|Rama Jyoti Vernon||
The next morning, the call to prayer awakened me from a deep slumber. I began to stretch gently into Yoga poses, reaching into infinity for two or three hours before leaving at 8 am to travel to a refugee camp health clinic outside of Nablus. The morning drive was spectacular. We took the back roads that the Palestinians complained they had to take that wound around the hills of the countryside. It was so beautiful to gaze out at the groves of olive and fruit trees, to see the grapes growing in the distance and to observe the gentility of life as it once was. Suddenly, more settlements appeared on the horizon and the reality of the moment encroached into my dream world and a deep-seated sorrow welled up in my heart.
We were driving toward the green line where the rural territories of the Arabs clashed with the progressive highways, well marked roads and freeways of the expansion of Israeli territories. It took two hours to go a distance that if allowed on Israeli highways would only take a half an hour.
Our driver wanted to show off and picked up speed winding around any cars that dared slow down in front of us. We sped through a few villages where the women wore black robes and white hijabs folded over their shoulders like a nun’s habit. When we arrived at the clinic, I noticed the clinicians also wore the long black robes and head mantels like a nun. I wondered if this was where the nun’s habits originated. But there wasn’t time to think. Bashar, one of the men in the previous men’s workshop, was the one who requested our coming to this clinic. In the men’s workshop, he experienced so much release of stress. He wanted to open this up to the psychosocial workers, doctors, dentist and other health workers at the clinic. Bashar was at the door to meet us and brought us in to meet with the doctor who was the director of the clinic. The doctor shared with us that there were only four, or sometimes only three doctors, who each saw about 117 patients a day. He said, “Usually our waiting room is overflowing with patients and sometimes our day doesn’t end until eleven o’clock at night.” The doctor then shared that the building we were in was only one and half years old and they were so proud of these latest facilities. It was funded by one of the countries of the United Arab Emirates. They seemed to be proud that people of other Arab countries were now helping to support the Palestinians within the territories.
“This clinic serves the refugee camp we are in as well as the refugees who live in the village,” the doctor said. A female director came to collect us before we taught our first class of the day, which would be for women patients in the clinic.
The women arrived in their Abayas and Hijabs and obviously were not going to remove an ounce of cloth. We asked each of them as we did with all of our groups, where they needed help. As always, most all of them answered that they needed help managing stress. We were in a tiny room with no mats or rugs and interconnected chairs on each side. With every class and workshop we were always adapting to various situations, which changed not only from day to day, but also hour to hour. We briefly introduced the benefits of Yoga breathing by having them place their hands on their abdomen, ribs and clavicle area while sitting in a chair. We had a momentary interpreter who would be called out by her cell phone every 15 minutes. Without language, we began to lead them into simple Yoga movements by having the women stand and bend over in their robes and Hijabs placing their hands on their chairs. They were embarrassed to expose their backside even though they were fully covered and called out in Arabic for the blinds on the one small window, that looked out onto a blank wall, to be closed. We immediately responded with a small smile of understanding on our lips as we helped close the blinds.
I could not help but invoke the help of the Gods. It was a bit like our time in Afghanistan, when Shraddha and I were teaching the women who were under their blue silk Burkas. This small class of women refugees who were patients at the clinic was the most basic of all classes. Shraddha had them move their wrists, ankles, neck and eyes. We even got them to bend over their laps while sitting in the chair using the back breath to guide them deeper into surrendering their upper body to their lower. The women were responding. There was as much laughing as there was socializing with one another during the poses. Cell phones rang as usual and the women took the calls and settled whatever business with the family they had to do without leaving the room. I had to dive into deeper layers of simplicity knowing that it is the best of teachings. Oh how I longed to be complex. I heard Swami Satchidananda’s voice once more reminding me to reduce the teachings of Yoga even more into its most intricate common denominator. This seemed to be the most challenging of all the classes and workshops so far. After each movement we asked them how they felt. Their comments were positive so we continued with the simplest of things. At the end of our session together, the women were happy and we said our goodbyes. They were hungry for more Yoga, but we were hungry for food. We had only 45 minutes before teaching the next class. Bashar came into the room bearing packages of large cupcakes and bottles of grapefruit soda. From what we were told by many sources, diabetes was a major epidemic here in the West Bank. We were concerned about the children in some of the refugee camps who were eating “chip sandwiches.” This is where they put potato chips in between two pieces of bread.
Bashar, who expressed an interest in teaching Yoga, shared his intricate story of how he came to have open heart surgery. He was only 33 years old and had the surgery less than a year ago. He happily shared with us that the clinic and their culture could not mix men and women and that we had to flip a coin to see who would teach the women and who would teach the men. The men’s class would consist of 15 men and the women’s group 25 attendees. These sessions would be for the healthcare professionals who were under enormous pressure and stress from the continual demands of their work. The coin fell. Shraddha got the women and I got the men’s group.
They directed me to the patients waiting room where the men’s class was to be held. I groaned inside knowing this was not a good place for a class. There were no rugs, or mats to be seen, which meant we would do very simple practices on the interconnected chairs. After moving chairs in every direction, with people passing by, they decided to move us to a more private venue. Again, we formed a “U” shape with the interconnected chairs and we all settled in. After introductions and hearing what their interest in Yoga was. Bashar was to be my translator which later someone said, it was like having no translator as his English was so minimal. He couldn’t wait to ask the group how old I was. Our group that included the four doctors and one dentist of the clinic and a retinue of pycho-social counselors were all trying to guess my age when the doctor who was head of the clinic loudly stated “You are 40 years old.” I thanked him profusely in Arabic saying “Shukran, Shukran, my husband will be so happy to hear this.” We then talked about how Yoga can help one to look younger, but far important is how Yoga can help one “feel” Younger. They agreed saying they wanted to get rid of the aches and pains that one associates with aging. When they found out my father was from Lebanon they, like others on this trip began comparing me to a famous Lebanese singer. One of the clinicians leaned over to me and said “she’s dead.” “Oh thank you.” I said as we laughed and laughed.
I had taken a picture off the wall of the lungs, bronchial tubes and the avioli and used it as an example for showing the three lobes of the lungs and how it related to the three part breath. They put their hands on the abdomen to experience the lower breath that expanded the lowest and largest lobes of their lungs, we brought our hands up to the ribs for the not so large middle lobes of the lungs and then up to the clavicle bones to experience the smallest lobes of the lungs where the average person usually breathes. Like all the students here, they too were riddled with shoulder and neck tension. After we did the three part breath sitting in the chairs, I demonstrated on Basher how we could do the 6 part breath by putting our hands on a chair and bringing the breath into the back. I loudly declared “I’m a grandmother, so I can touch your backs.” We all laughed together.
They asked if Yoga could help high blood pressure. I explained how it worked on the autonomic nervous system, specifically the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves and how it relates to the right and left nostril. They had many questions and we discussed how the parasympathetic dilates and opens the blood vessels bringing the pressure down and how the nerves of the sympathetic that come off the thoracic and lumbar spine stimulates the adrenals that constricts the blood vessels bringing the blood pressure up. “With Yoga, I control my blood pressure and can take it up or down.” The doctor who was the director looked at me in disbelief, “without medication.” I shook my hand back and forth saying “no medication. I’ve helped several students to get off their blood pressure medication through Yoga.” It was hard for him to believe. Because Bashar was now attending to the staff and had to leave the room, there was no translator to tell them how it works. I thought of the beloved shoulder stand and forward bends that affect the parasympathetic nerves that come off the cervical and sacral points of the spine. I thought, but without good translation, did not say that the backbends affect the sympathetic nerves that come off the thoracic and lumbar spine which activate the adrenals that prepare one for “fight or flight.” What I was witnessing in our teachings here in the West Bank and the danger that even children face, people had their sympathetic nervous systems switched on most of the time. How I longed to give them a full Yoga class or workshop so they could experience true relaxation which comes from releasing the habitually contracted muscles and balancing the autonomic nervous system.
Now, what happened next was so comical that even the men thought it was funny. As Bashar was demonstrating a forward bend over a chair, his phone, across the room began ringing. One of his colleagues answered it and brought it to Basher’s ear so he could talk while in the pose. I thought, “this is the ultimate” I began to laugh and the men laughed with me. Finally we had them helping one another in this simple forward bend with breathing before coming to a standing position in Tadasana that we were now calling “The Check Point Pose.”
At each interval I asked them what they were feeling when they lifted their chest and moved the skin down the back. It was surprising to hear several say “I feel more optimistic about life in this pose. Some said, “I feel more empowered inside myself.” We discussed how Yoga can give us that feeling of self-empowerment no matter what is happening to strip us of our dignity. “It does not matter what is happening around you. If you don’t have peace around you…with Yoga, you can always find peace within you.” For a moment they became somber as they looked down as if accessing memories of past experiences of the occupation, nodding their heads in agreement. One man took a deep breath, looked up, lifted his heart center to the light and said “We are hungry for this.”
At the end of the session, the packages of cupcakes and this time orange soda was passed around. In India, they might call this “prassad.” How I loved their innocence and eagerness to learn more about Yoga. Afterward, they were filled with questions reaching out for more contact with this foreigner who brought Yoga, not from India, but from America.
Shraddha had a wonderful experience with 25 of the women. They began with breathing and standing poses, which included the palm tree, Tadasana, and the chair poses. Shraddha said that when they mimicked the animals, they laughed until some fell off their chairs.
They did the cat stretch over the chair and then she had them do a sitting lion’s pose. With this pose, they worked with the thyroid balance and lymph flow. After the lions pose everything dissolved into intense laughter and then she said, someone had a phone and pulled up middle eastern dance music as the women ended their class by joyously dancing to the music. We learned this happens when the women are with another and feel free and happy.
We were at the clinic from 9am to 3pm. The woman who was a nurse and manager of the clinic was proud to show us their areas for women’s health care. It was far more modern than we expected. She took us to the family planning department that did counseling as well as issued contraceptives for family planning. “Contraceptives”? Shraddha and I were astounded, we thought that in the Muslim tradition this was not allowed. There are so many misconceptions we all hold with our stereotypes which crystalizes people into mold that never changes..
The enthusiasm of both men and women made it difficult to get to the door and into the waiting taxi that was to take us this time through the countryside to Bethlehem. After a couple of hours, our taxi arrived in Bethlehem at Nahed’s house which was only a few yards from the wall. The Bethlehem wall was immense, forbidding and foreboding with corner towers that reminded me of a San Quentin prison tower in the California Bay Area.
Nahed’s beautiful large home was like an oasis. Our taxi driver could not find her home so as we waited at the wall for her to find us, we marveled at the graffiti art that was beginning to spread across the wall. Lots of bright colors and writing in English saying such things such as “make hummus not walls” and of course writings such as “Remember The Berlin Wall” and “Forget the Borders.” As we were standing about 3 feet from this section of the wall marveling at the massive art, the Palestinian man who lived abroad who was responsible for this graphite art came up to us and engaged us in conversation. “This was a dark grey wall whose presence was an ominous reminder of the Apartheid now present in the region of the West Bank and Jerusalem. I thought the wall needed to be brightened up a little and so I began doing this art in March, it is fairly new but we have a long way to go.” Cans of spray paint and colored marking pens and posters of the sayings on the wall were lined up in front of us. “I encourage people to express themselves on the wall for all to see.” He had a poster picture that showed the Pope standing at the Bethlehem wall and putting his hand on the wall as he was in prayer. “Wow, I thought, these amazing, creative strong-willed people will find a way around the obstacles even this horrific barrier and continual reminder of separation. When we finally reached Nahed’s house where we were to spend the night, she had food waiting as we ate everything she placed before us. We had only had twinkles that day and were ravenous by the time we arrived. We discovered that not only is she a wonderful Yoga teacher, she is also a marvelous cook
That night we had a chance to visit and share stories. Nahed said that she and her husband had bought the house with windows facing the view of the hills of Jerusalem one year before the Israeli’s built the wall that separated East Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Even though the house was high enough though for us to see the hills and night lights of East Jerusalem every day they gazed on the symbol and continual reminder of Apartheid.
Nahed left to teach a Yoga class and when she returned, we visited and shared stories. What I have found in my travels throughout the world that it doesn’t matter what country or culture one comes from, in Yoga, there truly is a universal language bringing us all into alignment as a one world culture. We were all so tired, we fell into a deep sleep until early morning.