November 29, 2011 | Violence Against Women, War and Peace
Woman of the Week: Lenny Williams
Lenny Williams brings yoga to the people, teaching yoga and meditation techniques to sexual violence survivors in post-conflict zones.
By Anna Louie Sussman
NEW YORK CITY – When Lenny Williams first did yoga as a teenager in the early 80s, it didn’t quite feel right.
“Back then, it was really crunchy and granola-ish,” she said. “It was all about chanting and dancing naked in the mud.”
But, she acknowledges, “something resonated.”
She could have hardly predicted that it would bring her to post-conflict zones around the world, where through her organization Mandala House, she teaches a stripped-down version of three basic components of a yoga practice – breathing, meditation, and physical postures – to former combatants and survivors of sexual violence.
“I wanted it to be really simple, starting out with the breathing and learning how to have awareness in the body,” she said, speaking by phone from Gulu, Uganda. “Then you can take one small piece of that awareness and build on it.”
Williams, 41, developed a “toolkit for trauma,” based on research and training in trauma-sensitive yoga, which helps practitioners restore their ability to self-regulate, after physical violations or prolonged exposure to stress have diminished that capacity.
“Trauma survivors often dissociate from their physical selves,” she said, “so we use sensory meditation as a way to get back into the body.” In addition, the classes offer many small opportunities for survivors to reassert their autonomy.
“If someone has been violated,” she said, “Their ability to choose has been taken away from them. In class, they can choose whether to do an advanced pose or an easier version, or to go into child’s pose if they need to.”
Since December 2009, when she first traveled to a residential training school in Gulu, Uganda, Williams has trained 117 counselors, who in turn teach the classes to beneficiaries in their communities in Burundi, Sri Lanka, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The training consists of a 45-page manual, which she teaches over 40 hours of class time.
Williams works in partnership with local non-profit organizations who already have counseling services in place, since emotions and memories can resurface unexpectedly during the practice. She also teaches public classes, open to the community, while she is in-country.
Williams had practiced yoga regularly since her mid-twenties and trained in 2003 at OM yoga studio in downtown Manhattan. While she enjoyed taking classes, she knew she wanted to work with people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a yoga studio. To work more effectively with these populations, she began training in trauma-sensitive yoga. During a training with trauma pioneers David Emerson and Bessel van der Kolk, she realized that much of what she was learning – that yoga can help heal – she knew through her own experience.
“I didn’t even know that I was using yoga and these techniques to heal and self-regulate, but I was,” she said, “so I intuitively knew there was this toolkit. I just hadn’t formalized it.”
She tried reaching out to organizations working with incarcerated youth, and to local rape crisis centers, but got little traction. Friends who worked at the United Nations and with international relief agencies encouraged her to look abroad. Just a month after she secured fiscal sponsorship through the women’s rights organization MADRE, she got the green light from the St. Monica’s Girls School in Gulu. From her conversations with the headmistress, CNN Hero Sister Rosemary, she gathered that the staff was enthusiastic about the yoga training. Only upon her arrival did it become clear that no one had any idea what yoga was.
“I wish I had a picture of my face at that moment,” she said. “They thought it was going to be badminton or something -- some sort of sports activity.”
Sri Lanka, by contrast has a tradition of yoga. There, she trained 45 counselors who worked with children orphaned by the tsunami. But her initial success in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa, which is home to many Tamil ex-combatants, has been tempered by political troubles. For the past two months, she hasn’t been able to reach the organization with which she worked, because their work with ex-combatants automatically designates them enemies of the state.
“The website is gone, and the program director was arrested and put in jail,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going on there right now.”
In Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, her training left a deep impression on one student – but not in the way she expected. During the last class, a counselor stood up to tell her she was not only grateful for the yoga classes, but for the example she had set in coming.
“She said ‘Thank you for coming. As a woman it’s very interesting to see another woman come here, lead a class, lead an organization, and teach other women to teach other women. That doesn’t happen here. So thank you for opening my eyes and inspiring to do that,’” Williams said. “That was really humbling; I hadn’t even thought of that.”
Through an annual art show and fundraiser in New York, as well as numerous small donations, she has been able to continue her work, which keeps her on the road five or six months out of the year. This year, she received a $20,000 grant from the Threshold Foundation to work in the DRC and Uganda, after one of the philanthropists involved, Nicholas Naylor-Leyland, attended the annual art sale fundraiser.
As he watched a slideshow on Mandala House’s work and overheard her thanking the guests for coming, Naylor-Leyland, himself a longtime yoga practitioner, was struck by her commitment to Mandala House’s mission.
“There’s a shyness and a humility about her,” he said. “She’s very consistent about putting the emphasis on the work, and not on her personality. She really wants the work to blossom.”
He discussed Mandala House with other Threshold funders at the 2011 summer conference, and found them easily persuaded as well.
“Lenny's work is so laudable and honorable that getting Threshold excited about Mandala House was really a joy and quite easy,” he said.
By being frugal, she thinks she can stretch the grant for two years. In the meantime, she believes that she will eventually reach enough people through word of mouth to generate a sustainable funding base.
“I have faith,” she said. “I know that the program works. I know that when people go through the training, they come out of it different and excited. If I focus on that, it will organically evolve.”
Anna Louie Sussman is senior writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.