“You don’t avoid the situation, you cannot live in denial,” says Eilda Zaghmout down the phone line from Palestine. “It is happening. There is war, there is occupation but at the same time there is space for myself to change.”
After discovering yoga and its positive effects on her own mind, body and spirit, Eilda, one of a growing number of yoga teachers in Palestine’s West Bank, yearned to share the experience with others in her community.
“With yoga, we believe we are all beings of love, bliss and freedom,” says the 34-year-old co-owner of Beit Ashams yoga community centre. “In Palestine we have so many challenges on different levels, it’s not just social or economical, but also political. Experiencing yoga for the first time was such a relief for me.”
When life is a constant rotation of checkpoints, blockades, bombings and uncertainty regarding what lies ahead, practices like yoga and meditation can take away the stress and give people back a sense of control.
Yoga and meditation are relatively new to Palestine. Until recently, there were few teachers and the misunderstanding of yoga as a religious practice didn’t help. But today more and more Palestinians are seeking out the ancient method. Eilda and her ‘soul sister’ Nimala Kharoufeh opened Beit Ashams (which translates to House of the Sun) together in Bethlehem in January 2015 – which wasn’t without its challenges.
“People relate yoga to Buddhism, as if it’s a new religion,” says Eilda, whose religious background is Greek Orthodox. She says 45-50 per cent of locals are Christians. “There’s a misperception among the priests and people going to church that yoga is Buddhism or atheism. But yoga for me is a philosophy; it’s a way of life. It’s not about converting your religion. It’s about seeking your own true self.”
Overcoming that misconception has come through simple word-of-mouth. And it seems to be working. Eilda shares the “heartwarming” feeling of recently hosting 21 women from around Palestine – everywhere from Hebron and East Jerusalem to Nablus and Jenin – to undertake their yoga teacher training. The women are now certified teachers and planning to bring yoga to their own communities.
“That for me is a big, big step,” says Eilda, who has even had requests to open a studio in Jordan.
Beit Ashams is self-funded (though donations were accepted for things like bathroom tiles and the coffee machine) and Eilda explains that students feel like they are making a valuable contribution with the payments they give for classes.
“If people feel the value of this place then they will want to become a part of it, they will want to support it. That’s why we charge for the classes. It’s a small amount but it’s not about the money, it’s about… [people] seeing the power they have to make a change to the centre through their contribution.”
The community does have international non-profit organisations like the Give Back Yoga Foundation and the Olive Tree Yoga Foundation to thank for the teacher training courses they’ve been providing in the West Bank over the past few years.
Having developed a program to help returned US war veterans, Suzanne Manafort’s Mindful Yoga Therapy program, run by Give Back Yoga, is now providing the same stress-busting benefits for those who’ve endured trauma in the West Bank. In a bid to make the program even more accessible, it’s been developed in Arabic and was recently taught at Palestine’s first yoga studio, Farashe Yoga Center, which opened in 2010 in the cosmopolitan city of Ramallah.
The non-profit studio also focuses on outreach, taking yoga to refugee camps, areas affected by the West Bank wall and villages “subject to continuous harassments, land confiscation and severe movement restrictions from settlements,” says Shadan Nassar, who teaches Ashtanga yoga and collaborates with nutritionists on health workshops at the centre.
The 25-year-old has only recently returned to Ramallah, in the central West Bank, and describes it as a “confused” city. It’s restricted economically, legally and logistically, she says. People do lead “normal lives”, but living under occupation obviously has negative psychological consequences. “There is lack of self-worth, self-love,” she says, adding that many people don’t know how to deal with their emotions.
“Yoga gives you tools to be able to see emotions and thoughts without automatically reacting to them so when anger arises, for example, you are able to recognise it, watch it and let it pass,” says Shadan.
But its popularity isn’t all about developing oneself – in the West Bank it’s considered a “trendy new sport”. However those who take up the practice for fitness soon experience its other benefits too.
“I guess what I envision happening is yoga giving more and more people the skills of self-love, respect and focus,” says Shadan. “[Until] one day we can see at least the majority of people cutting the cycle of violence by understanding their emotions, dealing with them and projecting nothing but love to one another.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 30 of Collective Hub.