Rwanda: How the Elderly in Bugesera Use Yoga to Tackle Mental Health

Elderly genocide survivors during a yoga session at Aheza Healing Centre in Bugesera District on April 1. Yoga is proving to an effective therapy for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among these elderly people.

Thursday afternoon is a special day for the elderly in Bugesera District. At about 2:30 pm the elderly men and women aged between 50 and 70 start trickling in at Aheza Healing Centre, some with the help of a walking stick.

It is not only an opportunity for them to meet and catch up but most importantly, it is the day that an instructor takes them through a one-hour yoga session.

63-year-old Caroline Mukandori is a regular member of this group of about 16. The slender, bubbly elderly woman is chatty, telling stories and jokes as old men and women roar in laughter.

Clad in a Kitenge outfit, she occasionally pauses her conversation to break into church hymns which she accompanies with a sway of her hips in a dance.

This is the Mukandori that everyone in this village in Bugesera District knows but behind this jolly exterior is a woman who has suffered great loss and grave physical pain.

During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, she was shot in the back as she ran up a hill to escape an attempted rape.

Years on, Mukandori found difficulties walking until a major operation was performed to remove the bullet from her back.

The doctors also fitted her back with metal to give her back her ability to walk normally.

Although her back issues were fixed, Mukandori says that she was left battling serious mental health challenges.

"Mention any mental health issue and I probably have experienced it but my biggest challenge is depression. It's easy for me to drown in sorrow and my depressions come with lots of tears. I cry about any sad story I hear and I simply can't stop," she says.

Mukandori says that she thought that she would have to live with her mental illness until she was introduced to yoga.

The journey

Mukandori says that the first time that she heard about yoga, she was curious.

She explains that this is mostly because, at a younger age, she was very physically active and was involved in many sports activities.

"When I heard about the sports session, I was intrigued because I used to be quite sporty when I was younger. I used to compete in running races, play football and do high jump. So when I heard that the centre was offering sports sessions, I was curious," she said.

After her first yoga class, she went home, took a bath and went to bed and to her surprise, she woke up at 5 am the next morning.

"For you to understand my confusion and later, my joy, you must know that this was the first time I was sleeping through the night in so many years. I was used to going to bed at 7 pm and waking up at midnight. This was a miracle," she said.

Since then, Mukandori says that she takes her yoga classes very seriously and has incorporated the exercises into her daily routine.

She also attributes yoga to helping her put her emotions in check, saying that breathing exercises that are a major component of her class have brought her peace.

"I used to cry and feel sad all the time but with these exercises, I have hope about the future. I now feel secure and at peace. I can now cook and eat. There are times in the past when I would just cook and even fail to eat," she said.

She says that the exercises have also greatly improved on her bloating and stomach ulcer issues, promptly putting off the need to take medication every day.

"I bloat less. It is such a good thing for my stomach. I used to take a tablet called omeprazole for my peptic ulcers and stomach gas but not anymore. The trainer showed me how to deal with the gas which was the root of all my problems," she said.

Off medication

52-year-old Christine Mukarukaka says that the first time that she heard about yoga, she laughed because she could not imagine their community of the elderly participating.

However, her curiosity brought her to the class and she has never looked back.

After the genocide, she started experiencing severe pain in her neck and later, her hands and arms started going numb.

She says that the government spent so much money trying to fix her health issues but the doctors simply didn't know how to help.

Then she started participating in the yoga class.

Mukarukaka says that when she started exercising, it was purely for physical fitness. What she didn't know is that the exercises would greatly improve the condition that doctors had failed to fix.

"After a few classes, I noticed that the numbness in my hands and arms was gone. The pain in my neck too. So I decided to start doing the exercises twice a day, in the morning and in the evening," she said.

Mukarukaka says that she was one of the first people to enrol in the class and upon seeing results, she started encouraging more and more people to join.

She says that she was used to consuming big bags of tablets but she has since stopped taking the medicine.

She says that her mental health has also since improved since she has stopped thinking that she is going to die.

"I have spent a whole year without going to hospital. To me, that is a miracle. I used to wonder if this is how I am going to live the rest of my life and it would give me sleepless nights because I would think so many things. I can now sleep and go on with my life," she said.

How it works

Alexis Havugimana Muganwa is one of the yoga instructors at Aheza Healing Centre.

He says that his classes mostly involve physical movements, meditation and breathing exercises.

He explained that meditation works very well with the brain while breathing exercises with emotions, and consequently, they help in stress management.

"Breathing exercises are the most important. They take 70 per cent of the whole session. People tend to think that yoga is about stretching but it is much more than that. It involves the body, the mind and the soul," he said.

He reminisced about the time these sessions started, laughing at what the reactions were from the different beneficiaries.

"They didn't understand how at their age they can exercise. They asked me if they needed to wear particular outfits and the first sessions were full of laughter because they didn't fully understand what they were doing," he said.

However, Muganwa says that with time, the team got to love the exercises and many times have come back with feedback.

"Most of them tell me that they are now able to sleep well. This is mostly because the brain waves are calmed down by the exercises. As long as the brain is busy, it cannot shut down for you to be able to sleep. These exercises help with that," he said.

He said that the improvement in mental health trickles down to physical strength, adding that some of the survivors on his team have previously told him that they can now do some of the household chores that they couldn't before.

"I have had some of them come to tell me that they can now sweep their compound or cook their own meal, which they say was something they couldn't manage before due to the toll on their mental and physical health. As an instructor, I consider that a win," he said.

Mental health numbers

The centre is run by the organisation founded by Rwandan graduates who survived the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, which is commonly known by its French acronym of GAERG.

Speaking to The New Times by telephone, Aimée-Josiane Umulisa, the Healing Activities Coordinator at GAERG, says that GAERG works with about 2,500 people who are split into 168 groups spread all over 25 districts countrywide.

She explains that the members of these groups face different mental health challenges including depression, PSTD, alcoholism and anxiety among others.

Some 70 per cent of the 2,500 are battling both PTSD and depression.



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