Palestine: Peace can be a bit of a stretch

A centre in Ramallah teaches the ancient practice of yoga, which many Palestinians credit with improving their lives.

Yoga in Ramallah
Farashe, a humble nonprofit organisation, offers affordable yoga classes to Palestinians [Sergio Rodriguez/Al Jazeera]

Ramallah, West Bank –
Amid the bustle of downtown Ramallah, only steps away from the famous Al Manara Square, lies a serene refuge for those seeking respite in the form of an ancient physical and spiritual discipline originating more than 6,000 kilometres to the east.

On the second floor of a nondistinct building sits Farashe, a humble nonprofit centre that opened its doors in 2010 to offer affordable yoga classes to Palestinians. Everything related to Farashe (which means butterfly in Arabic) is either donated or volunteered: the space itself, the mats, and even instructors’ time.

Inside, dozens of purple and blue yoga mats cover the floors of the studio. Butterfly motifs line the walls, which regularly echo the spiritual sounds of om, as participants meditate. Off-white linen curtains line the windows, providing an added open-air ambiance.  

“One thing that has always struck me about Palestine is the generosity of the people. So creating a volunteer organisation was surprisingly easy.

– Maha Shawreb, Farashe founder

Farashe is the brainchild of Maha Shawreb, a yoga instructor who took a leap of faith two years ago after a friend bemoaned the lack of a space in Palestine to which mothers could turn for relief and stress management.

“What she said struck me. As a yoga practitioner myself, I use [this practice] to stay healthy,” said Shawreb. “So it seemed like an interesting idea to create a space to promote healthy living. We were lucky to have a group of people who wanted to give to our community in a meaningful way.”

‘Selfless service’

Volunteer work is key to Farashe’s success; even its board of directors and operations manager offer their services for free. “The reaction and willingness of people to give and support this initiative has been incredible,” stressed Shawreb. “One thing that has always struck me about Palestine is the generosity of the people. So creating a volunteer organisation was surprisingly easy.”

There are five teachers at Farashe, all of whom work here voluntarily, offering instruction in yoga, meditation, and Pilates. Most of the money from the classes goes towards utilities and yoga mats, blocks and straps. Many of the yoga accessories are even brought by friends from the United States. The studio space itself has been donated, allowing the organisation to focus on its programming.

“This is a place where Palestinians can relieve some of the pressures of living under occupation,” said Leila Hashweh, a 23-year-old yoga teacher at Farashe. “There are hardly any other places where people can channel their energy or stress.”

Classes cost 20 Israeli shekels (around $5) a class, or less for a package deal. And even though Farashe makes very little money, whatever donations it has left over – after settling utility bills and paying for equipment – it uses to offer outreach yoga lessons in refugee camps and to support community development projects. Their latest endeavour was supporting the creation of an organic garden at a local high school.

“A lot of people didn’t know what yoga was at the beginning, but we won them over with just one class. Many say it changed their life,” said Hashweh, who majored in agricultural economics and environmental studies, but spent the past four years studying yoga.

Teacher-training programme

Farashe recently embarked on a yoga teacher-training programme [Sergio Rodriguez/Al Jazeera]

This week, Farashe hosted two yoga trainers from the US looking to increase the number of Palestinian teachers who could spread the healing effects of yoga to communities across the West Bank.

Shawn Parell and Angela Cerkevich, who head the Washington DC-based nonprofit Anahata Grace, developed a curriculum for the teacher-training programme they’re undertaking with Farashe.

During their extensive nine-day teaching programme, Parell and Cerkevich are looking to use their 20 years of experience to empower more than a dozen Palestinian women with the skills to use meditation yoga for therapy and mood management.

The training is thought to be the first of its kind in the West Bank and will offer women from different areas the necessary know-how to introduce yoga-based wellness programmes to their own cities and villages. Most of the women already work with their respective communities, but will incorporate yoga into their work to address the hardships of living under Israeli military occupation.

Parell said that her own experience with yoga is what prompted her to come to Palestine. “Yoga has transformed and healed me and because it’s a tool for balanced life, I feel dedicated to share,” the 28-year-old told Al Jazeera. “The specific conditions that the Palestinian people live in and the stressful lives they lead need a tool like yoga. Our hope is that these women can share their new knowledge with their families, friends and communities.”

Parell’s teaching partner, 34-year-old Cerkevich, said her experience working in Rwanda in 2007 taught her that yoga could be a smart means to change communities, especially in war-torn areas. “Unlike Western medicine, yoga is a way of self-care that’s affordable,” said Cerkevich. “I see it as a way of helping individuals care for themselves on a physical level, from chronic back and neck pain, insomnia, and then on a mental health level, in terms of anxiety and depression. More research is coming out on how effective yoga is at treating trauma.”

Many of the women in Parell and Cerkivich’s teacher program, their ages ranging from early twenties to late forties, said this was their first time embracing yoga.

“I first heard about it on TV – but when I tried it, I noticed a harmony between my mind, body and soul.

– Shamieh Srour, yoga student

“I first heard about it on TV,” said Shamieh Srour, a 40-year-old woman from Nilin. “But when I tried it, I noticed a harmony between my mind, body and soul.”

Srour, a member of Nilin’s municipal council, said her village was particularly susceptible to stress and anxiety. “Nilin is on the Green Line; it’s a hot spot, and we are constantly dealing with emotional, physical and economically induced stresses,” she said. “Our land is constantly being confiscated and we have high unemployment.”

Similarities in belief systems

To Shamieh, yoga is an extension of her daily prayer routine. She said that Muslims practice their own kind of yoga through the five prayers and that the word “ameen”, uttered at the end of Islamic prayers, resonates with the word “om”, the ancient syllable repeated during yoga.

“In Islam, the sound that brings people together is the human voice or the call to prayer,” she said. That’s where she sees similarities between practicing her religion and yoga: she said that the healing effect of the human voice – repeating words such as “ameen” and “om” – is evident when it is used to channel inner feelings and energy.

Other women said that yoga changed the way they dealt with their daily challenges, whether posed by the Israeli occupation or by mundane household chores.

“I stopped being angry,” said 25-year-old Abeer Abu Amrieh from the village of Zatara, near Bethlehem. “I no longer have racing thoughts that keep me worried and awake through the night. I have this tranquility inside of me that I didn’t have before I started yoga.”

Abu Amrieh, a history and geography teacher, said she will be relaying what she learned to other women in her community. “We have learned to listen to one another, to be disciplined – and more importantly, we have learned new effective ways to de-stress.”

Source: Al Jazeera