Yoga in Belize: A Catalyst for Change

By Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy

The rhythm of the heart beats steady and sure while pumping blood to our organs. The breath silently slips into our lungs, expanding and releasing. Our bodies move with each inhalation and exhalation, focused and calm, as it orchestrates this union of the mind, body and breath.

Yoga — a spiritual science and art, widely known for its physical postures or Asanas, goes far beyond the bodily movements. Practitioners learn to connect to themselves, to an inner knowing, to an essence within that is a part of every other being, the environment, the earth and the entire universe.

When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one. Namaste.

The practice of Yoga continues to grow, with countless studios on every continent. Both teachers and practitioners spread the message of balance, compassion and self-realization with the intention to increase overall wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants.

One such place is Om Shanti Belize: Yoga and Wellness Center. It provides an oasis-like realm to those needing a revitalized boost in the morning or a relaxed evening after work. It is nestled in Belize, a country known for tourist attractions such as the barrier reef, ancient Mayan temples, and plush green rainforests. However, like any country it has its challenges. One being a rise in violence among adolescents and youth; with more than half the population considered youth, this poses a problem.

Michelle Williams, owner of Om Shanti Belize, noticed that there was a need for youth to not only be heard, but to be healed. Therefore, in 2014 she pioneered an outreach program and nonprofit organization called Rhythm of Change (ROC), with the intention to heal and inspire children and youth through the practice of Yoga.

“We started teaching on the streets of Belize city during “Days of Healing,” a grassroots initiative dedicated to peacebuilding in areas which experience tremendous gang violence,” Michelle said. “Any given chance, I would speak about the mental, physical and spiritual benefits of yoga.”

ROC introduces the peaceful practice of yoga into areas of Belize city that seem forgotten, which validates the children and creates hope where it matters — inside them. As one 8-year-old said, “Yoga reminds me of peace.”

The yoga classes are now given in schools, where the impact has begun to create a sense of peace. “When I do yoga I feel like a different person,” said a 10-year-old from Saint Martin de Porres Primary school. “I feel less stressed and more relaxed.”

Giving children an outlet in an environment that at times feels unsafe is a powerful gesture that can contribute to lasting positive change in the children, and ultimately in the country.

“Yoga saved my life,” affirms Michelle, which is why she wanted to share it with as many people as possible. “I started with monthly community classes, then started teaching youth on the streets with yoga mats donated to us. Some started to post pictures on Facebook and the response on social media was incredible.”

Building on Michelle’s efforts, ROC also offers “Introduction to Mindfulness” workshops throughout the year to the public and twice yearly to school counselors within the Ministry of Education.

Jenna Lipman, a teacher, commented on the benefits that these yoga classes continue to have on her students: “I see yoga giving my students tools to manage stress. Many of them live in high-stress environments and that stress gets carried with them to school. When students can focus on breathing and listening to their emotions instead of fighting, it benefits the child and everyone around them.”

ROC's focus is prevention through early exposure to yoga at the elementary school level. Classes are also taught four times a week at the Juvenile Detention Center in Belize. The yoga classes serve as a bridge for youth to create a different path in their lives, offering them coping skills to deal with anger and stress.

Last year, ROC's initiative expanded, and now includes weekly classes within the female section of the Belize Central Prison. The impact has been tremendous. According to one of the female prison program coordinators, “Generally the incidents in the female's section is down; we certainly can attribute this in part to the ongoing program activities. We truly appreciate the consistency and dedication of the volunteers. We have had only three reported incidents since January 2017.”

ROC's outreach is well received country-wide and now offers volunteer opportunities for those who want to be ROC Ambassadors. Anyone interested can email for volunteer details and requirements.

ROC board members consist of a small, diverse group of devoted individuals who, like Michelle, wish to create positive change in their country.

Vice Chairperson Aloma Hall commented, “I am deeply driven to help improve and positively sustain these two entities knowing that we are all connected. Helping one will help the other and harming one will harm the other. Therefore, I choose to help!”

Other board members were equally passionate about ROC and its initiative. Jaen Nieto Amat added, “I believe it has an important and vital vision and mission, and I wish to see the benefits of them grow in the country. ROC can contribute to the wellbeing in Belize.”

Board member Kathryn McPherson’s interest is in specifically empowering women. ROC now offers Doula (pre- and post-natal services) to the Belizean community. She commented, “I believe in the mission and outreach and have seen firsthand the benefits for people. I love that the board is composed of people of various backgrounds and fields of interest. We come together and bring insight to each other to make productive decisions.”

Michelle noted that her mother is the main reason why she can do this work: “My mom is God's most precious gift to me. She is always there to support and guide me . I love her with all my heart.”

ROC is more than a nonprofit, just as yoga is more than physical postures. It is a union of intention, compassion and understanding. It is the shining light of transformation and transcendence for the wellbeing of ourselves and all. It pulses; it is a rhythm, steady and sure, beating in all our hearts.

Born in Belize in 1973, Michelle Williams has enjoyed traveling extensively and living around the world. She credits yoga, mindfulness and various forms of holistic wellness for her spiritual and emotional growth as well as her recovery from depression and anxiety. She is the founder of Om Shanti Belize (Wellness Center and School), Rhythm of Change, Belize (a nonprofit spreading the healing benefits of yoga, mindfulness and other forms of wellness throughout Belize), and the Belize International Yoga Festival.

She is a EYT 500 and certified children's yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance, an Usui Reiki Master, Meditation Shiromani and a Vedic Thai Yoga Therapist. In 2015 Michelle was appointed Country Coordinator for The International Day of Yoga by H.E Sujan Chinoy (High Commissioner of India to Belize) through the Indian Consulate in Belize, Mr. Arun Hotchandani and Mrs. Milan Hotchandani.

Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy is a writer, performance artist, Renaissance woman and yogi. She has written and directed five original stage plays and was a recipient of the Women in Art Artist Award. As a performance artist, she's a featured soloist in Francis Reneau's Belizean patriotic showcases. She is a choreographer and a member of the Belize National Dance company where she teaches Middle Eastern Dance. She is as a dedicated yoga teacher certified in Hatha Yoga and is proud to be a Rhythm of Change Belize (ROC) Global Ambassador.

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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 12: Yoga Day Summit