Self-care and collective-wellbeing for effective, sustainable and transformative social justice movement building

With almost 2 billion dollars of goods and services crossing each day, Mexico’s border with the United States embodies how corporate globalisation thrives on economic disparity and social inequality. Workers on the Mexican side are paid approximately a pound an hour to produce luxury cars, kitchen appliances, and fast fashion that they could not expect to own themselves. Generations of women and men sustain their families in substandard housing, working extensive hours in factories, sewing or soldering until their bodies can no longer keep up with the speed of production. Some cross the border regularly to sell their plasma for additional income. Others trade in used clothing imported from the US at neighbourhood flea markets when they have free time. Work related repetitive stress injuries, respiratory diseases, circulatory disorders, metabolic illnesses, and psychological distress are common.

But the border is also a place of solidarity, hope and resistance against capitalism, patriarchy and racism. It’s a place where people from across the globe come together, drawn by a dream for a better future for themselves and their children. It’s a place where factory workers stand up to negligent managers, abusive supervisors, and corrupt union bosses when their human rights are violated. And it’s where the Border Workers Committee (Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, CFO), one of a handful of grassroots labour rights organizations in Mexico, empowers workers to organise for change in their factories, communities and homes.

For CFO’s leaders and frontline activists, human rights and social justice are deeply personal issues.  Mostly women, they all either came of age working in factories, or have family members that did.  Some of them still work on the production lines, finding time to share legal information, document abuses, and negotiate for better pay and conditions after their long shifts end. For these tireless labour rights activists, it is not unusual to spend hours walking house-to-house in extreme desert weather to make sure that no worker is left uninformed of her rights, or feeling alone in her struggle to provide. Layered upon the ravages of factory work on their bodies, grassroots activism in this part of the world means being exposed not just to inhospitable weather, but standing up to economic giants. These women are undoubtedly brave, and routinely sacrifice their health and safety in their pursuit of social justice.

In June 2021, I was honoured to partner with CFO to launch the pilot initiative, Yoga therapy with labour rights activists in Mexico, which is generously supported by the Alef Trust’s Conscious Community Project. Despite how yoga is often portrayed in the media, it can be practiced in ways that are profoundly democratic and accessible to people of all social classes, identities, and affiliations. Yoga also, notably, has a radical heritage of inspiring effective, sustainable and transformative social movement building. To contribute to the mission of CFO, therapeutic yoga may well be suited to the self-care and collective wellbeing needs of its labour rights activists because of its potential to heal the splits between mind and body, the individual and community, and self and soul that the commodification of labour encourages. We also hope it can provide some tangible relief from the physical, emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual challenges that CFO’s teams deal with in the course of of their work.

Since June, the program has been training eight of CFO’s activists located in six border towns, in the basic tools of yoga therapy. The training involves weekly practices, fortnightly discussions, monthly self-assessments, and periodic participatory program evaluation.  As the program facilitator, I tailor practices to each individual and to the group, based on emerging needs. Practices include a combination of conscious movement, self-touch, breath work, visualisation, sound work, and/or lifestyle recommendations. Discussions focus on the application of yogic principles to worker empowerment, leadership development, movement building, and social justice. Self-assessments explore how participants’ sense of themselves is evolving during the project period. Program evaluation examines how yoga therapy may (or may not) be contributing to CFO’s work. By the end of the program, in December 2021, there should be sufficient material to create an activist-oriented compendium of therapeutic yoga tools for CFO to integrate into its self-care, empowerment and leadership programs.  We also hope that the on-going research into the program’s contribution towards sustainable activism may help secure additional future funding for CFO’s mission.

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