her body, without the pressure that she associated with dance.
With no idea what to do in her late 20s, she considered yoga teacher training. She’d been working in residential care for children and was frustrated by the methods used. She embraced the therapeutic aspects of yoga and by chatting to people, her work organically developed into what it is today. She discovered she could intuitively find the right approach and could work sensitively with individuals with specific mental health issues. In a way, she’d been there herself. She felt she’d suffered from depression all through her teens before being formally diagnosed at the age of 21.
She vividly remembers one session with LEAP (Lothians and Edinburgh Abstinence Programme) –
In that moment, I knew. I knew for sure. A voice inside me was saying ‘This is where I should be. This is what I should be doing.’ From that time, I knew where I was heading. I had a vision for a creating a healing place for healing in crisis. It had to be sustainable, but I was ambitious. Ambitious in a good way. Ambitious with integrity. I wouldn’t compromise the quality of what I wanted to offer for anything.
And just look at what she has achieved with Edinburgh Community Yoga and its not for profit branch Edinburgh Community Yoga Outreach. As a not for profit organisation, ECYO depends on grant funding, fundraising and donations to be able to run all its projects. The list of organisations that ECYO has worked with is extensive. ECYO runs an 8 week Minded Addiction Recovery Kit (MARK) programme at the Serenity café and an 8 week MARK programme of yoga and mindfulness in recovery to support people resident in the Alcohol-related Brain Damage Unit run by Penumbra Milestone. They still work closely with LEAP and offer a regular class at the Hive. They are about to start a trauma sensitive yoga programme for women involved in ‘Womenzone’ through COMAS.
It’s great when you come across people who can actually work with your community. The girls from Edinburgh Community Yoga are like that. They make yoga really accessible for everyone. They bring it here. They cope with everyone. They make it work. We’re looking forward to them being involved in Womenzone. Ruth Campbell, CEO, COMAS
And that’s not all. Supported by KICC Active, they offer a weekly therapeutic class for people living with long- term health conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia ME or multiple sclerosis. And Healthy Hibbees is a great fun yoga class, working with Hibbs supporters (mostly men) who want to get fit.
And then there’s the NHS Staff Wellbeing Project. In her day job (yes, she has a full-time job as well as all her work with ECY!), Lorraine works at the Edinburgh University Medical School, teaching clinical skills and resuscitation to medical students. She witnesses the stresses and strains that nurses and doctors face every single day. ECYO works to support NHS staff by providing in house yoga sessions in short blocks in clinical areas.
So how do these two young women find the time for all this?
Well, they now work with a carefully selected group of yoga teachers who they trust to deliver their yoga sessions in a way that is in line with the vision of ECY. Laura and Lorraine have discovered that many yoga teachers are fascinated by their work. Yoga teachers by nature have a heart for transformation and would love to be involved. However, Laura and Lorraine know what they are looking for in a teacher when they find it. Many of their teachers have experience in the caring professions. They respond naturally and authentically to their students. They are prepared to take on additional training to make them better equipped and educated.
At 3pm, Lorraine started her Drug Harm Reduction Class at the Spittal Street Centre. We’d arrived in good time and gone upstairs to fetch the mats. We moved all the chairs to one side and collapsed the tables. Even though the previous week, no one had turned up. The three young women came through full of conversation. It was one of the girl’s birthdays. It took a while for the energy in the room to settle.
There’s no doubt about it, Lorraine is really, really good at what she does. She responds to what is before her. She exudes calm. She invites rather than instructs. She describes it as maintaining an ‘unconditional positive regard’. These aren’t just words. You can feel it in the room. The girls relax. They feel accepted. They feel welcomed.
In this room, at this time, everything is OK.
The chattering fades away. The nervous giggling is silenced. The fidgeting is stilled.
There is peace. There is calm. There is safety. There is grounding.
Maybe for only those short moments in the whole day, but this is real right here, right now.
Spending a day with Lorraine was an utter inspiration. Seeing yoga being introduced into the chaotic lives of these vulnerable women in such an accepting and accessible way is moving and deeply challenging.
Laura and Lorraine believe that yoga can change lives alongside all the other projects that they partner with.
Real people, real lives, real struggles.
ECYO is committed to putting this belief into practice.
Now what can we do to support them?