This is the seventh installment in a series about my trip to the West Bank in May 2015.
At 3 am, I awoke to the call of prayer resounding through the hills of the outskirts of Ramallah. Then, after practicing Yoga for three hours, I lapsed into a very deep Shavasana for an hour before Shraddha and I dashed to the Yoga Center in downtown Ramallah. Our interpreter had not arrived yet but the men slowly gathered. They came through the checkpoints of Nablus, Hebron, Jenin, and others came from around Ramallah. They were tired, some from working three jobs and others working early morning and then standing in long lines to get across border checkpoints to travel from one town to another. We began by sitting cross-legged in a circle to hear their personal and service oriented needs as psychosocial counselors. They shared what their job entailed, and why they were drawn to Yoga.
Two of the men who worked through UNRA, the United Nations Relief Agency, told of the work they were doing with the Bedouin tribes. First Khalid said, “They have much trauma because of continual exposure to Israeli forces and settlers. Our studies show that 44 percent of the Bedouin children are at a high risk of developing a psychiatric disorder.” Khalid continued saying that his job was so stressful because he took on the suffering of the Bedouin families. His friend and co-worker Mohammed continued, “The Bedouin’s culture and life-style is threatened by the occupation and continued building of the settlements. They are being forced off their lands along with their sheep, goats, camels and other animals.” Khalid chimed in again, “They cannot live in buildings like us, they would die. They have only known the nomadic way of following the water. Now, because of buildings covering the land, there is no water. They have to go great distances to find water.” As he spoke, I remembered the time before settlements when we would drive by the encampments of the Bedouin families. I always wanted to jump out of the car and join them in their nomadic life style in tents, with sumptuous foods and luxurious hand woven oriental carpets. Mohammed continued, “Their whole culture has been in existence for many centuries.” He shook his head with great empathy. “I feel the sadness from them in my mind and my body. I want to practice Yoga to help me lift above my sadness. I think then I can help them even more.”
This amazing group of 10 men included physical education instructors, weight lifters and even a boxer. One man was a massage therapist and another distinguished older man was a retired high school English teacher. They were all serving the people in varying ways and wanted to practice Yoga to find more peace within and to relieve the stresses of everyday life. The greatest stress they all agreed upon was living under the unsafe atmosphere and unpredictability of the occupation.
One father expressed his sorrow and anger when he was finally allowed to take his little children to Jerusalem. His voice broke as he asked, “How could I explain to them why the Israeli children have so much freedom, and a good life and can walk on the beach in Tel Aviv when my children cannot do the same?” The room fell silent as this sobering question hung unanswered in the room.
Shraddha began again with the philosophy behind Yoga: Yoga Chitta Vritti Niroddha. That Sanskrit phrase means: Yoga is to still, quiet and calm the waves of the mind. All Yoga comes back to this simple statement that is the most difficult to achieve.
We explained how emotions stem from the thought waves. We explained how the Yogic breath and postures are meant to quiet the waves of the mind. The men were interested, and then we began to have them breathe and eventually asked them to coordinate their breath with the movement of their back.
In the Islamic culture it would not be appropriate for us, as women, to adjust the men in their poses. I demonstrated on our wonderful American Yogi, Rob. Rob could then adjust the men who needed it. Yes, it seemed like a brilliant idea, but not too far into the class, Alice came over and whispered in my ear that it was okay for me to adjust the men’s postures, because I was a grandmother. In their culture, grandmothers and great grandmothers were the only women, outside the home, who were allowed to have physical contact with the men.
When a person begins to bend into Yoga positions it is possible to see their psychophysiological composition from the way they move or don’t move. Some of the men, even the gymnasts, were a bit muscle bound, and others had frozen fear built into the cells of the body -- especially in the shoulders, neck and back of the legs. Their spines were rounded as one who is beaten into futility. As we showed them how to straighten and strengthen the spine through a variety of simple Asanas, their competitive nature with one another began to surface. As one did something, the other would want to match his success. We tried in a variety of ways to slow down the waves of their mind by slowing down the rhythm of their breath and synchronizing this with the movement of Asana.
Even though we were adapting and adjusting to the men’s capabilities in the poses they required us to simplify and then simplify again. The translations from English to Arabic were consecutive rather than simultaneous which required even more simplification. At one point in the class, Bashar, one of the men said, “Rama, if you want us to come back tomorrow, please … give us a break.” I said, ”No Break. Yoga is your break.” They laughed and groaned a little but continued on. Their bodies and mind needed these few simple practices to relax the habitually contracted muscles. To open their chests, which were protected by chronically rounded shoulders, we had them do back bends over chairs. It just so happened, there were only 11 chairs in the room and there were 11 men. I demonstrated and slid all the way to the floor into a handstand position and then brought my legs up. As I came out of the position, one of the young men half jokingly said, “That’s a torture position.” I wanted to cry, he was right. I remembered 23 years ago seeing the torture manual given to me by the broadcast journalists for the Boston Nova series. The reality of the Palestinian’s situation kept washing over me with alternating waves of sadness and joy. I felt joy to be here sharing Yoga but sorrow knowing just a little of what the people of the region have suffered. “Yoga is not to create more pain,” I said to the group. “It is a way to bring us out of pain -- mental, emotional and physical.” The men then eagerly grabbed their chairs and began to open themselves to the heavens as they looked back into the unknown part of themselves, the back body. As we led them into the Warrior Pose of Viravadrasana I, Bashar reached his hands to the sky and said he felt light coming through his fingertips into his arms and into his heart. His broken English and radiant face reflected the mood we call “bliss.” Bashar said, “I feel the presence of Allah. This is like prayer.”
As we ended the class, the men seemed to let go into a deep relaxation. Later that evening, Shraddha and I wondered if they would come back the next day.