Since last year, students in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in Western Australia have been learning the ancient Indian practice of yoga through a specially designed, culturally informed program.
In these classrooms, ‘lion breath’ becomes ‘blue tongue lizard breath’ while asanas about unfamiliar creatures like turtles and crocodiles are avoided.
“Yoga asanas are traditionally named after natural elements around us like animals and plants. But in these lands, we don’t often see turtles or crocodiles, so we made it relevant to the children’s cultural context,” explained Regina Cruickshank, founder and board secretary of Yogazeit in Perth.
This collaborative mindful movement program between not-for-profit health charity Yogazeit and the Ngaanyatjarra Lands School (NLS) teaches yoga to the students and teachers of the Blackstone, Kiwirkurra, Jameson, Warburton, Wingellina, and Warakurna campuses.
The goal is to empower the students in these remote Western Desert communities with techniques to help reduce anxiety and improve learning outcomes.
“Yoga is about more than just making shapes with your body,” agreed Regina. “It’s about taking the time to be present in a moment, build awareness of your surroundings, and be mindful of your breath. It benefits people in many ways, whether that’s spiritual, physical, or for mental wellbeing.”
According to numerous international studies, other benefits of yoga for children also include settling restlessness, improving posture, improving self-esteem, and enabling creativity.
Along with fellow Yogazeit educators Sharnell Avery and Amy Murray, Regina has travelled more than 3,000km to the campuses, spread across Western Australia, to help impart these benefits with the mindful movement program.
“I discovered yoga in my teenage years, and it helped me find peace and calm. I wanted to share this gift of yoga with underserved communities who can’t always afford $30 classes in yoga studios,” she elaborated.
The classes begin with an acknowledgement of the Indian yogis who came before them, reminiscent of the Acknowledgement of Country usually delivered ahead of meetings and events.
Then, apart from using names in English and Ngaanyatjarra language in an important move to help the children feel more comfortable, the yoga poses are taught by referencing illustrations. These illustrations were specially created by Year 10 student Charlotte Golding under the guidance of Denise Thornton, Specialist Art Teacher at Ngaanyatjarra Lands School.
The students are also taken on mindful walks on Country.
This mindful movement has come together after months of consultation with Aboriginal Elders and school staff. According to school psychologist Tim Thornton, this provides a great example of culturally informed collaboration while respecting the traditions of the Ngaanyatjarra people.
“Rather than just being another Western model, which is squeezed into an Indigenous context, this project has been developed with a clear focus on collaboration,” he noted.
Nina Horeb, Early Childhood Teacher at the Kiwirkurra campus, believes it’s an engaging way for students to explore these new practises.
“Students feel safe and comfortable with this program, and I am hopeful that it will provide our students with opportunities for healing and to develop strategies that support them as they move through schooling and life,” she stated.
To date, Yogazeit estimates over 310 students have been a part of the mindful movement program (which is over 15 per cent of the population in the remote region.)
They have also trained between 900 to 1000 teachers across Australia and New Zealand on yoga, mindfulness, stretching, and breathing. Former students like Sedrika Giles, who discovered yoga through the program, have shown their interest in becoming certified yoga teachers themselves to continue to teach kids on country.
As a larger conversation continues in mainstream culture around the appropriation of yoga, Regina notes their program is all about respect, whether it is acknowledging the Indian roots of the ancient practice or respecting the traditions and customs of Indigenous lands. Their intention is to make yoga and its many benefits accessible to school communities and aged care facilities across Australia, irrespective of age, gender, abilities, or backgrounds.
She adds that there has been a lot of South Asian interest in their training programs.
“We have many people from Indian and other backgrounds who train with us. They’re always struck by how it’s a different approach to the yoga they might’ve learned in their childhood, but they say this is a different way of learning,” she said.