by Rob Schware, Executive Director of Give Back Yoga Foundation
Give 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
First, 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.
Give 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:
• Manar: 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.
And 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.
We 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.