Edinburgh yoga festival brings light to dark places

The Edinburgh Community Yoga Outreach teachers are reaching out to vulnerable people within the capital. Picture: Vytaute Valentaite
The Edinburgh Community Yoga Outreach teachers are reaching out to vulnerable people within the capital. Picture: Vytaute Valentaite
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Search for yoga on social media and you could be forgiven for thinking the ancient Indian practice has evolved into a work-out for the designer-clad super bendy whose every pose is captured on Instagram.

But what about everyone else? Studies have shown that yoga can offer universal healing benefits, boosting physical and mental health, yet dressed up as a celebrity-endorsed fitness craze it can seem exclusive and intimidating.

That is where Edinburgh Community Yoga Outreach comes in - a ground-breaking organisation which seeks to bridge the gulf with an innovative programme of yoga classes taking the practice to people who would recoil at the prospect of stepping into a yoga studio.

This week sees the start of ECYO’s second Pay-It-Forward Yoga Festival, an event which offers a wide-ranging variety of classes at venues across the city to celebrate yoga in all its forms.

It will raise money for outreach programmes that introduce yoga to some of Edinburgh’s most vulnerable populations, including those suffering from mental health issues, addiction, trauma, isolation and social deprivation.

The week-long event is the only festival of its kind in Scotland and features more than 20 teachers and ten yoga studios offering classes including men’s yoga, curvy yoga, restorative yoga and chair-based yoga.

Buying a ticket for any of the festival classes will help raise funds for someone who wouldn’t be able to access or afford a class for themselves.

“It is a celebration of yoga in the city,” said Laura Wilson, the founder and director of ECYO. “It is inclusive, making sure that the buzz and excitement around yoga does not deflect from the fact it can be adapted to meet anyone’s needs. And it is also about raising money.”

For the people who attend ECYO classes in hospitals, prisons and recovery centres, yoga can be a lifeline. It might be the only time in a week they have to themselves, to sit quietly and breathe.

Many enter the room agitated, angry or upset and leave feeling calmer, equipped with tools to help the next time they feel overwhelmed.

Wilson and her colleague Lorraine Close hold yoga classes at the Serenity Cafe, off the Royal Mile, run by the charity Comas (Gaelic for ability) for people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. The cafe will be at the heart of this week’s festival.

They also work with psychiatric patients at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, women who have suffered trauma, people who are living with alcohol-related brain damage and offer in-house yoga sessions for hard-pressed NHS staff.

The message ECYO delivers is that yoga is for everyone, regardless of their health or financial situation.

Few of the people who attend ECYO classes would be likely to turn up at a conventional studio or book a private yoga session. The classes themselves are unlike regular classes, but the students reap the benefits and most come back for more.

Yoga doesn’t cure all ills but it does help people with chaotic lives cope better. The combination of movement, breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness has been shown to improve mental, emotional and physical health.

From humble beginnings, ECYO has grown into a support network that plays an empowering role in many people’s lives.

Did Wilson imagine it would expand so quickly? “I did envisage it,” she said. “But I didn’t dare to dream it would come true.”

The festival aims to emphasis the accessibility of yoga, encouraging people who might feel reluctant to attend a regular yoga class because of age, size or ability, while at the same time raising funds for a good cause.

“We want to create a situation where as many people as possible feel welcome,” said Wilson. “It is important to get people to come and give it a go and see how yoga can benefit them. To show them that this is their yoga.”

The Pay-It-Forward Edinburgh Yoga Festival runs from February 13 to 19 at venues across the city in aid of Comas and Edinburgh Community Yoga Outreach. For full details and tickets go to www.edyogafest.co.uk

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