Ahimsa in a place of pain

Ahimsa: Unconditional love, non-violence, compassion to oneself and others


After a five-day stint without practicing yoga, this morning I sat on my yoga mat and attempted to connect with myself. I did not want to. I have never wanted to less. Sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, trying to breathe and prepare myself to move in some kind of way that was mindful and kind to myself, I said no. Literally. I shouted ‘no, no, I don’t want to,’ along with some expletives. Tried to breathe again. Calmed slightly. Eventually moved grudgingly through half of the Ashtanga primary series and then gave up. Did five rounds of Nadi Shodhana and then allowed myself to finally leave the mat. Showered and then powered myself into the day through pure stubbornness.

Two days ago I returned from Greek-Macedonian border, where I was working with children in the refugee camps. I had what I’m calling a small breakdown just before leaving. Concretely this means I was wailing in a car for 15 minutes, more subtly it means I felt a crack at the very pit of my soul open up. It is still cracked, it has stayed open, but now I am back in Ireland and am not quite sure how to function. I’m walking around with this internal fissure but I still look the same on the outside, so it is confusing, for everyone I guess.

I fell completely in love with the children at the camps, so much so that it created a level of fear in me I haven’t felt before – a fear of what was happening to them, a fear of what is going to happen to them, a fear of them being in pain, being kidnapped, being institutionalized, dying. A fear of them being dehumanized by the forces around them with more power than they have. Fear and love come from the same place though, and you cannot love whole-heartedly unless you allow yourself to be vulnerable. Sometimes what feels like weakness is, in fact, strength.

I was blown away by the level of strength and courage I saw in Idomeni and the surrounding refugee camps. There are currently thousands of people stuck in these camps, having fled war, in the hope of making a life for themselves somewhere safe. Living in tents on train stations and petrol stations, they are stuck in a kind of purgatory, where they cannot work, cannot study, cannot move, cannot live with any kind of choice or freedom or integrity. Basic human needs have been stripped away and they are treated like cattle.

To smile when you are suffering is brave. To stay compassionate in the face of apathy is brave. To remain human when you are being treated inhumanely is brave. I feel humbled and blessed to have shared time with these people who show strength and compassion in the face of oppression. This, for me, is ahimsa.

They are not the ‘other’, much as the media might have you believe. They are not terrorists – they are being terrorized. There is sometimes violence in the camps (amongst children and adults) – but they are not violent people. They are people living in a violent situation. Do not make the easy mistake of othering them. They are your brothers, sisters, parents, children, dentist, lawyer, neighbour, local butcher, teacher, doctor, plumber, friend. They are you and me and everyone.

I spent my time in Idomeni working with The Flying Seagull Project, a charity that brings light, love and laughter to underprivileged children through clowning, circus, music, and magic.

The children living in these camps are lacking in adequate food, shelter, safe spaces, stimulation, entertainment, playtime, education, love and affection. I can’t think of a better way to spend time than by making them laugh. Even in just two weeks, I saw the massive difference that some daily structure and playtime can make – it can turn a violent, distressed child back into their old self, back into the child they were and are. It has a knock-on positive effect on their parents to see their child laugh and play.

Sometimes the situation can feel so over-powering, so impossible, so enormous that we cannot do anything. Challenge that feeling. Know that making a sad child happy for one day is worthwhile. Know that you can give people tools and ways to make themselves happy in coming days. Every bit counts.

Here are some things you can do to help:

Give your time. Fly to Thessaloniki, come to Idomeni, volunteer with one of the many groups there.

Here’s a good one: https://www.facebook.com/Hotfoodidomeni/?fref=ts

Here’s another: https://www.facebook.com/Idomeni-Cultural-Center-1302471973114551/?fref=ts

Give your money. Donate to Hot Food Idomeni here: https://www.youcaring.com/hot-kitchen-idomeni-546626/donate#pp

Donate to Idomeni Cultural Centre here: https://www.youcaring.com/idomeni-cultural-center-561260/donate#pp

The Flying Seagull Project ran a successful fundraising campaign for the current refugee relief project but I encourage you to donate more to them here – the work they do is incredible and life-changing. There are plans to continue working with the refugee children in the coming year.

(There are certainly other amazing, worthwhile groups working in Idomeni and other camps, but the above are ones I have worked with and can vouch for. Find out about other volunteering opportunities by joining this group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/infopointforidomenivolunteers/?fref=ts)

Give your attention. Talk about it, share articles about it, lobby the government about it. Engage with the pain of the world because if we’re not engaged with the pain then we’re not engaged with the love. It can be so easy to get cocooned in our own sheltered realities and forget about the suffering of those close-by. But living fully means loving fully means hurting fully means laughing fully.

I’ll leave you with a quote from my fellow clown Charlie Bali, who is still in Idomeni:

“The greatest protection is a loving heart. Protecting yourself, you protect others. Protecting others, you protect yourself.”



4 thoughts on “Ahimsa in a place of pain

  1. paula says:

    Hi – thank you for posting this. I’m a yogi myself and I spent a short week volunteering in the port in Athens, I’ve been fighting with myself everyday since I got home and your piece has helped .. sending meany blessings x

  2. bella says:

    Thank you for your words, when i clicked on your link to read your post, i had no idea that it would be about Idomeni, and the situation there.. I can hear you very well.. I have been involved in a project supporting refugees in Amman, Jordan, with Yoga, and the first time i came back from there , after 5 weeks working with these incredible, beautiful, generous and loving people, I crashed.. I was floored.. I cried for 3 days and could not move.. I have been back twice. It is a very different situation than what is happening in Calais, in Idomeni, In Dunkirk.. it is “chronic” whereas it feels like what is going on in Europe is “acute”- In Jordan, there are millions of refugees, about 20% in camps, the rest trying to find a way , mostly in Amman.. It is very hard.. people are really struggling.. with everyday concerns, how to get food, how to live.. and they are struggling with their grief, their loss, but they are NOT met with violence and brutality
    the way they are being met in Europe. They are at least given a measure of dignity.
    Since setting up the project in Amman, we have seen how people in this situation are so open to Yoga as a healing tool for their PTSD, and it is amking a real difference to peoples psycho social health. We have just established a programme of teachers to volunteer in one refugee orrgansation for a year.. so we have teachers, now trained in TRAUMA INFORMED approach to Yoga, teaching regular sessions for the next year.. and we are going to Palestine to run another training there.. It is all voluntary, and the next step is to set up an NGO that will support this work. so thats what we are going to do….
    AS Yoginis, and Yogis, what has become really clear to us, who are engaged in this kind of work, is the need for self care, and to appraoch our OWN practice from the persepective of being trauma sensitive.. How can we not carry pain from what we are witnessing, from the souls we are meeting, as you say WE ARE ONE, and I believe more and more, that we are sufering colectively for what is happening to humanity..
    BRAVE SOUL YOU! thank you for your heart, and the work with the children..we did kids Yoga too- THEY LOVED IT!!!
    take care of yourself, give yourself time..would love to talk sometime about your work..
    warm wishes to you, Bella

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