A house of peace

By Gina M. Barrett

In response to the ongoing immigration crisis at the border between the United States and Mexico, I founded Casa de Paz SLV in January 2019. This organization—“House of Peace” in English—has now served more than 2,000 asylum seekers, refugees, and new immigrants with therapeutic yoga practices and more.

The health data on displaced people* show high levels of posttraumatic stress disorder: many of these people are not only displaced, they are victims of gang violence, human trafficking, family separation, detention, and more. Yoga—arguably trauma-informed practices in particular—can help people learn to self-regulate trauma symptoms, so these new residents can again learn to be whole people living in and contributing to their new society.

Trauma-informed yoga for refugees, asylum seekers, and new immigrants

Because we are working with mental health and complex trauma, Casa de Paz SLV volunteers go through a fairly rigorous interview and trauma-informed training process as well as training in how to ground people. Most who apply to work with us are already trained in this way and are certified and licensed in their professions; most are also bilingual.

With our physical yoga, we tend to avoid poses that open up the emotional body too much. We  teach a lot of practices that create resilience, such as warrior pose, boat, and other core strengtheners.

We will often share a series of poses that we repeat, like a sun salutation class, so clients have a routine they can do on their own and with others. When we have a base location for several days, we hold a “share yoga” series, which is more like a training of trainers: a basis for sharing yoga together and with others.

Gaining acceptance because yoga works

At the border in Texas, yoga is not well-known as a way to assist with mental health and trauma. The more people saw the effects of the yoga on the clients we served, however, the more we were accepted. The most common feedback we receive is that clients feel more “relaxed.” What we witness is more joy, connection to self and emotions, a sense of safety, and community—all experiences that help to promote self-regulation of trauma symptoms.

The need is growing

In the past 5 years, the United States has seen significant waves of immigrants from Mexico, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, where we have recently started working. Casa de Paz SLV runs on a slim budget with a mostly volunteer staff. Funding is primarily through private donors, not through grants. The vision is to expand services in the unaccompanied-minor detention facilities and other shelters. Basic supplies, especially food, are needed—and so is yoga. Trauma-informed yoga is a support and therapy that can change and even save lives.

Gina Barrett, MIA, E-RYT 200, C-IAYT, is the 2022 winner of the John Kepner Seva Award, which IAYT presents in partnership with the Give Back Yoga Foundation to recognize the efforts of change-making yoga therapists.

*The Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center provides data on displaced populations. 

This article was adapted from a longer version published in the Summer 2023 issue of Yoga Therapy Today, available to members on IAYT’s website.