D.C. yoga instructor builds strength, community in Haiti

WASHINGTON — Practicing yoga can improve one’s physical state and mental well-being, but can it ignite change within a community?

D.C.-based yoga instructor Faith Hunter says the confidence and self-esteem one gains from yoga helps build a sense of leadership and service — especially in developing countries.

Hunter, who has been teaching yoga for 12 years, traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last year to practice yoga with young Haitian women and adolescent girls with the help of Lizandra Vidal of Ayiti Yoga Outreach.

“For us, it’s really important to help these young women feel empowered,” says Hunter, who owns Embrace Yoga in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Northwest D.C.

Since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti four years ago, gender-based violence has increased in the country, especially against girls and young women in poor, rural communities.

Hunter says one in three Haitian adolescent girls has been a victim of gender-based violence, and one in four Haitian adolescent girls think such violence is justified.

The U.S. Department of State refers to sexual violence in Haiti as a “chronic problem” that is intensified by poor security and lack of awareness. Poverty also plays a role, and half of Haitian adolescent girls live in extreme poverty.

Hunter says yoga can help Haitian women escape this cycle, starting with the physical strength the practice builds. The confidence, self-esteem and breath work that follows are all aspects women can take off the mat and use in their daily lives.

“We all have challenges, struggles, problems, and that stuff is not going to go away. But it’s how we deal with it, how we handle it. [Haitian women and girls] are using the tools that they’ve gained on the yoga mat to make a shift and change in their lives,” Hunter says. “That’s really what’s happening to these women through the physical practice.”

To expand yoga’s positive reach in Haiti, Hunter and Vidal launched Spiritually Fly ChangeMaker, an organization that trains women in yoga, leadership and activism.

This July, they’re planning to bring three women from Port-au-Prince to D.C. to participate in a 21-day, 200-hour yoga teacher training course, which will include a community-building and advocacy component. U.S. yoga students are also encouraged to sign up for the teacher training program.

To finance the trip for the Haitian women, Hunter launched a crowdfunding campaign on YouCaring.com. The money raised will go toward the travel and lodging costs of the Haitian visitors. When the women return to Haiti, money raised will also help finance a community service project of their choice, as well as fund currently operating programs in the country.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about service. And that’s what we hope to be able to share with all of the teacher trainees,” Hunter says.

Spiritually Fly ChangeMaker will also include a mentorship program to provide on going guidance and advice to the newly certified instructors.

Hunter says she doesn’t want to stop after this summer’s training program; she plans to take it to other communities.

“As we cultivate the relationships, help these young women and continue to build an amazing yoga community in Haiti and Port-au-Prince, our belief is that we’ll stay connected through our mentorship program, and then within a couple of years we’ll shift to another country.”

Watch how yoga impacts young women in Haitian communities:

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