Bree McKilligan on running Yoga classes for women with a refugee background

Bree McKilligan takes free weekly classes at Fitzroy studio The Dance of Life for Women with a Refugee background. Her project is aimed at using yoga as a tool to provide support and create an inclusive, safe space for people with refugee backgrounds to explore, inquire and play.

Annie Belcher of our Schools Team caught up with Bree recently to speak about her connection to yoga, and how she became involved in the people seeking asylum and refugee advocacy space.

What brought you to yoga?

My mother practiced yoga in the days when yoga practitioners in Australia were mainly middle class women and wore daggy leotards! So as a young teenager I would go along to classes with her. I feel like I have been always doing yoga!

What is yoga to you?

It is meditation in motion and offers an opportunity to experience a feeling of oneness with all things.

How did you get involved in the refugee and people seeking asylum space?

Working as a creative producer in the fields of community arts and community media, I have been engaged with people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds for a number of years. I also have friends and ex-partners who are from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds.

What led you to start the class?

The class started early in 2013 after I had finished my first lot of yoga teaching training and Johannes Mochayedi , director of my favourite studio, the Dance of Life Centre of Yoga and Healing, talked to me about offering a class to women from refugee and migrant backgrounds. As a new teacher I was keen to teach a free class to both start my teaching by offering karma yoga and also to practice my teaching.

Yoga classes have become quite expensive so I was interested in there being free classes. In addition, yoga in the West has gained a reputation for being mainly for very able bodied, white people.  

I believe all people, regardless of able-bodiedness, ethnicity, class or financial status, should have the opportunity to experience and benefit from yoga should they be interested. 

Yoga teacher Becky Fleming was also approached by Johannes to teach and she and I alternate each class. When we can’t teach, long-term yoga teachers Felicity Steel and Elizabeth Bell kindly step in to teach. None of the yoga teachers are paid for the class and Johannes donates the studio time.

Who are the classes for?

All people who identify as women. For me this includes trans women as well as cis-gendered women. Our flyer rather awkwardly says ‘Free yoga class, All women welcome: encouraging women from migrant and refugee backgrounds’ as we want women to feel welcome and not ghetto-ized as being ‘migrant and refugee’.

It’s been a lovely mix of people to date – people whose country of birth has included Vietnam, Malaysia, India and China as well as Australia – and students have melded well together. We also have students at all levels of practice – as a teacher that can be challenging as some students progress with regular attendance and others come in so new to yoga that lying down in a group class with a straight spine and relaxing with eyes closed is a new challenge to them! We also have some students bring children during school holidays which is great as it means the mothers can keep coming during the holidays. We aim to be flexible and inclusive.

Phuong, one of Bree's longest attending students, in practice!
Phuong, one of Bree’s longest attending students, in practice!

Why specifically for women?

It is women only so that women who may not feel comfortable doing exercise with men feel free to attend.

What do you hope people get out of the class?

I think we all hope to share the great benefits of yoga – which include greater peace of mind, self-nurturing, greater physical well being, camaraderie and happiness as well as, for the seeker, spiritual awareness. Yoga can be many different things to many different people.

I hope that any women who are feeling socially isolated may experience a sense of having a warm community and caring teachers.

If people would like to go or get involved what is the best way for them to do so?

We would love more students! People can get in touch via our Om Yoga Facebook page at Om Yoga Women Facebook page or they can call Becky on 0411 960 772 and myself on 0413 895 527. The classes are 1-2pm at the Dance of Life Centre of Yoga and Healing, 250 George Street, Fitzroy (which can be found here Dance Of Life Yoga Studio or on our Facebook page Dance of Life Facebook page)

New students are welcome to call and ask a lot of questions first if they like!

Other places to find community yoga classes and projects which might interest you:

Bree McKilligan on running Yoga classes for women with a refugee background