When yoga teachers Chandra Easton and Sarah Powers led a group of yogis to Rwanda last May, the trip included all the traditional yoga retreat fare—twice-daily asana and meditation sessions, delicious food, lush surroundings. But it also gave the participants a chance to laugh and cry with Rwandan women, feel the immeasurable pain of a country that has lived through genocide, and experience the hope of a people who truly embrace forgiveness.
The idea for the retreat sprouted from a small seed. One day, Powers and Easton were talking to each other about their desire to help women in need. They wanted to do something more hands-on than making a donation; they wanted to encourage others to help underprivileged women. Ideally, they wanted to create an experience that would enhance the lives of both givers and receivers.
Together with two like-minded business people, Jo Ousterhout and Deepak Patel, they formed Metta Journeys, a company that organizes trips combining yoga and philanthropy. For their inaugural trip to Rwanda, they teamed up with Women for Women International, an organization that supports women in war-torn countries. While the trip offered some true tourism (such as a visit to the Virunga Volcanoes region to see the mountain gorillas), the emphasis was on connecting with the Rwandan people, specifically those involved with the nonprofit Women for Women International in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
The nonprofit was founded by Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi woman who knows firsthand the insidious ways in which war not only kills people and flattens buildings, but also destroys a community's social fabric and a woman's self-esteem. Its program (offered in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, among other countries) pairs women in war-torn regions with sponsoring "sisters" in other countries who write them letters—a sign of friendship and a reminder to those who feel abandoned by the world that someone does care. The sponsoring women also send $27 per month (plus a $30 enrollment fee) to support their sisters in a yearlong program that teaches them about personal and political rights and provides job training, emotional support, and basic necessities such as clean water, medicine, and food.
The trip participants were invited to the graduation ceremony for a group of Rwandan sisters, and they were able to meet their own sponsored sisters—a rare opportunity for Women for Women International participants.
Powers and Easton made yoga an integral part of the journey to help participants process what they would see and hear about the Rwandan genocide. "I wanted to create a vehicle where people could give to a community while integrating the experience through inner practices, which would ultimately increase their ability to be a support for other people," Powers says.
The yogis completed their journey feeling that they'd given something of value, and they each brought back memories that would forever change them. What follows is a personal travelogue, accompanied by images taken by the award-winning photojournalist Alison Wright, whose career has been dedicated to documenting the lives of women and endangered cultures around the world.
Chandra I'm five months pregnant, sitting in my room at the Serena Hotel in Kigali, thinking about how fortunate I am to have this wonderful adventure before the birth of my second child. Sarah and I arrived here a few days early to teach yoga to employees of Women for Women International. Our aim is to give them ways to heal and replenish themselves so that they can continue to be of benefit to the women they work with.
Sarah Today I visit the Women for Women Inter-national compound. Teaching the WFW staff yoga and meditation under the canopy of a tree outside feels highly unusual, and yet comfortable and familiar. The women treat me so sweetly, like a friend who has been away a long while. I am struck by how the Rwandan women don't seem to perceive me as a white woman, or even as a foreigner. It feels so easy to connect with them. Seeing the mixture of young and mature women splayed across the grass with silent serenity in Savasana brings tears to my eyes.
I notice the sincere warmth of the people in Kigali again and again. Unlike most cities in the world, where strangers do not often interact on the street, I am surprised how often men and women openly make eye contact and smile as they go about their day. Unlike many other developing countries I have visited, no one is following me around trying to sell me something or demanding a handout. As a woman alone here for the first few days, it takes me awhile to recognize I do not have to hold a protective barrier or keep my eyes down to avoid being harrassed. As I wait outside the American Embassy, I encounter a number of dif-ferent beautifully dressed women, and each one smiles at me and says, "Bonjour." Their radiant dignity makes me feel proud to be a woman.
Day 1 Itinerary Yoga and meditation, breakfast, Pentecostal church, Kigali city tour, orientation and introductions, group dinner.
Sarah Our group arrives—it's such a diverse mixture of people. Some have never done yoga but have sponsored sisters through Women for Women International before; others are yogis who are new to the sponsorship program. Everyone shares a similar intention to reach out where they can and to stay open and curious wherever they go. It will be enriching to introduce meditation and contemplation to the new yoginis, offering them an immediate vehicle to digest and integrate whatever the trip will bring.
Many are still tired from the long journey, and, after a balanced yoga practice at the hotel, they stay back to catch up on some sleep. But most of us pile into Jeeps and head for the community church on the outskirts of town to attend a Pentecostal service. As we enter, we see a section reserved for us in the center of the full congregation. We dance, we sing, and we listen to how these people connect with God. It's a joyous celebration, one that finds me standing in front of 200 people, thanking them for welcoming us so graciously and extending their love.
Chandra I'm dancing in the middle of this church, and I cannot stop crying tears of joy over experiencing the Rwandans' deep faith in God. It's a lovely way for our group to begin their adventure—to experience how people rise above suffering to find divine inspiration in the midst of hardship.
For example, tonight at dinner, Hashmat, our Women for Women guide, described how she and her family narrowly escaped death by taking refuge in the Hotel of a Thousand Hills (a.k.a. Hotel Rwanda) before being led off in a convoy to Uganda. Hashmat, who is Muslim, said that her narrow escape gave her faith in God, despite all the violence she saw at such a young age. I take in these stories with respect for those who lived through such violence and uncertainty, wondering how my own spiritual practice would be affected in the face of such suffering. Our morning and evening yoga and meditation classes will be our time to process all that we see and hear during our trip. to honor and to hold
Day 2 Itinerary Meditation and yoga, breakfast, Kigali Memorial Center, Women for Women International bazaar, vocational training classes, meditation and yoga, film screening, dinner at Banana Jam.
Chandra Our first full day. This morning, I teach the experienced class while Sarah teaches the beginners. We are switching each day to give them a chance to study with both of us. After breakfast we go to the Kigali Memorial Center to honor the 250,000 people buried there. Walking through the exhibits is difficult, but when I come to the rooms with photos of children, and the descriptions of their deaths, I cry uncontrollably.
When it's time for the afternoon yoga session, it's clear that we need some way to cope with what we've seen at the memorial. I mainly focus on Yin Yoga to give everyone time to rest and contemplate what we've experienced so far. The quiet, soothing poses allow us to settle in after feeling so heartbroken.
Day 3 Itinerary Yoga and meditation, breakfast, meeting with sisters at Women for Women International office, graduation ceremony, lunch at Africa Bites, women's rights education class, yoga and meditation, dinner at Novotel Hotel.
Chandra The first thing I notice is her eyes. They reveal her strength and gratitude. She is a widow with three children of her own and four more adopted children—orphans from the genocide. Her name is Muharubuga Gemerose, and for the next year, she will be my sister. Through my donation, her own hard work, and the help of the Women for Women International staff, she will, in a year's time, graduate from the program with a new knowledge of her rights and a skill that will help support her family.
It turned out that we were chosen by our Rwandan sisters on the spot. We stood on the lawn in two groups facing each other, and when Muharubuga's name was called, she looked right at me. With the help of a translator, our conversation was short yet sweet. As we said good-bye, she leaned in and touched her forehead to mine. (Tibetan lamas do a similar thing to bless you by putting their forehead to your forehead, third eye to third eye.) It felt like souls meeting. I felt our sisterhood on a very deep level.
Today, after meeting our sisters, we watch the graduation ceremony of the previous year's sisters. We heard beautiful stories of overcoming hardship through the training they received. It was very in--spiring. To conclude the ceremony, the women danced and sang, inviting us to join them. We had a wonderful time.
Sarah My husband, my daughter, and I meet with our sister, Immaculee Mukanyindo, who, with a baby on her hip and one in her belly, had walked many hours to get there. She seems so shy, traumatized, and vulnerable. I only hope she is able to complete the program so that she can have a way to really take care of herself and her children.
We hug, and I give her some black pearl stud earrings from Tahiti that she quickly tucks into her sarong. I want to give her something that's special to me and could be special for her to own. Whatever happens to them now doesn't matter. She is very thankful to receive them. It is so wonderful to meet her in the flesh, to introduce our children to each other, to hug her and look into her eyes and share a few moments.
When we have the opportunity to witness last year's graduates from the WFW program giving testimonials of all they have learned and how much they have changed, I feel so happy that Immaculee has found her way into the program. And I feel so grateful to be sharing this process with my husband and my 16-year-old daughter who, like me, will be forever changed by this.
A Difficult Day
Day 4 Itinerary Meditation and yoga, breakfast, Nyamata and Ntarama genocide memorials, travel to Gorilla's Nest Lodge, dinner, short evening yoga.
Chandra From the road, it looks just like an ordinary church. But inside, skulls and bones are displayed as a gruesome reminder of those who were led to the churches under the guise of refuge and then massacred. A statue of Mother Mary looks over piles of clothes, just as their owners left them. I find myself wanting to get out, but I try to stay present. It's a very difficult moment for all of us, but one that, again, gives us immense appreciation for our lives and for those who continue to work and to remind us that this should never happen again.
In the afternoon, I lead a lovingkindness meditation that involves wishing for freedom from harm and fear. You extend the meditation first to yourself, then to your loved ones, then to your so-called enemies, the country, the world, and be--yond. The practice gives us a way to access what the Dalai Lama refers to as our inherent "good heart." Lovingkindness meditation prepares us to engage in a more advanced Tibetan Buddhist practice called Tonglen, or "sending and receiving." This practice involves breathing in as we acknowledge the suffering of others and breathing out healing and an end to that suffering. We all find the practices vital in helping us stay present with what we've seen, while not becoming completely overwhelmed by it all.
Sarah We drive into the countryside on our way to the Virunga Volcanoes region, where we will go on a guided trek in search of mountain gorillas tomorrow morning. It just gets more and more beautiful. Flashes of green mountain, red earth, colorful figures walking alongside the road.
Along the way, we stop at the Nyamata and Ntarama genocide memorials. I am thankful for our last few yoga practices and meditations—they helped us stay open and soft as we walked through rooms still stained with blood from the mass killings that took place there. I feel so much tragedy and pain in my bones. There is a somber tone to the group, but everyone seems open to the full experience.
Eventually, we make our way to a lodge in a lush, misty valley on the border of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. That night, we lead a particularly grounding Yin practice that encourages everyone to be with their tender emotions. Hashmat, who is a beginning yogini, comes to me at the end of class with tears in her eyes and says, "This is the first time I've really relaxed since the genocide. I feel like I fully settled into myself for the first time in a long time."
Finding the Sacred
Day 5 Itinerary Breakfast, Gorilla's Nest trek, lunch and free time, yoga, dinner.
Chandra We had to set out early this morning, so there was no yoga. Once at the base of the trail with guides, porters, and guardsmen watching out for poachers, we begin an intense hourlong hike to the gorillas. Finally we reach them—a silverback family of five: a father, mother, and three children. They're nestled in the bushes eating and sleeping. It's incredible to be at such close proximity, and they are not bothered by us at all. They seem accustomed to humans and unimpressed.
At one point, one of the babies does some cute antics, somersaulting his way down the slope right in front of us. I am just inches away! Then he comes up to me and taps me on the leg, as if to say, "Tag, you're it!" It surprises everyone that the baby suddenly got so close. If the male silverback had seen me so close to his baby, I could have been in big trouble. We spend an hour among them before we head back down the hill.
It is a beautiful morning, followed by a magical afternoon. We are in the middle of our Yin Yoga class when we hear a group of children singing and dancing on the lawn. We walk outside to get a better look, when some of the girls grab our hands and pull us into their dance.
I am dancing with a little girl who's about eight, the same age as my daughter. It's so touching to jump around and twirl and sing with them. When we're done, we go back to our practice with the buzz of the dancing reverberating through our bodies. I feel so blessed and filled with the magic of this land.
Closing TimeDay 6 Itinerary Yoga and meditation, breakfast, travel back to Kigali, dinner.
Sarah We take our morning practice outside on the patio today. It's chilly out, and mist is hanging on the surrounding mountains. Beginners and experienced yogis practice together. Chandra and I switch off between adjusting students and talking them through the poses.
At one point, while Chandra is giving instruction, I look out across the vista and see a school not so far away. Out there, on a mound, three boys copy our poses in a very cute and theatrical manner. They are hysterically funny. They're doing Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Handstand, poses we aren't even doing. But they're having a great time waving their arms and trying to join us from afar.
Tonight is our last night together as a group. After dinner, each of us summarizes our experiences. I am happy to hear how some of the beginners sincerely feel the value of the practice, and how radiant yet vulnerable each woman looks.
Everyone is feeling very tender, and many express how deeply worthwhile these experiences have been. This was not just another trip or yoga retreat. It was a truly unique and life-changing journey for us all. What a privilege to visit the Rwandan people, who are so full of hope and forgiveness.
Chandra Everyone agrees that this trip has changed them, and that it wouldn't have been the same without the many yoga and meditation practices. I'll be returning home with admiration for Rwanda's open arms and commitment to moving forward without forgetting the past. I'm also taken aback by the beauty and kindness of Rwanda's people, particularly the women.
For me, the image of the mythical phoenix rising out of the ashes comes to mind; the women are a beacon for all of Africa and the world. Also, seeing the work of Women for Women International firsthand was very inspiring. We've seen how just a little help can go a long way.
Sarah Powers and Chandra Easton are yoga teachers who live in the San Francisco Bay Area and teach around the world. To find out more about Powers, visit sarahpowers.com. For information about Easton, visit shunyatayoga.com. Lauren Ladoceour is Yoga Journal's associate editor.