Witnessing Global Wounds – an Australian yogi’s international tale

Josh Pryor, CEO of Yoga Australia, sat down with Rachael O’Mara, Programs Specialist, to talk about how yoga has supported her almost 20-year journey in international development, as she worked in partnership to support some of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities around the world, including in the Pacific, East and South Asia, and the Middle East.

Rachael, as an Aussie who has spent very little of your working life in Australia or the developed world, how did you come to learn yoga?

In 1999 I just walked into Newtown Community Hall looking to learn. There was a local class and I started attending regularly. Little did I know it was an ideal environment to build a solid foundation of yoga, pranayama and meditation practice that is still unfolding today. The one and a half hour classes opened space for a deep dive into structural alignment from my toes right to the top of my head. The teacher gave strong structural foundations so that we could transition to a flowing sequence with inversions and pranayama.

His instructions were always extensive and precise. It gave beginners like myself access and insights to a whole other level of what might be possible. I was transfixed to observe my teacher in incredible lotus position head stands and some kriyas I have never observed by anyone else since. I feel very lucky and grateful – I didn’t realise I was learning from one of best yoga teachers in the country. Thank you, Simon Borg Olivier.

You’ve selected some of the most emotionally challenging work I can imagine. Did you see the same kinds of stories playing out in different countries?

The organisations I worked for address inequality and injustice in communities around the world, through partnership with local organisations and local communities. The practical impact of this work has left a profound mark on me.

I have witnessed with my own eyes the personal devastation of conflict and post-conflict events happening around the world. Syrians with haunting eyes as they sought safety for their families in Jordan – fleeing war and conflict. Communities in Laos growing food and cash crops in fields still surrounded with land mines. Vietnamese young people living with disability from agent orange, just trying to access dignity.

I travelled to remote and hard to access communities and listened to people’s stories. Travelling into restricted parts of Myanmar to meet with the Rohingya people, a few years prior the Army’s mass killing of civilians; to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians farmers as they navigated checkpoints to take their produce to market, often spoiling on the way while waiting in the hot sun.

I listened to women and men talk about what happened to them and have been an attuned and present witness to see how communities try to come back together to rebuild their lives. Tamil families returning to their homes after decades of civil conflict in Sri Lanka, houses covered with bullet holes, tall trees growing through the roof, land cordoned off by UXO land mine tape.

I have seen people’s courage, dignity, strength, and grit. Women in PNG and the Solomon Islands working in local organisations to support other women surviving against systemic gender-based violence. Women and men in Afghanistan determined to access education for their girls.

I observed the critical importance of collective efforts of people coming together to support one another to address the multitude of systemic barriers so many communities face. The strength of Pacific Island communities advocating locally and globally to tackle the climate crisis and protect their ancestral lands from sea level rise.

No matter where I have been, I am always humbled by our ability to connect across language, culture, and life circumstances to look into each other’s eyes, to see our mutual humanity. Visiting all of these communities I realised we all share the same concerns – safety and opportunities for our families; dignity of decent work; future plans and dreams; and our connections to each other.

No matter what insurmountable odds communities have faced, there was always hospitality, an offering and an invitation, an expression of culture through food, drink, and story. And in some beautiful cases, music and dance. It was a reclamation of humanity, a remembering of what it means to be alive and with each other.

These days, yoga is often presented superficially as physical exercise, and on the other extreme it can be expressed so philosophically that it seems like an aloof luxury afforded to those with comfortable lives. How has yoga practically interacted with your journey?

I would describe it as foundational for my personal health and wellbeing and a critical pathway into a state of regulation for my nervous system.

I have come to realise over the decades of on/off practice, that my yoga and meditation practices were access points to metabolise and transmute my feelings. Emotions I might still be carrying once I returned home from long-haul work visits could be processed by coming back to my body, coming back to my breath, grounding into the present moment, tuning into internal sensations, and fine-grained awareness of what was going on inside.

By moving, stretching, focusing, and breathing long slow inhales and exhales, I was releasing any contraction or tension being held. With deepening awareness of what was arising, I found a level of spaciousness and calm. It became a source of nourishment and connection.

In daily evening meditation I accessed deep witness consciousness capacity (thank you Sally Kempton). From the practice of holding a steady and relaxed gaze and an even, steady breath while going into deep stretches, I was widening my window of tolerance and expanding my capacity for what I could manage. From that place, I could keep going.

Having yoga as a practice to transmute tough emotional experiences meant I could be more available to what might be happening in the present moment when meeting with communities. Meditation practice supports me to be able to drop into the heart and remain open hearted, curious, and compassionate. To hold a relaxed, open, and steady presence, so that people felt safe to turn towards me, to be open and share. It is those moments where it is crucial to not become overwhelmed, flooded, numb, or turn away.

It’s difficult hearing about these situations, much less being on the ground. How can frontline workers sustain yourselves over the long term? Exposed to individual and collective trauma, how can you minimise the risk for vicarious trauma?

How we maintain our own wellbeing while turning towards the polycrises facing the global community really is the big question. In recent years I have learned about the neuroscience of the nervous system, about our hyper- and hypo-arousal states, which has provided me with the scientific explanation to my and others’ experiences and reactivity.

Now that I understand the physiological Fight, Flight, Freeze responses when we experience an overwhelming situation, I reflect even more on my practice.

While these are highly intelligent survival mechanisms of the nervous system in the moment to help us to survive, they cannot be sustained beyond the immediate action required to keep us alive.

Trauma can occur if this survival mechanism gets stuck, and we start reacting as if there is a threat, when there is no actual threat anymore. If an overwhelming event occurs in our past, and we didn’t have a way to process it, to be seen, witnessed, or held safely, or find a way to transmute what happened to us, then this is how trauma can become installed in the body. 

Learning about trauma has given me great cause for deepening my compassion when I observe reactivity or numbness in community.

It is important for all of us to avoid burnout or becoming consumed and overtaken by anger, cynicism, bitterness, resentment, grief, or numbness and depression.

These are all very understandable feelings under the circumstances, but we can learn how to cultivate an inner practice, to develop an inner state of safety, joy, awe, compassion, and equanimity. Feeling rage at the injustice of it all is a healthy fight response, however we cannot use this fuel to drive our work forever – it only burns us out.

Coming to the work from a place of regulation lowers the temperature and is more sustainable. We also need to be resourced from our own community to support us. We cannot do this healing alone. It’s not easy but necessary.

This is an incredible recounting, and I’m sure Yoga Australia members would have similar anecdotes in their lives.

Absolutely! Understanding the nervous system and becoming trauma-informed has provided significant reflection and insights into the even deeper value of my yoga, pranayama and meditation practices than I ever realised.

One time I talked to my trauma-informed yoga teacher friend who had also worked in international development. She said, “you didn’t realise your yoga practice was saving your life!”

A practice which combines body movement with breath (just like song, dance, ceremony) is invaluable in the prevention and treatment of trauma. Moving stuck and frozen energy in the body through movement and breath is a key pathway to regulate the nervous system back into a state of safety and social engagement.

It’s particularly effective when practicing with others as we co-regulate with each other in collective spaces.

Australia is in the midst of heightened discussion of these kinds of issues, and there is the likelihood for exposure or re-exposure to personal and sensitised wounds. Is there any advice you would give to someone on this land who feels angry, afraid, or despondent?

The skills we learn through yoga, pranayama and meditation help with the universal foundational need: to regulate and metabolise challenging experiences. Our practice supports us to become more available to the present moment and clearly perceive the suffering of ourselves and others, with compassion and loving kindness.

During overwhelming moments, we can return back to our breath, tune back into our bodies, and move the energy in a way that feels right, such as more restorative yoga practices, and being in nature and on Country. We can return to our practice again and again, so that the practice becomes an anchor we draw upon.

From this place, we can sense into our own collective trauma wounds that are surfacing in our own community. We can be the witness to the pain, and expand our capacity to hold space for ourselves and others to transmute whatever emerges. More than ever, we have access to tools and resources needed to support each other, and those most vulnerable and marginalised in our community.

Thoughts and tips from Simon Borg-Olivier

I am deeply grateful to have played a part in Rachael’s transformative journey. I firmly believe that when practiced mindfully, yoga holds the potential to alleviate the effects of trauma.

For many individuals grappling with trauma, the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response) is dominant. What’s needed is a greater presence of the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the state of rest, relaxation, rejuvenation, and regeneration. In this state, one can rebuild trust in one’s body and environment. Trauma often leads to self-doubt and a lack of trust, primarily within oneself and in their surroundings. Re-establishing a sense of safety necessitates a shift towards a more relaxed nervous system state.

A vital component of trauma recovery involves improving blood circulation so that the system is infused with renewed energy. However, it is essential to enhance blood flow without elevating the heart rate, as an accelerated heart rate can be misinterpreted as stress by the autonomic nervous system. Thus, the two most significant physical elements in trauma recovery involve promoting blood flow without a racing heart and fostering a balanced nervous system with a prevailing parasympathetic state.

Drawing from my extensive research and clinical expertise, I’ve identified critical areas within the body that are pivotal when dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, and trauma. These unique areas in the body are characterised by dual nervous control — both conscious and unconscious — and include diaphragmatic breathing and blinking.

The simplest method to achieve this is by adopting uncomplicated postures that allow you to elongate each body part without it feeling like traditional stretching. This can be accomplished in virtually any position or activity, but straightforward symmetrical postures often yield the best results. The practice is fairly simple — an initial focus on elongating and relaxing these key ‘bridge’ regions, and gently and fluidly moving them without discomfort. The six key bridge areas to focus on are:

  1. Elongate your fingertips and ensure your fingers maintain dexterity like playing a piano.
  2. Extend your shoulders as far away from the base of your neck as possible, then verify that your shoulders remain relaxed, allowing for smooth rolling forward or backward.
  3. Lengthen the front and back of your neck, allow your neck to relax and sway like a flag in the wind.
  4. Achieve complete relaxation in your pelvic floor and gently explore the freedom of movement, be it forward, backward, side to side, or even in circular or figure-eight motions.
  5. Elongate your lower back, particularly around L5-S1, by lowering your sitting bones. Confirm that your abdomen can breathe naturally. For those seeking a more advanced practice, consider engaging the transversus abdominis to facilitate abdominal rolling.
  6. Unwind your facial muscles, focusing on voluntary and involuntary movements, including generating saliva and swallowing, gently moving your jaw as though chewing soft food, softly manipulating your lips as if preparing to smile or kiss, slightly opening and closing your eyes, and permitting inner eye movements.

I’ve successfully employed this approach when assisting individuals dealing with trauma. Each of these six bridge points can be relaxed, lengthened, and moved separately or addressed collectively. The more you can manage simultaneously, the more potent the effects are in alleviating trauma.

Wishing peace to fellow Yoga Australia members, and all people on this land and across the world.