In conversation with: Abi Nolan - From yoga to circle-based therapy and beyond

In conversation with: Abi Nolan - From yoga to circle-based therapy and beyond

In 2023, the London-based yoga teacher and social impact founder finally managed to undertake her Fellowship first awarded in 2019, visiting Colombia and Alaska where she studied organisations supporting displaced people (Colombia) and Alaskan native community through circle-based restorative practice, a method Abi herself has been exploring.

"What I saw on my Fellowship has underpinned what I have always believed, but it has given me the evidence and language I need to push forward"

Having to delay her Churchill Fellowship for four years due to the pandemic hasn’t deterred Abi Nolan, who is now formulating plans to put her learning into practice.

So, how did the dance graduate and yoga instructor get to this point?

A career in dance becomes a career in yoga

When Abi graduated from university, in choreography and dance, she began working for a community-based performing arts college but quickly felt unfulfilled.

Abi knew movement was important for wellbeing and was interested in the somatic practice of using movement and dance as a way to relieve tension and anxiety. She decided to become a yoga teacher, and visited New York City to train.

“Around this time, the culture of yoga in the US was polarised to one end being inaccessibly hyper-spiritual and the other extreme being hyper-fitness. I didn’t feel either suited me, and I expressed this to the other Brit who was on my course. She worked for the UN and told me about an organisation in central Africa, which was using yoga as a therapeutic intervention for women who had an HIV diagnosis. This really opened my eyes to the possibilities of yoga so when I went back to London, I completely changed my direction.”

Back in the UK, Abi began volunteering for a charity supporting families living with HIV. She was soon its head of operations.

“The community affected by HIV was also affected by all sorts of intersectional determinants of health. Many were living in poor housing, for example. This is where I started to really learn, on the frontline, how where you are born is impactful on where you are in life and on your health and social experience.”

From yoga to mindfulness

Abi went on to set up a social enterprise, Supply Yoga, pulling together her experience of dance, movement, somatic practice and non-clinical interventions in healthcare.

Based in leased premises in East London, she ran movement classes which hit that middle path of yoga that she favoured, and were affordable. Using the income created, she developed partnerships with support services around London, which were helping people overcome social determinants of health that put them at risk of isolation – people with long-term health conditions, poor mental health, people living with cancer.

Through her partner organisations – including Hackney Migrant Centre – she ran free yoga sessions in the community.

Abi’s view of yoga was evolving, and she was increasingly moving towards a circle-based approach, adopting what she called mindful movement or restorative practice.

In 2019, Abi successfully applied for a Churchill Fellowship, so she could learn more about this method and how to scale up her model to reach beyond London.

Two things then happened. The yoga studio’s landlord decided to sell the premises and the pandemic hit.

Abi was able to take Supply Yoga online, delivering her classes and social impact services via Zoom, although the organisation has since ceased trading. However, Abi continues to work with migrant support services in London, which are now being funded externally.

Fast forward to 2023, and the post-pandemic world was very different. Consumer behaviour and the wellness sector had changed. Was the Churchill Fellowship Abi had planned still relevant?

Abi says it was. Indeed, even more so.

“It was everything I wanted it to be and more. The organisation in Colombia had begun delivering a programme of support for migrant women who had fled Venezuela. I learnt how significant and healing it can be for people who have experienced trauma, to be able to share their voice and their story; to be given the time and space to do so, with a guarantee of no judgement or questions, was cathartic and healing. They were doing something very similar with the Alaskan project, with circle-based sharing practices.”

Right now, Abi is working out how to put into practice what she has learnt.

“What I saw on my Fellowship has underpinned what I have always believed, but it has given me the evidence and language I need to push forward. I will build on what I had before the pandemic to develop a new iteration of my organisation. I want to learn more about restorative practice and restorative justice and I also want to work out the best way to use this knowledge and experience.”

Abi is figuring that out, but whatever she creates is sure to be amazing and will clearly make use of her Churchill Fellowship learning.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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