Bridging Yoga and Mental Health Care: A Personal Approach

I was interviewed by Rob Schware and this interview was posted on Huffington Post yesterday. That is really awesome. I feel proud and happy seeing the end result.

Please read the interview down here or at the place of origin by clicking here.


2014-05-21-AnnekeSips.jpgThis is an interview with Anneke Sips, a yoga teacher and social psychiatric nurse (RN) from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. For the last 16 years she has been working in the field of psychiatry; she started teaching yoga eight years ago. She studies with TKV Desikachar’s son and the Mohan family — both in the tradition of Krishnamacharya .


Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

My own experience is the best motivation for me. Yoga always helped me through the waves of life. Since I found yoga, my dream was to connect my passions (yoga and psychiatry). However, I wasn’t sure how, and I wasn’t verbally strong enough to convince the psychiatrist of the ward where I worked then, who was against the idea. I couldn’t get this out of my head. Then, early in 2010, I decided to go to Rwanda with Project Air to teach yoga to traumatized people with HIV. I volunteered for three months. After all I saw there, I was more motived than ever to bring yoga into my work. Knowing the challenges in bringing this mind-body approach into a medically-oriented space, I felt the need to study more, and to find people to build community. I started a network on LinkedIn, and in 2010 I organized the first Yoga & Mental Health Sangha for all who are interested in the field of yoga and mental health in Amsterdam. Since then, twice a year we meet with the community to talk, share, inspire, and connect. May 2014 is the next Sangha in Amsterdam.

2014-05-21-teaching_rwanda.jpgIs there a standout moment from your work in Rwanda?

When I was teaching there for Project Air, there wasn’t a beautiful yoga studio to be found. The people didn’t know about yoga before Project Air came. They had no preconceptions. They just practiced and it felt good! One experience: I taught in an empty, dusty little church on a hill. Once, we were locked out of the church, so we sat on the yoga mats under a tree in front of that church while I told them about the origins and philosophy of yoga. Then I asked for their experiences. One by one they began to talk about what yoga does for them. They said that they were able to sleep through the night since the genocide in ’94, now that they practice yoga. “I feel my body again,” said another, squeezing her own hands and arms. “I have less trouble with the side effects of my HIV medications.” “I feel happier.” The stories went on and on and they recognized each other’s experiences. When I think back to this afternoon under that tree, I still get tears of joy in my eyes: the true nectar of yoga!

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching?

I am experienced in working with people who have chronic psychiatric illnesses. Most of my patients suffer from a psychotic disorder, in combination with drug abuse and trauma. But also we see many stress- and anxiety-related issues, depression, and personality disorders.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio?

In a trauma-sensitive class, or working with any population in mental health care, I would not — or rarely — touch somebody or give physical adjustments. I don’t want to trigger them and make the yoga session unsafe. This made me re-think my touching in a regular class too. Also, in my experience, teaching special populations requires a more personal approach than general teaching in a studio.

How has this work changed your definition of yoga and your practice? Your definition of service?

As I said, when teaching special populations, I create a more personal approach by teaching them one-on-one or in small groups. I think this personal approach is important, also in a regular class. Everyone is different and yoga has so many great tools that can assist every person in any challenge or at any stage of life. In my studies and practices I am diving deeper into the philosophy of yoga; yoga is a part of my life, rather than an asana practice on my mat. I feel like unraveling my practice into the unknown, off the mat; it’s a place where stillness appears, and growth and transformation are possible.

Since I use yoga in my work, I observe people and have become a better listener as a nurse, too. I have become more mindful, and see the self-healing qualities in my patients better. It helps me to “sit in my hands” more, which empowers the patients, help them trust their body signals and intuition again. It’s de-stigmatizing to support them to help themselves. What society sometimes thinks of as the “weak ones” I see as the strong ones — survivors in tough circumstances.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing these? What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

A great challenge is bringing yoga as a therapy (not just an activity) in a medical setting. I approach this professionally, but follow my intuition and heart. I advise to “walk the talk” and use good research on yoga. Set up a plan and evaluate. Study, practice, and research gave me the confidence to start the discussion. The community is helpful here for reflection.

Self study and practice, experience, right intentions, observation, and compassion are needed to grow as a teacher/therapist. I think whoever wants to teach specific populations should learn about them. I believe yoga is a safe practice to teach, if you know what you are doing, and have the skills to avoid triggering trauma.

What are some of your hopes for the future of “service yoga” in the next decade?

I hope that yoga becomes an evidence-based practice that will show up in the guidelines of treating mental illness. I hope that yoga teachers and therapists stay true to the yoga teachings, and keep the Yamas and Niyamas in mind, so that practices result in peace of mind.

Editor: Alice Trembour
Images: Courtesy of Delight Yoga Amsterdam and Anneke Sips




Closing doors, opening doors

and it’s all good.

I do miss Africa at times. The friendship felt, the beauty seen. Back in Amsterdam, a few things became visible. How much I Love this city and how much I feel home here and how fast you get Africanised or simply get used to a country after a while. I found this country so ‘white’ and also off course cold. I caught myself looking up into the air all the time when a helicopter would fly over. I had no idea there were so many heli’s here in Holland. I guess I never paid attention to them before. In Rwanda I was always wondering what these things were doing up there…

I miss teaching Yoga every day. I do practice myself (almost) every day. And I found a place to sub teaching in Amsterdam. Shape. It was nice to teach again. Then I am very excited about organizing Global Mala this year at the Astanga Yoga School in Amsterdam! This event will be organized to raise awareness. On this day we will practice 108 minutes of yoga while creating this awareness for the Rwandan women are practicing the art of Ashtanga yoga for healing, taught by Project Air.
Admission will be on donation and all donations will be supporting Project Air. All levels are welcome! The yoga school will be open from 10.00h – 15.00h. Yoga class starts at 11.00h – Come and Join!
After class there will be healthy finger food and tea provided while there is space to see and buy original Rwandan photographic artwork, made by local Rwandan yoga students. The pictures made by the donated camera’s. hey Loved this project as well! Through images we share their reflection on life, while giving them the opportunity to sell their work. Pure Fair Trade. I will teach the yoga class and also share some of my experiences.. What a great way of sharing what I saw.. I am very thankful for this opportunity!

I didn’t want this project to stop after I left Rwanda, and it won’t. From this chapter I will move into the next one.. walking our way up to the House of Love

To be continued!!!

Some Things

While I am eating my last ‘Stroopwafel’ imported from Holland by myself, I write another blog entry. I just had one package and ate them very mindfully. That way i could enjoy this sugary sweetness up until the day of today, here in Rwanda!

Early this morning. Concentration level was low, the Love level very high. The women at Ineza where the sweetest today, although they couldn’t be still during yoga class. I taught them this morning, these ladies are so precious.

After that class, I taught the adolescents group.
Their concentration level is very very high and their relaxation level… gone. They seem to push themselves so hard to be ‘good’, my task in class is to find ways to slow them down, relax, smile, breath, enjoy, learn… the opposite from what happened this morning at Ineza, I had to move them into Yoga by motivate them and find creative ways to start by make them be still. One would make a sound, all would laugh. Over and over… and loud!
Which is fine. i am sure there is a reason for their lack of concentration today, they have no easy lives. Poverty, HIV..etc.. And probably my energy had something to do with it as well, i felt a little sad today, they were restless but very sweet. If I see peace in Savasana and after that bright smiles, and woman who thank eachother to share their yoga, I do feel happy.

One of the adolescents (Aimable, the boy left on the photo, who will become a future local yogateacher, he was just asked last week by me if he was interested in starting training for that, he smiled brightly and said: “Yes! i feel very ready for that!” -sweet!-) asked me after class: ” Anneke, you make pictures of us, that way you will always remember us. We don’t have camera’s how do we remember you?” I replied that they can do, every morning 5 rounds of Sun Salutations in their houses.. that way they would remember me! They smiled an knodded, that seemed like a good idea. I hope so…
After the morning Ineza class I bought a few cute little ‘heart-shaped’ bags from them. And a yoga-mat bag. Truly fair trade. These ladies making bags all day, that’s their job. (click here to see the profiles of the ladies)
We-act is facilitating these opportunities (WE-ACTx, the NGO that works with HIV+woman, we work with very closely as well).

After this morning, i was busy busy making many arrangements in, around and at the program here. My guard here, Damascene, he’s very sweet, he became my good friend, since it’s just him and me now in the house at the moment. He speaks a little bit English (i am teaching him English) and a little bit French and Kenyarwandan off course. So, we kinda made our own language. A mix of English and French words, a small selection, and Kenyarwandan words, again, a small selection but then from my part). Here in Rwanda, Damascene seems to understand me very good. It’s very interesting. We talk very much, without knowing each others language. He pays very good attention though (next to his work, he has a busy job here in the house and does that in an excellent way), he seems to feel very well what i mean or need. A little example this, very cute:
Today after yoga in the afternoon, in my very busy schedule, I was planning on going to buy some souvenirs, like a wooden mask or something. I know there is a market close by. So I asked Damasecene to go with me, since I don’t know exactly here it is, and he does.
“Yego!!” he off course answered. He’s always in the mood to come with me for some fun. But, then when i arrived home from teaching yoga, i saw that the market was in front of the house! When I was gone, he went to the market by himself, to see the prices. He saw it was crazy expensive and decided to ask one of these guys to come to the house if they were interested to make some money.. And that’s what happened. The market man with his son and a few others and all his wooden statues, dolls, masks etc. were in front of my house, on the street. Sweet! That was just what i needed after a crazy and busy day like today… Then they didn’t have the mask i liked, so Damascene and I explained what i was looking for ( a few things) and tomorrow morning before yoga, the guy comes back with things i might like. Easy for me, good business without competition for him. Good prices that way for both of us, everybody happy.

After dinner, this same Damascene showed interest in the yogamat laying there and tried to get into a yoga posture. Before we knew i was teaching him a complete yoga class. He was unstoppable. The more acrobatic, the better.. off course. I had to slow him down. But his excitement for yoga was nice to see. Hope he will continue to learn this… tomorrow i will teach him more. Sun-salutation in the right way to start with. On the picture, Damascene on, probably, the first Downward Facing Dog of his whole life! (a moment to treasure) But i suspect not the last one.

Also, very clearly we’re getting closer and closer to election date. Many helicopters in the air during he day, because.. who knows! And posters and other campaign material everywhere!Rwanda's President And that’s that.

Also today was a sad day for some of us. I feel very sorry about that. The bad news Stijn told me yesterday, that Maria died in Spain. My thoughts were with them all day…. A day crazy and very very sad with sparkles of Love from the beautiful people here, came to an end… Goodnight!

Anneke x

Teaching two classes


eight o’clock in the morning Deirdre and i went out to teach the sewing ladies. They were awesome! It’s one of the oldest classes in the program, they practice yoga since 2007. It took a little while before they were ready to start. They said they just finished a big sewing job and they were tired and hungry. But nevertheless, they practiced.
This class are woman who are genocide survivors, genocide-rape-survivors, HIV+patients and more. In this class there are two women who need extra attention. One was hurt badly in the genocide and has problems in her shoulders because of that and one other lady is a woman who has Polio. Also in this class are 2 woman who have flash backs regularly. So it’s for us important to be aware of that. Especially in Sirsasana. It’s a real challenge to teach Ashtanga to all woman in the world. What to do in case of Polio? What exercise would fit a woman who can only move the hips and up? We are creating ways to work with her, create an Ashtanga practice that fits her, custom made. How to motivate hungry and tired woman?
We do want to practice with and teach Ashtanga to each woman who wants to learn. Even the ones who are struggling physically and or mentally. Also the once who are hungry and tired. They can learn how to gain energy by giving a little first. But the great lesson they are teaching is that no matter what circumstance they are in, they try, they do it and the allow themselves to smile even!

Then we went to the second class this day. Again in the church were we teach every Monday to Thursday. Now the group was a group of adolescents. Young people. They all are also HIV+. They are extremely quite and concentrated. They really are doing their best. They want to learn and practice badly. There were two little children Shadia, who seemed to be around 6 years old and Zuena, who seemed around 3 years old. They were playing outside and decided to take a mat as well. They practiced Ashtanga yoga with the rest, quietly and seriously. The did not get any modification or explanation whatsoever, they just followed the rest and just did it without disturbing anyone at anytime. They didn’t speak a word but copied the others. I was highly impressed by these kids.

note: After class i bought a SIM card called Tigo in downtown Kigali. That one can make international text messages. I didn’t try international calling, but i don’t need to, since i am using Skype every night. I bought the card for 500fr what means around 1 US Dollar and then put 5000fr on it which means plus/minus 10 US Dollar. The SIM card i had to buy in a shop but these recharge cards are sold every where on the streets.


Hotel Rwanda

|| Luck is when preparation meets opportunity ||

Opportunity i was given, or was created… preparations are made. I’ts pretty hard to imagine what is going to happen soon and thus, pretty hard to prepare properly. Vaccines, visas and  money, not so hard. Prepare my soul on where i will go, more tough. I am reading about Rwanda, about the history and yesterday i watched this movie again, Hotel Rwanda. Horrible to see the suffering of these people during the Genocide, for both the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s. As the one is slaughtered and the other one feels the need to kill their own kind… mankind. Sad for all of them. And now they’re left with the hangover.

For the survivors, fear and sadness and whatever negative emotion else became a part of them, so big, it would take over their lives. With depression and PTSD as a result. Rwanda, Africa is far away, a small country but they need help. And what could be my contribution? Lucky i feel that i found a way to help. I found this organization Project Air and will work with them this summer, help woman and children cope with their trauma’s trough the art of Yoga.

In this blog i will collect my experiences to inform and hopefully inspire others in anyway. Please read and please leave feedback whenever you feel like it.