Yoga for Haiti Earthquake Victims

When Meaghan Heaton of Evanston travelled to Haiti this summer to teach yoga to women who had limbs amputated due to injuries sustained in the January 2010 earthquake, she didn’t know what to expect.

For one, she didn’t think the women would have much strength. For another, she didn’t expect them to have much balance.

She was wrong on both counts.

“These women were amazing. Even though they hadn’t moved much since suffering their injuries, they were ready to loosen up their bodies, and calm their minds,” Heaton says.

Heaton travelled to Haiti in July with Wilmette’s Jody Weschler, a nurse who has gone on multiple humanitarian missions there.

“The streets are rubble. There is disease – cholera is on the rise – there are kidnappings of Westerners, there are constant car accidents because of the roads, there is desperate poverty, and people are still living in the tent cities that were meant to last only a couple of months,” Heaton says.

Not exactly a place that you travel to without taking quite a bit of risk – but as Heaton says, “I was desperate for perspective and healing.”

In January 2011, Heaton lost her five-week-old infant son. In her grief, she decided to reach out, and when the opportunity came to travel to Haiti, she took it. One of her first steps was to approach Lisa Faremouth Weber, owner of Heaven Meets Earth yoga studio on Central Street in Evanston, to ask for a donation of 12 yoga mats for the Haitian women.

“She came to me with such innocence,” Weber says. “We get asked for donations all the time. But this was different. I didn’t hesitate.”

Mats in hand, Heaton tried to practice what she might teach the women. They needed to regain strength and balance in preparation for receiving prosthetic limbs, but there were no guidelines for teaching yoga to amputees. On the suggestion of a fellow yogini, she practiced by pretending to be an amputee, and trying different poses.

“Instead of thinking of what they didn’t have, I started with what I knew the women would have,” Heaton says. “Everyone has a core. So they can breathe. Let’s start with breathing. Then I worked on how they might move from their wheelchair to the mat, what stretch they might be able to do to help align their spine. Then, I would expand. Okay, they might be able to access their shoulders. Let’s try a forward fold. Okay, they might have one leg. What could they do in each situation? And I went from there.”

As it turned out, most of the Haitian women had a single amputation of a leg. So, with the help of a translator (the Haitians spoke Creole), Heaton began to teach.

What she found is that the women were not afraid of falling. They were strong. And they were ready for meditation.

“Yoga let them go inside and shut out the mayhem,” she says.

Heaton left a yoga book with the physical therapist on site, and as she departed Haiti, the women vowed to continue. By the time the week of teaching was over, Heaton knew the women were on the right track.

“One day, we were meditating, lying on our backs with eyes closed, and suddenly a huge ballet barre fell over, missing one woman’s head by inches. I was terrified!

But do you know, she never flinched? That’s when I knew what we had accomplished,” Heaton says.