Yoga in Palestine: Freedom on the Mat

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I recently returned home to Ireland after a short visit to the Occupied Palestinian West Bank.  Despite the existence of a stalled peace process, which is well documented elsewhere, the feeling on the ground as observed from a Palestinian perspective, is that a just resolution to Israel’s continued military occupation remains as uncertain as ever.  As I write, US diplomacy efforts are falling short of bringing both sides to the table as the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze as a precondition to negotiations is denied by Israel. At a meeting with Bethlehem’s first female Mayor, Vera Baboun who is a Christian Palestinian,  she cautioned that without a freeze on illegal Israeli settlement expansion, Palestinians will soon become the ‘settlers’ in the West Bank as dispossession from their land deepens.

During my visit, however a rare expression of optimism and unity emerged across the Palestinian territories and rippled throughout the Arab and Middle East region.  This was the victory of  23 year old Gazan refugee, Mohammad Assaf as winner of the massively popular TV Talent Show, ‘Arab Idol‘.  An astounding 60 million people voted for Assaf in a show of unprecedented solidarity for this young man representing a Stateless people. The celebrations that followed were akin to those treasured in Ireland on the rare occasions of victory in international football or rugby. The broader repercussions of such a watershed however, remain to be seen. Assaf’s performance and success can be seen as is a simple expression of non-violent resistance,  and of Palestinian unity and pride in its’ purest form- through music. He speaks very eloquently of this himself.  (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/06/201362219549114855.html)

Which leads me to the purpose of my trip.  I travelled to Palestine to witness and document a new, unique and unlikely form and expression of non-violent resistance emerging among Palestinian women in the West Bank: Yoga. As a yoga teacher and independent documentary maker, I became intrigued by a story I found in several  online  news sources earlier this year about how yoga is being used as a transformative tool to support women in Palestine (see links below).  I read about ‘Farashe‘ (‘Butterfly’ in Arabic)- a non-profit yoga studio based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Established in 2010 by a group of Palestinians and international expats, Farashe’s aim is to make yoga available to anyone in the West Bank wishing to access it. Its’ name- butterfly– signifies transformation both on the personal and wider, collective levels.

What charged my interest further was learning of a teacher-training course facilitated by Farashe and a Washington DC based charitable foundation, Anahata International, who’s mission is to bring yoga teacher -training to areas of conflict or post-conflict zones.  This was a story that resonated with me as a yoga practitioner, teacher and documentary maker. I needed to see it for myself.  To respect the privacy of the women involved, the majority of whom are of the Muslim faith, I decided that the most appropriate form of recording the story would be through the medium of radio – and so, I set about making a radio documentary. I contacted Farashe and with relevant agreements in place,  I was warmly welcomed to Palestine.  And so for the month of June, I said goodbye to my own yoga students, packed my microphone and recorder along with some donated Yoga props from Irish-based company ‘Body and Soul Store’ and travelled to Ramallah in the heart of the West Bank.

This year, 22 Palestinian women availed of the teacher-training course offered by Farashe. This included 16 who had participated in a foundation yoga training course in 2012 and an additional 6  new trainees, which included a number of Psycho-Social Counsellors working in West Bank’s refugee camps. Others were recruited through community centres and gyms in towns and villages from Ramallah, Bethlehem, Ni’ilin and Nablus. For many, this was their first introduction to yoga. By the end of the short 9 -day intensive training course, they were clearly inspired and moved by a sense of personal transformation- on both physical and psychological levels.   Many of the women felt immediate improvements in posture, reported that they were sleeping better and feeling calmer in general.  Some of the women who had undertaken training in 2012 had begun teaching yoga classes proving that the potential for transformation reaches beyond the individual and extends into the wider community. Examples of  this will be explored in depth in the forthcoming documentary (I can’t give everything away here!)

Over three weeks, I captured stages of the teacher-training delivered by three highly experienced teachers from Anahata International through a wonderful interpreter, Lubna, who then joined me on the road.  I got to know some of the Palestinian women trainees – spending time with them in their homes, observing  them teaching yoga classes in local communities and sharing hearty meals with their families.  Their stories are remarkable. Not only because they are extraordinary women, but because they exemplify the dignified nature and resolve of the Palestinian spirit. Their enthusiasm for yoga is clear. The women are testament to how even the briefest respite from the daily stress of occupation is a necessity for women living under occupation. Through everyday acts of resistance such as planting seeds, learning new things, supporting family needs, preparing food for the table- and now, in practicing and sharing the benefits of yoga, Palestinian women find a new way to express a sense of agency and explore an inner world of freedom, which is otherwise denied to them under Israeli Military occupation.

I am back in Ireland now, about to begin the process of editing and pulling the material together to share this remarkable story. I intend to create an independent blog where I will share the stories and development of this project in more detail. I hope you will join me there. (A link will be provided here shortly)

Further reading on this yoga initiative in Palestine:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alaina-sadick/bringing-the-benefits-of-_b_1634643.html

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/07/201271512307610494.html

http://www.anahatainternational.org

http://www.bodyandsoulstore.com

Practice and All is Coming

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When I last wrote an entry here in very early February, I was enthusiastically welcoming Spring with its’ promise of brighter days, renewed natural growth and the awakening of seasonal shifts. How disappointing then, to note that as I write almost two months later, that Spring feels yet a distant reality. Reports of heavy snowfalls and electricity failure in the North are repeated on news bulletins. Flooding and road closures in the East and South warn motorists to take care and bitter easterly gales whip the island on which I live . It has been a long Winter.

But then, doesn’t what we desire to have or be often feel tantalizing close yet impossibly beyond reach?  The summer holiday booked in January, the momentous family event planned well in advance, the release from school, college or workplace at the end of term… How we value the intervening time and how we refer to it is telling – filling time;  in limbo; biding time- says a lot about how we value the present and project unconsciously into the future. The lesson here is that regardless of how laborious these intervening stages seem, the future will eventually arrive and transform into a conscious present.

And similarly during yoga practice, I have found myself as a student- from time to time- wandering into this same territory during a routine class, a challenging sequence or demanding asana (posture). Is this class nearly finished? Where’s the clock in this room? When will we get to Savasana (final relaxation)? As a student, the transition from the busy mind to the quiet mind, which is desired for a deep and restorative practice doesn’t always come easy. But. We get there in the end. Without realizing it, we let go of expectation unconsciously and find ourselves being invited to take our final relaxation posture, Savasana, or corpse pose. And all is well.  We feel restored. And when we finish the practice, we remember nothing of the impatience, the frustration or restlessness we perceived as impenetrable half–way through class.

Sri K.Pattabi Jois, founder and master of Ashtanga Yoga, puts it simply, ‘Practice and All is coming’. This is not the same as saying ‘it’s about the journey not the destination’, which sounds corny and trite at the best of times, because ultimately, the destination is irrelevant. So when it comes to desiring for Winter to end and Spring to finally arrive, it will be irrelevant, as Spring evolves and reveals itself in much more subtle forms than we can perceive on a physical level. And when we perceive that it has ‘arrived’, it quietly transforms once again. Thus Spring dissolves as Summer takes up residence. Our yoga practice draws to a close and we become aware of the subtle benefits and transformation gained since we first unfurled our mats. At first we practice, and then all is coming.

Springcoming: Anois teacht an Earraigh

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I had this argument, or should I say ‘debate’ out with a friend of mine this time last year. When does Spring officially start? In my mind, Spring begins on February the 1st- St. Brigid’s Day. This goes back to my primary school days, when on February 1st the Bord Dúalra (Nature Table) would take on a greener, fresher shade. Red berries, deep brown nuts and fading holly leaves would be swept off the display into the teachers’ palms. The gesture of another Winter passing. Sprouting beans atop cotton wool gauze in yoghurt pots would fill the space and on mornings, we would be witness to all feats of nature’s wonders in bold colours on the slide/ projector screen. The white and purple crocus. Talk of tadpoles would creep into (usually boys) conversations. Used 1/2 litre Milk bottles clutched in little hands would, one by one, line up along the window sill, gasping with expectation for the tadpole jelly.

And so this evening, as I lead my yoga class on the eve of the feast of St. Brigid, a Pagan Goddess to many, I paid quiet homage to the shifting of the seasons that tomorrow will mark (even if it’ still pretty Wintery outside). In the West of Ireland, St Brigid dolls made of straw (súgán) will be walked from house to house as locals bend and turn the súgán into festive shapes above doorways, welcoming visitors in from the darkness. Time to exhale and breathe again.

As I set up the music to play while my students rested in their final relaxation savasana of the yoga class this evening, I noticed how the petals of the white tulips I’d picked up last week, were now open wide, like glad children – giddy with expectation at the changes which lie ahead.

To my friend’s mind, Spring begins in late March, around the Equinox. A fair argument, perhaps. But for me, the memory of the nature table is fixed firm and February 1st signifies the wonder of tadpoles, crocus, snowdrops and light.

Anois teach an Earraigh, tá an lá ag dul chun síneadh (O Raiftearaí)

Welcome the Spring as the day stretches long.

 

All in good…time

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I finished my class this evening back-to-front or backwards, even: with an intention. Setting an intention for an asana (yoga) class usually comes at the beginning, to focus the mind on a broad, fleeting or quiet aspiration or reflection. But this evening, somehow, it slipped through my new-teacher mind. Happily- and appropriately, it did drop back into my mind as the class drew to its gentle conclusion.

The theme, or intention that I was going to set – and meant to share- was around developing awareness around the idea that all the things we wish for-  desires, kindness, necessary affirmations in life-  come in good time. And so, it fit perfectly that I should at first forget and then be reminded of this humbling and, all too often, challenging acceptance. It will fit when it fits.

The trouble is, all too often, we become attached to these wants, needs, desires and identify with them to such an extent that they end up controlling our minds, hearts, days and nights. The lesson here, is in letting go. Letting go of attachment to the, ‘ I need’, ‘I must have/ do/achieve’. Without the attachment to the ‘I need’, there is no expectation and no chance of disappointment – just acceptance of what is.

This is a lesson which resonates with me ‘off the mat ‘also, as I recently received news that has brought an unexpected affirmation, and while I did not actively desire or ‘need’ it,  has made me aware that fulfillment can happen even if the need is without any particular shape or form prior to it happening!  But when it happens, you know it fits. You realise that – yes, this is what I needed and this is the right moment. And so, the intention to be aware is also the intention of letting go, accepting and trusting that things will happen, when they happen, in their own time. Back -to -front. Upside down. Inside and out.  All… in good time.

 

Yogalann Beginnings: Teaching Yoga Any-where

When I came across the notice from Bitu – an experienced Hatha yoga teacher based in the North Indian State of Ladakh-taped to a lamppost offering classes in his rented room in the Asia Guesthouse on the Chungspa Road in Leh,  I have to admit I wondered what that would be like. Coming from the Western world of underfloor-heated Yoga Studios with surround sound speakers and adjustable lighting I felt slightly uneasy with the idea of sharing such an intimate, private space with a complete stranger – and practicing yoga to boot. But, a fellow traveller recommended the classes to me, and so I dropped my preconceived notions of Western propriety and cultivated expectations of what a yoga studio should offer the student in terms of setting the tone: space, light and cleanliness, and set my watch for the 6.30am wake up. When I walked through the sleepy Asia Guesthouse courtyard at 6.55am,  guests sipping their early morning lassis before taking to the surrounding Himalayan mountains en masse- and proceeded through a narrow, unlit corridor, onward up the polished stone steps to room number 3, I was met with a lesson over the following two weeks of early mornings that I will never forgot.

First, to drop all preconceived notions of what is or is not an appropriate place to practice yoga. And second, to understand that yoga, with the right intention, approach and teacher guiding you safely through your practice, can be practiced anywhere. Sure, the aesthetics of your space are important and one of the precepts of the traditional  Ashtanga 8 -Limb system of philosophy is cleanliness (saucha). This room could have been cleaner, perhaps. But it was flooded with the cleanest and brightest morning sunlight I have ever seen.  There were no yoga mats, belts, blocks or eye pillows.  Instead, it had a gradually inclined  floor, several layers of (dusty!) carpet and a mattress (where the teacher slept, up to about -oh, 5minutes before my arrival!) laid up against the wall. But the room did have a view and a natural soundtrack- a lazy stream- melt waters of the Himalayas, skirting the Guesthouse. And the windows, shut tight to the early morning chill, offered stunning mountain vistas. At 3,500 feet above sea level, the city of Leh is nestled on Ladakh’s high plains at the foot of the Himalayan range. Beyond the range as seen through the window of the Asia Guest House and due West, lay the embattled State of Kashmir; Pakistan lay further West and China rose due North. Ladakh is a Buddhist State, formerly Tibetan – and at this altitude and through the month of July (when I visited), promises days of glorious sunshine, with the finest of visibility. The mountains, rising from the horizon – humbling, inspiring and bold in their lofty beauty – made each morning practice a joy. The uneven floor, became part and parcel of the daily challenge.

So when it came to considering where I might begin to explore my own yoga practice as a new and recently qualified yoga teacher, I was reminded that with the right intention, approach and teacher guiding you, yoga can be taught anywhere. And so, this evening marked my first steps – not quite like in the Asia Guesthouse but here,  in my own home in Limerick- and appropriately on the banks of Ireland’s longest River, the Shannon. Converting the living room space into a bespoke – or to use the buzz word of travel magazines – ’boutique’ style yoga studio was perfect. I am lucky to rent a room in a very well cared for home, with an open plan living room area, offering plenty of floor space and options for mat placement. I did invest in some props and scents (rose, for the heart!) but I opened my first class as a new yoga teacher with a welcome and a very warm acknowledgment of the lesson learned from Bitu, who taught me well in his humble quarters at the Asia Guesthouse on the Chungspa Road.