A Gift for Healing and Transformation
Words: Rola Tassabehji
The yoga industry is now considered a worldwide phenomenon, with more than 300 million yogis around the world fueling a multibillion dollar industry that includes studios, retreats clothing, mats, blocks, and other accessories. Yet, beyond the statistics and social media-driven yoga culture, a quieter, different kind of yoga is taking place in communities traumatised by war and conflict.
Brave individuals from places across the world — including inner city New York, Iran, Columbia, and Kenya, to name a few — are experimenting with the therapeutic aspects of yoga to help heal individuals and communities affected by violence and conflict. These people often operate in non-profit organisations serving the forgotten and marginalised communities, their voices largely absent from the influencer-led yoga news pervading in the West.
As a Lebanese-born yoga instructor living in Europe, I have often wondered about the place of yoga in these communities — its potential not only in personal transformation but also in helping bridge the gap between polarised groups in regions like the Middle East, notorious for political and social instability as well as multigenerational conflict. My findings, though far from comprehensive or conclusive, offer hope and a reminder of one of the ancient definitions of yoga as a practice to still the mind.
“Evidence regarding the benefits of yoga for treating distress among
traumatised individuals is becoming widely recognised.”
RESEARCH ON YOGA AND TRAUMA HEALING
Evidence regarding the benefits of yoga for treating distress among traumatised individuals is becoming widely recognised. According to a recent academic review exploring the role of yoga in healing psychological trauma, yoga is proven to help through “an increased sense of self-compassion; feeling more centred; developing coping skills; having a better mind– body relationship; and improving relationships with others.”
The same study cites one of the key enablers is the “feeling of safety generated in the trauma-informed yoga classes,” concluding that yoga offers “great potential in the field of trauma recovery,” although more high-quality research is called for to allow this nascent field to advance.
On the ground, in war-torn Beirut, Lebanon and occupied Ramallah, Palestine, the evidence is real.
CREATING A “SAFE SPACE” IN BEIRUT
Sandy Boutros is the founder of Koun (“to be” in Arabic), an NGO making yoga accessible to Lebanon’s marginalised communities. For 33-year-old Boutros, Lebanon, whose brutal civil war started in 1975, was always a place of war and conflict, where every day seems a battle.
She began practicing yoga when she was 21 years old, focusing mostly on meditation, to help with growing anxiety and depression. At the same time, Boutros developed an interest in psychology and how the mind works. She recalls, “I started looking for meditation experts, and by chance found an uncle of a friend who was a yoga teacher. Working with him, I began to observe how my mind changed, and emotions I was unaware of started surfacing.”
In 2015, after attending some yoga training by visiting swamis from the Bihar School of Yoga, Boutros decided to leave her job in advertising and go to India for a five-month training course. “The process of applying was not straightforward, I used to call every day and was finally accepted. I traveled for five months and later for additional development training.”
Upon her return to Beirut, she chose to focus her yoga on volunteer opportunities to those less privileged, such as migrant workers, sharing tools of meditation and yoga nidra. “I never planned to set up any organisation, but I began to notice that classes were leaving a big impact on the community.”
In 2018, Boutros officially started the registration process and by 2020, set up Koun, primarily serving marginalised groups, stateless children, migrant workers and LGBT communities. With an initial donor grant, she set up a Safe Space yoga studio in Downtown Beirut. “Technically I am the only full timer, but we have a team of more than ten teachers working on project basis,” adds Boutros. “We mainly target children and women. Often, when women in these communities get married, they lose their individuality and identity. We give them the opportunity to reconnect with their bodies and gradually that builds greater self-esteem and effects the entire. family.”
Her vision is to create more Safe Spaces outside Beirut so she can the wider, more remote population in need. “I dream of having more inclusive ashram retreat centres for workshops, spaces where people can reconnect in nature,” Boutros says. “I believe whenever there is a crisis, it is the marginalised groups thar are most affected. With countless crises gripping the country, the need is there.”
FARASHE YOGA RAMALLAH: A HAVEN FOR HEALING
Maha El-Sheikh co-founded Farashe (meaning butterfly in Arabic) Yoga Centre in Ramallah in 2010. Since then, it has grown into a thriving community yoga centre in the West Bank, holding daily yoga and meditation classes, workshops and “space for the community to come together to breathe, heal, play, and connect.
El-Sheikh grew up in the U.S. and moved to Palestine while working on International Development. “I had my own yoga practice sustaining me to try to make sense of and cope with it all (realities of life under Israeli occupation). So when a group of us were feeling very disappointed with the whole situation, we decided to create a space for people to breathe,” says El-Sheikh. “In Palestine, there is a strong culture of volunteering and awn, mutual aid in Arabic. That was important for us to preserve and develop while combining it with concept of seva (selfless service).
She adds, “We opened within six-months after a friend donated the yoga centre space. People from all over came through word of mouth, many, just wanting refuge. We quickly realised we needed more than two teachers.”
One of the teacher volunteers, who also came from the U.S. where she grew up, is Sarab Atway, also founder of Straps by Sarab, a Fair Trade business creating opportunities in marginalised communities and empowering women to use their skills to preserve traditional Palestinian crafts.
“Living under occupation can be really tough for Palestinians, both physically and mentally. It creates a lot of stress and anxiety in their daily lives. But Farashe has always been a safe space for them to escape from their reality and find inner peace through yoga,” says Atway. “Coming from the States, I didn’t think yoga would exist in Palestine so I was pleased to not only find Farashe but a growing yoga community eager to learn more about the practice.”
“Coming from the States, I didn’t think yoga would exist in Palestine so I was pleased to not only find Farashe but a growing yoga community eager to learn more about the practice.”
For Diana Salqan, a recent graduate of the teaching training program, Farashe has been a transformative experience. “I grew up here, living though all the turmoil and demonstrations. I never realised the toll, the effect, it has had on my body and mind, including fragmentation — not actually feeling my body,” she says. “Through my yoga journey, I met my body and felt sensations that had been buried. Yoga also helped me own my time and find regularity; both rare commodities in this part of the world.”
Today, Farashe has built a close community of hundreds of Palestinian yoga enthusiasts from all walks of life, offering retreats, teacher training, as well as implementing special projects, including teaching yoga for child prisoners. To reach more people, Farashe also organises yoga in other public places like Palestinian museums as well as villages under demolition, helping relieve pain and raise awareness of the plight of these communities.
Atway adds, “What I love most about what we do is how empowering this work is. Simply through breathing and mindful movement, we provide an opportunity for people to express themselves freely on the mat.”
LESSONS FOR THOSE ASPIRING TO SERVE
- CREATE SAFETY: For Boutros, opening her Safe Space studio marked a turning point. “It is different than practicing yoga with all the noise and smells of often found in impoverished communities. I realised early the importance of prioritising the right space. It was expensive but worth it.” Similarly, with the Farashe team, some people spend hours traveling and going through checkpoints to reach the studio, in an external environment where there is little by way of public parks and safe recreational space because of the political situation.
- DON’T RELY ON DONATIONS: Boutros, who initially used donor money to set up the Safe Space studio, is committed to staying independent and grow organically, utilising the studio rental to generate more income. “It is important not be donor-dependent, as there is a lot of bureaucracy, and a lot of restrictions are often involved.” Farashe team also want to remain independent, and community based, leveraging the interest from volunteers from all over the world offering their services.
- TRAIN TEACHERS: Training women from the community to train others is was key to make Koun scalable and self-sustaining. “In Shatila (Palestinian refugee) camps, we taught three teachers who are now teaching hundreds. Also, when a trans class is run by a trans women, its closer to them, they can relate more easily,” says Boutros.
Farashe has also focused on training Palestinian teachers throughout Palestine in order to insure the accessibility of yoga to all. With the support of Palestinian and international yoga teachers, they have trained about 60 Palestinian women and men from nine cities and villages in Palestine, and developed their own 200-hour yoga wellness teacher training program in Arabic.
- SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE: “With Koun I never faced any backlash from conservative communities, and we work with some pretty religious communities,” said Boutros. “We keep it simple. We speak their language”. In Farashe the training in Arabic was important to contextualise yoga and make it more relevant.
- TRAUMA-INFORMED, FOR THE REAL WORLD: Both organisations provide traumainformed classes, ensuring yoga is more than purely physical exercise class once a week, but provides tools for the real world. “From beginning, we felt it was important to introduce yoga not as something you go to but something you can integrate into life, whether it be at home, in the classroom, or at health clinics, youth clubs or associations,” adds El-Sheikh.
“I never planned to set up any organisation, but I began to notice that classes were leaving a big impact on the community.”
YOGA FOR CONFLICT RESOLUTION?
In the end, it would be an oversimplification to conclude that yoga necessarily offers some kind of reconciliation in conflict zones. Or that it has the power to prevent the escalation of future disputes, especially when one is confronted with so much intergenerational and deeply rooted conflict.
With so much tension on various fronts, several tools are required. But perhaps yoga can best be considered as an opportunity, an opening, for individuals to pause, breathe and address inner conflict, while helping build self-compassion and compassion for the other side — eventually leading to better communication and understanding.
As these passionate and brave yoga teachers lead the way, focusing on yoga’s core principles such as ahimsa (nonviolence) and seva (selfless service), more can be done to support them and other non-profit yoga organisations operating in conflicttorn countries, offering a step towards individual and social healing.
Rola Tassabehji is a journalist and content marketing specialist with a background in global brand management at Unilever and higher education at INSEAD. As an advanced yoga instructor and yoga therapist, she has pivoted her career to writing about yoga and wellness, while continuing to interview business leaders from around the world for YPO.org.