Sharing the Practice of Yoga in the West Bank

by Rob Schware, Executive Director of Give Back Yoga Foundation

Rob Schware,  Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga FoundationGive Back Yoga recently traveled to Ramallah, in the West Bank region of Palestine. We brought three US yoga teachers with deep experience among them in teaching yoga for post-traumatic stress to Palestine. Read more about this project. Here are some facts and impressions from the 10 days I and my wife witnessed yoga being taught in that very special and fraught part of the world.

I mention my wife because, as it turned out, our teachers, all female, spent six full days teaching women, most of whom wear hijab. This meant that I was not welcome in the studio during these sessions, because the women wanted to uncover in order to get the most out of the physically rigorous practices. My wife Alice was welcome, so she recorded her impressions and what she heard from the women on a laptop in the Ramallah yoga studio. On two other days the workshops were for men, and I was able to be present for all of that time.

Portrait of Ramallah: a City on the Go

Ramallah StreetFirst, I’d like to set the scene a bit: Ramallah is a city of about 28,000 people. It’s arranged over several steep hills just east of Jerusalem, and has the bursting-at-the-seams feel of a small town that’s grown rapidly over the last few decades. It has a tiny “old city,” and a newer bustling city center arranged around some central squares from which main commercial and residential streets radiate in all directions. There is a building boom going on, with many new low-rise apartment buildings being constructed on steep inclines everywhere. There is little green space, although there are a few beautiful, peaceful gardens.

There is also much commercial activity in the hundreds of small storefront businesses lining the main streets, with people buying clothes, groceries, live animals, and appliances. Fistfuls of dollars are being exchanged for shekels in the money changers’ shops. Fresh fruit juices are all the rage, and people line up at these stands, which seem to be on every corner. There is much car and shared van traffic amid chaotic traffic jams; among the Toyotas and Fords there are quite a few new Audis and Mercedes. Generally speaking, we had the impression that people have money; there seems to be a thriving middle class with some discretionary income.

Ramallah MarketGive Back Yoga partnered with Farashe Yoga Center, a non-profit in Ramallah that offers yoga classes in a small studio in a building right off Al Manara square, the central square. (“Farashe” means “butterfly” in Arabic.) Some years ago, GBYF helped to equip Farashe with yoga mats and other equipment, and these were put to good use throughout our workshops. The studio has many windows, so there was noise from the street and from the police station nearby. Our impression is that noise is a constant presence in city life, and people seem to be more accustomed to it than we.

Regardless of the distractions, our teachers and students got down to earnest discussion and practice right away. All of us visitors came away impressed with the thirst for what yoga can offer in stressful situations, and with the seriousness and focus that all the students brought to the classes. One of the most commonly-mentioned stressful occasions are the Israeli army checkpoints that are either permanent on certain roads, or are moveable and randomly planted along roads throughout the West Bank.

Our Workshop Participants

I’d like to introduce the women who attended the first four-day workshop. There was a large contingent from Nablus, a town north of Ramallah. On the first morning they were asked what they knew about yoga, and what they hoped to gain from the workshop. The women:

Women's Class at Farashe Yoga Center in RamallahManar: yoga gives a chance to be in the present moment, reduces anxiety.
Naheel is a PE teacher. Her mother did yoga; she has heard it can relax you.
Suad: also a PE teacher; has watched YouTube videos on yoga.
Mirna: she is a yoga teacher. She knows yoga has many benefits, good for mental and spirit, lessens pain in knees, and eases a crooked back. She has spread the word about yoga in Nablus, taught yoga as a volunteer and brought three others from Nablus; has taken reiki.
Manar: she is yoga student with Mirna, says yoga is good and important; it connects us to power we have inside; offers quietness; meditation and yoga are important because of the hard life here.
Faihae: this is her first time with yoga; hopes to learn and study yoga.
Bardees: has never done yoga, wants to learn.
Ibtisam: she is a yoga teacher and psycho-social counselor (equivalent to our social worker), using yoga with her clients. She sees lots of positive impacts of yoga for her clients. She told a story of doing tadasana (mountain pose) while she was stopped at the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Tahani: is also psycho-social counselor in Tulkarm; she uses yoga with her clients, and in group therapy, as well as for staff she works with. She thinks it’s a very important thing to do, that it solves problems in clients and in herself. She says yoga is very effective for physical and mental relaxation. Some of the people she works with have diabetes, and their sugar levels have stabilized; she lost some weight with her own yoga practice.
Majeda: a nurse from Nablus, this is her first time to learn about yoga; wants to use yoga with her psychotherapy patients.
Suheir: she is a psychologist specializing in education. She teaches yoga in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Yoga gives her strength and stability with all that goes on around her; with yoga, she wants to help people in their daily life.

Men's Class at Farashe Yoga Center in RamallahAnd the men: Hassam, Khaled, Ghassan, Jalal, Bashar, two men named Mohammed, Ala, Hamzeh, and Bhassam (Majeda’s husband). Two of them are psychosocial workers with Bedouin who go wherever their nomadic clients are, and another is active in a refugee camp. They report their clients have stress and anxiety, many disorders, and psychological diseases. Bedouin life is “unimaginable” — they live in tents, must travel far to get water, and herd their sheep and goats. UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) hires these men (and some of the women) to work with Bedouin, and the Bedouin are receptive.

Stresses of Life in the West Bank

We asked each group what their stresses are. The men listed some things that might apply to men anywhere: work, job security, working multiple jobs, relationships, family obligations, clients’ psych problems, self-care. The main stressor unique to the West Bank seems to be the Israeli Occupation and its vagaries. One man lives in a village close to an Israeli checkpoint; he said he feels the injustice and unfairness of the difference between the freedom on the Israeli side, and the lack of it on his side of the wall the Israelis have built to keep out violence.

The women said they had job stress, but, perhaps like women everywhere, they have more than one job: their homes, children, husbands, social pressures. The unmarried girls also said they have job pressures, and they feel constrained because in their society they may either live in their parents’ houses, or with their husbands. There is no option to live a single life as a woman. There is general consensus among all the participants that the kind of trauma people experience in the West Bank is sustained, not so much episodic.

Sharing Yoga in Refugee Camps

We spent a day traveling and offering yoga in two refugee camps in Bethlehem. This involved taking a taxi from Ramallah to the East Jerusalem checkpoint, waiting 45 minutes to cross the checkpoint on foot with all the other Palestinians going to work or to visit family, taking another taxi to the Bethlehem checkpoint, and then crossing that one on foot. Of course, it’s much quicker to cross into the West Bank than into Israel. These camps have now become permanent settlements, as they have existed since the formation of the Israeli state in 1948. Generations of Palestinians, who fled their ancestral homes, have now lived in these camps.

Children's Yoga Class in Aida Refugee CampWe offered yoga at the Aida camp to about 30 children; at about noon, about half of them — the boys — left to go to midday prayers with their fathers, and returned shortly. These children were exactly like children everywhere — energetic, bright, responsive, and looking for fun and mischief.

In the afternoon we did very simple yoga with about 35 women in the Deiheisha camp, who were very enthusiastic. All the women were in hijab, and some stayed covered throughout the class. We gathered the names and email addresses of five of them who would like to receive yoga teacher training. One of these, who looked to be about 35, said she had six children, and she showed us the photo of the youngest, a toddler, on her cell phone. She explained that this child, a daughter, is 10 years younger than her closest sibling. Why? Because her husband had been imprisoned for 10 years by the Israelis, and this child was born after his return.

Our Teachers and Translators

I’d like to devote a few words to the expertise and professionalism of the US teachers. They are Rama Jyoti Vernon, Ruth Hurtung, and Suzanne Manafort. All three teachers were clearly adjusting their instruction every day, and perhaps every half-day, to accommodate the emerging questions, needs, and circumstances of the participants as they became more comfortable. I was impressed by these professionals, who have 72 years of yoga-teaching experience among them, as they made on-the-spot course corrections in a calm and relaxed manner. Amid these demands on them, they remained warm and accessible, and there was much laughter and light-hearted banter among all the groups and teachers.

Farashe Yoga Center had arranged for four very able translators from among its group of local yoga teachers. These three women and one man took turns, and were indefatigable in their dedication to hour after hour of complex translation involving a lot of yoga and anatomical lingo.

The Future of Yoga in the West Bank

All of us who traveled to Ramallah agree that it was a very worthwhile trip, and that yoga is a valuable tool to address the realities of life in the West Bank. There is much enthusiasm among the current Palestinian yoga teachers and other professionals there to help yoga spread and find the places and people who will benefit most from its gifts. We forged what we hope will be strong and lasting bonds with our counterparts there, and plan to be attentive to and support future cooperation and growth of yoga in Palestine.

We’re confident that such growth will come, thanks to the spirit of those who took part in this yoga training journey — like Mohammed Khatib, a young man that Suzanne Manafort trained in the Mindful Yoga Therapy program during our trip to Ramallah. His dream is to go to the Olympics in 2016, and to come back and change the lives of his fellow human beings through the peaceful practice of yoga.


To join Give Back Yoga in supporting the teachers who are working to share this healing practice, donate to our Yoga for the West Bank campaign.

The State of Yoga Service: Looking Forward Through 2015

Author Rob Schware is the Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation and President of the Yoga Service Council. Each year, he issues a report on the state of yoga service — the work of bringing yoga to those who might otherwise never experience its transformational benefits. Read on for a look at what’s in store for 2015 and beyond, and a download link for this annual report.


A Vision for the Future: Voices From Our Yoga Service Community

In my Huffington Post blog series “Yoga: How We Serve,” a number of yoga teachers on the front lines of outreach to underserved and unserved populations have offered valuable answers to the question, “What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of ”service yoga“ in America?”

Here are some of the insights that are helping to shape the ongoing growth of yoga service:

“My hope is that yoga will be more readily received by unique communities such as Native Americans, and more recognized by health care organizations as a complementary healing modality to modern medicine.” — Christy Burnette, founder and Executive Director of Conscious Community Yoga Association, Inc.

“I would like to see more science, more data, and more randomized controlled studies. In my opinion we owe it to our clients/students and to our future funders (taxpayers and private citizens) to prove what works, and to recognize what doesn’t. We need to enter into the empirical domain, as difficult and as challenging as that is for yoga teachers like me!” — David Emerson, co-author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body

“The wounds of our veterans permeate all realms: physical, psychological, and spiritual…their needs are immediate. Our imperative is to assist these brave men and women with re-integration into the very culture they have fought hard to protect.  Training for war is intensive.  Training to return to their home lives is crucial.” — Ena Burrud, certified yoga therapist working with veterans in Colorado and Wyoming

“It is my hope that we will see a far greater awareness and participation by the yoga community in service programs. This might include a required ‘trauma and service’ module in the 200-hour training requirements and a consciousness of a service obligation by every studio and teacher.  The establishment of the Yoga Service Council and the yearly Yoga Service Conference is a great way to expand yoga service nationally and spread the word on opportunities and systems for yoga service.” — Bob Altman, Co-Founder of Centering Youth in Atlanta

“I see yoga being a staple in police and fire academies. I then see recruits expecting to see it on the schedule. Once they are on the job, it would be wonderful to continue to have classes offered to them on a weekly basis, or as seminars and continuing education opportunities. This could also happen at local gyms or studios. I’d like to see yoga as an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to training and caring for our ‘domestic soldiers.'” —  Olivia Kvitne, program director of Yoga for First Responders and Assistant Editor of LA Yoga Magazine

Others expressed hope that yogis will share this gift with special populations all around the world, and provide specialized yoga classes for people who find themselves at a homeless shelter, for people recovering from addiction, and for autistic children.

How Yoga Service Organizations Are Turning Vision Into Reality

How are we doing as a community to respond to these hopes? What new partnerships and entities, profit and non-profit, are stepping up to respond to the challenges?

In research:

The Prison Yoga Project, which started at San Quentin State Prison through the work of James Fox, is a shining example of a well-studied program by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), which showed this is a cost-effective means to help with addiction recovery and impulse control. The NCCD study found that a little mindfulness training through yoga can redirect attention, increase emotional self-control and anger management. Over 800 yoga teachers are now teaching yoga and meditation in over 75 prisons around the world.

In February, the Yoga Service Council and the Omega Institute will issue the first in a series of research reports on “Transforming Education Through Yoga.” This series was produced with research, input, and onsite collaboration from 23 leaders in the field of yoga and education.

In October, the Yoga Service Council and the Omega Institute will also host leaders in trauma-sensitive yoga for veterans to produce a second report in the series, “Yoga for Veterans.” Key researchers, including Sat Bhir Khalsa and Bessel van Der Kolk, have committed to participating. The objective of this Service Week for Veterans is to co-create common goals for our community, share insight, and produce resources that will serve veterans, VA hospital facilities, and yoga service providers, producing a peer- reviewed report of best practices.

In introducing yoga to first responders: 

In February, the first-ever Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and Resiliency Training to Benefit First Responders and Emergency Personnel will occur at the Sedona Yoga Festival – the first offering of a new Give Back Yoga program called Yoga for First Responders. Our police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and their families face behavioral health issues similar to those of combat soldiers, such as depression, PTS, anxiety, addictions, and suicides. The Sedona Yoga Festival/Give Back Yoga training aims to share skills and tools to help bring therapeutic yoga to at least 4,000 first responders nationwide.

In reaching diverse populations:

In May, social workers and yoga teachers will come together for a weekend at Omega Institute for the 4th Annual Yoga Service Conference to discuss how the yoga service movement can expand its work to support broader commitments to social justice. This includes addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which channels thousands of low-income youth (particularly men of color) directly from failing schools into the criminal justice system. We will have compelling and direct conversations between social justice and contemplative practice in organizations — join me there!

In bringing yoga to Native Americans:

This year, Give Back Yoga is partnering with Conscious Community Yoga and the Sedona Yoga Festival to provide a DVD yoga resource for Native Americans, led by a Native American yoga teacher. The class will be structured for those new to yoga, and with potential health challenges kept in mind. Of primary concern are complications from diabetes, obesity, detox for drug and alcohol addictions.

In partnership with the corporate sector: 

 To reach our veterans with mindfulness practices, Gaiam and Give Back Yoga will commit to serve 100,000 veterans through mobile meditation apps.

Yoga Journal Live, Give Back Yoga and Warriors For Healing will host a special event on Sunday June 28, 2015 on the Windsor Lawn of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, CA. This distinctive and compelling event, called Warriors For Healing, is designed to bring greater awareness of the therapeutic benefits of yoga for veterans facing PTS, and will offer veterans who are seeking healing a pathway toward new meaning and empowerment in life.

YogaGlo will support the Eat Breathe Thrive™ Facilitator Training course, providing facilitators with the knowledge, skills, and mentorship necessary to lead a yoga-based program for people struggling with disordered eating and negative body image. Nearly 80% of adult women feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and three out of four report struggling with disordered eating. The rates of body dissatisfaction among men have increased from 15% to 43% over the past three decades, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

New Growth for Yoga Service in 2015

As we partner with our program directors, our Advisory Board Members and influential yoga teachers to bring this powerful practice to the world, one person at a time, we are fostering new growth in several areas.

Bringing yoga to the West Bank: 

This year, Give Back Yoga is partnering with the Farashe Yoga Center in Ramallah, 7 Centers Yoga Arts and American yoga pioneer Rama Vernon on a new global initiative to expand and harness the power of yoga in the West Bank and Gaza, supporting Palestinians’ exploration and use of yoga in everyday life.

In May, lead teachers from these organizations will travel with Rama Vernon to the West Bank and work in partnership with Farashe Yoga Center to train up to twenty teachers. Following the training, these new teachers will introduce yoga to area residents through work in urban refugee camps, schools, hospitals, and other venues.

 Yoga is largely unknown among Palestinians. But over the past two years, more Palestinians — women in particular — have embraced the discipline as a way of coping with their daily stresses of the prolonged conflict, including commuting through military checkpoints, unstable employment, restrictions on movement and access, and political unrest.

This initiative to foster yoga as a practice of peace in the West Bank will continue to grow in 2016, as Give Back Yoga and our partners host the first international yoga conference in the West Bank. Led by world-renowned yoga teachers, Palestine-based yoga teachers and practitioners will have access to hands-on workshops that will enable them to develop effective yoga programming for their students. Following the conference, there will be a one-week service opportunity for newly trained teachers to apply these principles in their lives and in the community.

Bringing yoga into more prisons:

Based on continuing growth trends, we anticipate a growing demand from prison wardens who want more trained yoga teachers working in more prisons; and want specific programs for incarcerated veterans, for the staff and officers, and increased support for restorative justice programs.

Influencing climate change:

This year, leading yoga teachers, environmental and sustainable development experts, and atmospheric scientists will be discussing “Yoga, Personal Transformation and Global Sustainability.” What does yoga have to do with global sustainability? What are we all doing to reduce your individual carbon footprint? We need to raise our consciousness of how the yoga movement can meet the climate crisis, and work to help solve what is far and away the greatest challenge of our time. There’s more and more interest in this educational process, beginning with the recent article, “Yoga, Personal Transformation, and Global Sustainability.”

Join the Yoga Service Movement

There’s a lot of work ahead of us. But eventually, we’re confident that we’ll see tens of thousands of yoga teachers and yoga therapists leaving their studios and sharing down-to-earth yoga tools with un-served and underserved communities.

As an organization, one of Give Back Yoga’s key purposes is to serve as a gateway for yoga service. If you’d like to be a part of this movement for grassroots social change and healing, we invite you to visit us on the web, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our monthly newsletters.

Here’s to a bold, transformative, and prosperous New Year to you all!

Images courtesy of Robert Sturman, Prison Yoga Project, Yoga For First Responders, Farashe Yoga Center and Niroga Institute.


Download the annual report The State of Yoga Service: Looking Forward Through 2015.