Special Yoga at work in Sri Lanka

In January 2018 Special Yoga founder Jyoti travelled to Sri Lanka to continue her work taking Special Yoga to children around the globe. She visited the northeast part of the country, which has been severely affected by years of war and the tsunami of 2004. Generously assisted by a team of local people and organisations who understand the benefits of Special Yoga, and accompanied by Julie Cox, Jyoti shared her training with midwives, doctors, therapists, teachers, families and carers. She was able to visit centres for autism and Cerebral Palsy, and hosted a course at a Regional Health Department.

The Journey Begins

I had one of those journeys. I’d rather not repeat it, though it was not the worst I have ever taken! Moving to Bournemouth has its challenges, not least the timings of the bus to London. Leave home at 9.30am for the 10.15am bus (had to stop at the Chinese clinic on the way to pick up the remedies that I am taking and which I had run out of!). Bus journey is fine… catch up with calls, messages and emails, and so I reach Heathrow’s Terminal 4 in 3½ hours. Having found a quiet spot to catch up with work needing to be done to prior to leaving, I the walk the length of the terminal around five times.

To minimise costs I flew on Kuwait Airways, not a bad airline (but doesn’t have mileage with other airlines so all those miles are not counted, in the hope one day for a free upgrade!). The flight is five hours to Kuwait City with a lay-over of one hour to the next five-hour flight to Colombo. I hadn’t clocked when booking that this would mean short bursts of sleep, if any. The first flight was two hours late and there was no reassurance that I would make the second flight and, if I did, would my bag be there too?

I’m sitting at the back of the plane and knowing that all this is completely out of my control and in the hands of the Divine Mother. I let go and settle in to flight number one. It’s late afternoon and I’ve never been particularly good at sleeping on day flights… when I do finally settle off for a nap, the hostess wakes me to move me to the front of the plane so that I can be one of the first off in the hope that the next flight is still waiting for me!

Plane number two is also late! So all that rushing and waking me wasn’t necessary after all. I settle onto the next flight with my nerves slightly jangled and am just settling off to sleep when they wake me for food. I think I end up sleeping a couple of hours.

Arrive to the familiarity of the smell and sights of Colombo airport and my driver is waiting for me. I pick up a sim for my WiFi dongle, change some money and we are off. It’s a six-hour drive to Batticaloa where i have booked myself a hotel on the beach for a couple of days before the teaching starts.

I slept for almost a whole day and enjoyed some quiet time before Julie arrived a couple of days later. We have a great catch up on life, fundraising, and the plans for this trip. The following day we are collected by Mr Kaliyuga and a driver to bring us to the apartment which we are sharing for the few days in Batti. Always a pleasure and privilege to be with him. He has by now named Julie and I the laughing girls. At almost 80 years old he is extraordinary and is great fun to travel with.

Sri Lanka: Day One

Early start. Julie, Mr Kaliyuga and I are picked up by Dr Judy, a very lovely man who has organised the day. He takes us for a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast and then on to the centre where I am teaching all day. He has been told to limit the numbers to 40, which, given the size of the room, is probably correct. This centre is a school for autistic children. There is a great deal of cultural shame here for the families of children with special needs. The participants are mainly teachers from this school, surrounding special schools, special needs centres, some from as far away as Ampara, a four or five hour bus journey away. The people in the group are open and ready. There are a few children with their parents too. As we arrive, the parents are keen to talk to us about their children.

In the morning we covered how we perceive these children, how we help ourselves, how we manage the children’s behaviours, we have laughed, sang, stretched, and everyone is relaxed. The teachers in full hijab and saris were reluctant to stretch out on the floor but even they relaxed.

By lunchtime more children are arriving. I have already worked with two teenage boys together who were a joy to be with and who both loved the yoga and continued to practise together for the rest of the day, and two more children with autism.

At lunchtime I worked with another little one, a six year old, clearly on the spectrum though un-diagnosed, and whose father told me that he was 90% fine but 10% not! Actually he was gorgeous and was navigating the world his way. I gave the families techniques for each child.

Grabbed five minutes for lunch… a few mouthfuls of the usually delicious but rather filling rice packet!

It seems there has been a misunderstandings of timings… the participants thought that the course ended at 1.30pm and we thought 3.30pm!

Dr Judy then opens the afternoon inviting questions and the feedback was lovely. A few of the teachers shared that they now felt more empowered to help these children and that they had useful practices to share.

The afternoon finally ended at 5.30 with another ten children who had arrived or were waiting with their parents for 1-1 sessions. There were a few children with autism, a number of young children with Cerebral Palsy, with quite anxious parents, and an older boy who had never been in education who seemed to have learning difficulties. We were able to arrange for him to potentially attend a vocational centre for children with additional and special needs. I always feel very humbled and moved to be able to show these parents how wonderfully special their children are and what is possible for them… more and more it feels so necessary to help the parents to embrace these beautiful children who are just differently abled.

I am, however, feeling tired and my body was a little sore!

Dr Judy, the Bishop and the others who were part of the centre were so openly grateful to us for what we offer. Dr judy then takes us for tea, and to see some of the beautiful parts of Batticaloa… what a lovely town. We also had the opportunity to get to know Dr Judy a little better and to hear his story of being a doctor in the tsunami and how he and his family navigated the war. All the doctors after the tsunami were having to do skin grafts, learn how to be anesthetists, become surgeons etc. Now he’s a well-loved and respected psychiatrist with a huge heart.
Time to pick up some dinner to bring back to our flat… very much enjoying sharing with Julie and the wonderful Mr Kaliyuga.

Sri Lanka: Day 2

At 4am (I am still asleep, Raj arrives from Colombo. Raj is a physio who has taken Special Yoga training with me. He really appreciates the work and is using it with the kids at the Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation and Dream School where he works. Another early start as we leave for breakfast by 8am… and I am amused to find a cow trying to enter the cafe where we are eating!
On to the Regional Health Department where we are greeted by a room full of 40+ midwives.

Today is a training course for them to learn how to use Special Yoga techniques to share with the parents in the community. Mr Arul, the deputy health minister for the eastern province, who is also on the board of the Holistic Special Education Foundation, has arranged the day.

We start by sharing how important the parents role is in healing these children and how much we have to work on ourselves to be able to help them. They seem receptive and I am working hard to break the ice in the room. They are all wearing skirts as part of their midwife costumes so I am wondering how I am going to get them on to the floor for breathing exercises and yoga practice! One of the two Muslim midwives wearing trousers volunteers to be my “child”. Once they see the exercises I encourage them all to get on the floor but we had to get the men out of the room before they would do that! It did work and they all started to loosen up, laugh and feel more relaxed.

We continue with more practices and more discussions, with huge support from Dr Arul who took the time to be with us for the whole day. I love that someone so high up in the health department is so supportive of our work and grateful for what we are sharing. The training is all new for the midwives. They know what to do with the “typical” children but they have had absolutely no training at all in how to help with children with special needs. This is such an important piece, as they want to help but don’t know how. And here in Sri Lanka there is still such stigma attached to having a disabled child, it’s regarded as if the families have been cursed. It’s a long-standing cultural problem, but slowly, slowly as we work with the healthcare workers who are around the children, they can start to change the way the children are treated.

Before lunch Dr Arul asks the midwives to share what the morning has done for them. I am deeply moved as they share how they now feel they can go and serve these families and can’t wait to start to visit them in their homes. They say they had no idea what to do with these children but now feel empowered to help them. There were so many moments when I had tears in my eyes, so grateful for this opportunity to make a difference to so many of these children and their families and communities.

After lunch a father brings his son who has severe Cerebral Palsy and a severe scoliosis. The child is primarily cared for by his grandmother as both parents work, so the child is not getting any physical therapies at all. At ten years old, he could be five or six given his size, but he is joyful, eyes shining, just uncomfortable in this body. Quite a complex condition to work with… his legs are completely rigid and his back is so pulled out of shape it is close to being dangerous for his organs. The session took one hour but by the time we had finished (Raj stepped in to help with his legs so that i could start to work on his neck and upper body), he was sitting and bending both knees albeit slightly… the father was wiping tears … very moving experience and what a gorgeous child. The afternoon ended with more testimonies from the midwives excited to be starting to help the children in their communities.

We head for tea and a bit of shopping. Julie and I are shopping for kurtas and much to our amusement our tuktuk driver had also joined us in the shop and bought himself a bright pink shirt!
A walk on the beach at sunset with Raj, Julie and Mr Kaliyuga before dinner. What a motley crew we are… but joyful and delighted to be helping the children.

Sri Lanka: Day 3

Second day of the workshop for the midwives. Today they are all in their own clothes with trousers… so the practice allows us to work on the lower body. I am conscious that even in trousers I have to get Raj to face away from the room for some of the yoga poses!

Just before lunch and the children’s arrival some of the midwives start to ask me if yoga is good for losing weight. I’m not really small so that question always amuses me… gave me the window to discuss the benefits of yoga on overall health and ageing! Then the families started to arrive. I worked almost back to back with six children with complex needs, all different, all challenged. All the parents and midwives left with tools they could use with their children. A successful workshop.

Off to a meeting with UNICEF to discuss long term plans to run further trainings both Special Yoga and HSEF programmes, with their support and potential consultation as well. The 2018 plan for UNICEF for children with disabilities will start in the coming months. We have such support for our work.

A brief stop off to watch the sunset over the water of the beautiful Batticaoloa and back to the apartment for a quick clean-up before dinner. We have been invited to ShivaShakti’s family home, which is a beautiful mansion with the story of Krishna painted on the walls, and we were fed delicious home-made food.

Sri Lanka: Day 4

Early start as we head to the beach with Mr Kaliyuga for sunrise meditation and healing practice. It was so beautiful and powerful. Back to pack and then breakfast and on the road to an MOH centre (Ministry of Health) in a small rural village. We arrive and there are five young adults with their parents and grandparents waiting to see us. We put the mat down and start. Shortly after, another young man arrives. This is a very moving morning as all of these young people are deeply traumatised from the war. We were told that their physical challenges had started in the last couple of years of the war when it was at its most violent. The first young man was non-verbal although he did like to chant hari om eventually. His eyes were desperately asking for help. His body was shaking and his breath was so short… it took quite a while to help him to settle his nervous system and there was the beginning of light in his eyes when we finished the session. His father was close by and was shown all the tools to use. Then came his older brother who likewise had been affected at the same point in the war… also physically unable to walk. Then there was another young man, painfully thin and hungry, nervous and with learning difficulties, but he loved the practice. A young girl with Down’s followed by another young man who couldn’t walk and also couldn’t straighten his legs without physically shaking. He was experiencing a lot of pain in his abdomen but he responded well to the practice. Last was a boy with learning difficulties and epilepsy and his very bright, lovely, younger sister. They practised together and we had a beautiful spontaneous moment when they all started chanting together. A welcomed snack for the young people and their families, provided by the Ministry of Health, followed by fond goodbyes. The wonderful Sutha who translated for me carried the disabled young man to his bike and the others to their father’s motor bike and they all left brighter, happier and with practices that they could do at home.

Onwards to a hotel by the sea for a couple of days off.

Sri Lanka: Day 5

A welcome rest day by the sea.

Sri Lanka: Day 6

After a morning swim and puja in the temple Julie and I leave for Trincomalee. We take a walk down the beach and find a family with a child with special needs whose knows us. The mother and grandmother are delighted to see us.

Sri Lanka: Day 7

Workshop for midwives in Trinco. Dr Arul was again fantastic translating and also just encouraging them all to find the best in these children. There were two children who came to the training, one was the boy on the beach from yesterday. The other child was having fairly constant small seizures, and floppy and very unhappy. He cried and cried. The only thing that seemed to stop him was crushing biscuits. It seemed he responded to the sound and sensation.

He has pus marks on his feet around the abdominal area. After he finished eating and was winded, he slept and I worked with him whilst he was resting. He woke up smiling and happy. The mother said she could really feel the difference in his body. It was heartwarming and beautiful.

Dinner with Dr Bahu and his friend. Dr Bahu was a medical officer in the war and when he talks about it you can feel the pain that he experienced. They are supporting very poor villages around Partipaluram and were planning a trip to take equipment out to help the locals find sustainable ways of making a living. It’s deeply moving here how so many people are looking to help heal the country.

Sri Lanka: Day 8

Confusion with workshops, and as it’s sports week the children are not in school. But we do find some children in one school where the teacher has been able to integrate most of the children into mainstream, and where again we find the boy who we met on the beach and who came as a demo yesterday!

The very lovely Rosalind who is an ayurvedic doctor and yoga therapist, joins us and we now have the person who can help keep the yoga work going and hopefully coordinate some of the HSEF work as well. It was a eureka moment as I feel completely safe to hand her the reins of Special Yoga in the Northern and Eastern provinces with the support of Raj from the Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation in Colombo.

Very happy to have an afternoon to quietly read, swim, rest and meditate.

Dinner again with Dr Bahu and tonight we introduce him to Mr Kaliyuga. To see these two amazing men totally committed to the holistic wellbeing of the people whose lives have been ravaged by the war was very beautiful and very moving

Sri Lanka: Day 9

Early start as we drive to Kilinochchi. We check into our accommodation which is in a children’s home. There is 50 acres of land, 210 children, boys separated from girls, the land being cultivated for banana plantations and vegetables. We drop our bags and then head off to the ASSET children’s home for special needs. There are around 20+ boys aged from around four (at a guess) to 18. One of the boys had spent the first years of his life tied up in a goats pen. He is now able to walk and learning to eat and socialise a little bit. We meet Dr Jagarubin, a psychologist who is committed to saving these children and sees them as children of God. He has started the centre with a Brother who works there. Again I am so deeply moved by the plight of these children and so grateful to these beautiful people who have saved them. I run a group yoga session which the kids loved. I can see the staff need training to help these kids but the love is so powerful there it’s heart-wrenching. We go back to our place for a lovely dinner.

Sri Lanka: Day 10

This morning I run a workshop for teachers as part of Serendip and the Foundation of Goodness sharing yoga practices. The education leader who opens the workshop is another amazing man and totally committed to the plight of children with special needs. Every time I meet another person here who has the possibility and passion to make a difference, I just want to cry with gratitude. The teachers have a lot of fun and hopefully have some things they can take away. Then Mr Kaliyuga and I together with Fazana from the Foundation of Goodness (another amazing person committed to the well-being of the children with special needs), trek back to the children’s home for the boys with special needs. As we arrive the boys remember me and are asking if I will do another session for them. We sit in the garden for a while chatting with the Father who has arrived. It’s clearly not an easy task to run this place. And I wonder where the girls are as there doesn’t seem to be a home for them yet.

Mr Kaliyuga then takes us to the GA’s office who he manages to pull out of a meeting and then on to meet up with Julie and Raj.

We stop for a juice on our way back to our children’s home accommodation. Julie and I go for a walk in the grounds and before long we are surrounded by a group of beautiful girls. We sing and play games with them for a while. The 14 year old tells me that she wants me to be her mother and that her mother has died. The children are so needy for a mother’s love despite the lovely care they get here. Another heart-wrenching moment when we leave the children. I wonder really if it helps them for us to pop in and then leave or not.

Sri Lanka: Day 11

Very early morning start with Raj and Mr Kaliyuga as we are taken to a bird sanctuary on a lake. What a beautiful place to be with the sun rising on one side and the moon on the other, and the sounds of the birds.

After walk and meditation Raj and I head back to find Mr Kaliyuga and then on to collect Julie.

On to the GA’s office where we find Rosalind, and we had a good conversation of how she can support the projects whiles Julie and I are back in the UK.

Then to drop Julie and Raj for Julie’s workshop with the teachers and Rosalind. Mr Kaliyuga and I head off to the special needs school. The boys from the home are all educated there and recognise me… and all asking for another yoga session! We get approval from the head in Jaffna and off we go. The kids love it, and the goat boy is coming in and out of the circle and exploring some of the moves! Amazing what a difference in three days! We spend a little time with the teachers who are really surprised how calm the children are after the session, to help find a way for them to deliver the yoga to the kids daily. The boys all want to know if I am going to the home in the afternoon, and I have to tell them that I am going back to the UK tonight.
And then off on my 36+ hour journey home.

– Jyoti

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