The Amazing Monica Burton
Monica Burton was recently awarded the British Empire Medal for her work transforming lives through the ancient practice, notably in support of those with special needs. Here’s her incredible story
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Monica Burton, a former nurse living in Harrow, has been honoured with the British Empire Medal for services to yoga at a prestigious ceremony held at the Tower of London on Friday 3 November 2023.
It’s in recognition for her work going above and beyond to help people with multiple disabilities reclaim a good quality of life through yoga. Her teaching and compassion have touched countless lives and her ‘Yoga for the Third Age’ course has been a source of inspiration for teachers across the world.
Her nomination came from one of her former students, Dr. St John, who has been a steadfast supporter throughout her career, as well as supporting statements from the hundreds of teachers who have successfully built their yoga practices based on her teachings.
“This recognition serves as a powerful testament to the benefits of yoga and its potential to create positive change in the world, " she says.
“I loved exercise and when I saw yoga on TV, I was keen to try it. I have always had a thirst for knowledge and am constantly looking for ways to extend my skillset. The more I practiced yoga, the more I wanted to learn and while yoga was heavily geared around fitness in the early 1970s, I wanted to learn more about its origins and how I could use it to help people generally as well as in my work as a geriatric nurse.”
Having moved to Eastham from Jamaica to pursue a nursing career back in 1953, Burton originally specialised in cancer care, influenced by the pioneering cancer treatment at the Mount Vernon Hospital in Middlesex. Starting her career at Eastham Memorial Hospital, she changed her specialty to geriatric care after having her first child so she could work closer to home.
I had to work with people with complex needs daily. I worked the 5-6pm shift four nights a week while looking after my daughter during the day. I also took other courses to inspire my work. It was the health benefits of yoga that piqued my interest, and I wondered if it would be good for older people too.”
In 1982, she completed her yoga teacher training in Middlesex with the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY). “The course gave me a great foundation so that I could offer remedial yoga classes at the hospital and set up my own private practice. After successfully treating one client via GP referral, I never needed to advertise again as I had a constant stream of recommendations.”
In 1986 she then qualified as a diploma course tutor for the BWY and due to the huge demand to train, with three people applying for each course place, she taught two yoga teacher training courses simultaneously to meet demand.
As her local reputation grew, Brent Council recognised how Burton’s talents could be used within its day centres for people with additional needs. The council piloted yoga at its main day centre, Strathcona, over three months. The day centre workers were astonished, Burton recalls, when a girl with cerebral ataxia, which includes symptoms such as shaking, was able to lie still on her back for five minutes. Following the success of the pilot, Brent Council introduced yoga to all its other day centres.
“Working with people with complex needs meant that I often had to think creatively. Yoga was a great way to help people ‘feel’ when they didn’t have other functional senses. It gave me a wealth of experience that I could draw on for teacher training and I love a challenge! On my first yoga teacher training course, I even taught a blind lady.”
She ran the first in-service training programme for BWY as well as being asked to write a new module: Yoga for the Third Age. Her work with older adults also inspired the authors of the current BWY Gentle Years Yoga course.
It was during a continuous professional development weekend at Yorkshire Yoga in Knaresborough, that she claims to have helped a man who could barely walk to get up from his chair.
“All I did was give him the confidence to get up from the chair. After some joint-freeing exercises, he was able to stand tall in mountain pose (tadasana). His wife was amazed at the change in his posture.”
Burton has now trained more than 40 teachers to run the BWY’s Yoga for the Third Age course and taught hundreds of people to teach yoga.
“I am inspired by the countless lives touched by this practice and I will continue to spread its message far and wide through my teachings.”