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

3 thoughts on “Yoga in Palestine: Freedom on the Mat

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience teaching Yoga in Palestine. I teach (Kundalini) Yoga – and may teach Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem en route to other areas of the Middle East (that are not warring). Thank you, keep me on your list if you have one!

    Julieanna ~ Los Angeles, CA

  2. I love your story. I will be in Bethlehem for a month volunteering and working on projects and would love to continue my yoga practice. Do you know if I can find yoga classes in Bethlehem?
    Thank you!

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