Afghanistan's only yoga studio: A calm oasis for war-weary women

Fakhria Momtaz, who set up a yoga hub in 2016, explains why women's wellbeing is important in a war-torn nation.

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    Afghanistan's only yoga studio: A calm oasis for war-weary women
    Fakhria Momtaz started Afghanistan's first and only yoga studio in 2016 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    Kabul, Afghanistan - At the Momtaz Yoga Center, Afghanistan's only yoga studio in Kabul, Fakhria Momtaz gives her daughter advice on how to lead a class.

    Froohar Momtaz, 18, will soon teach a group of women the positions and stretches which originated in ancient India in a one-room studio with a wooden interior. There are mirrors on the walls and a large window that allows the sun in.

    It has served as a hub for female yoga enthusiasts since it was established by Fakhria in 2016.

    With minutes until the class begins, four young women dressed in white leggings, long tunics and light green headscarves enter the room and take their place on their rubber mats.

    Soft piano music sets the mood.

    "Everyone in this country wants to find peace after suffering in years of war and conflict," Fakhria Momtaz, 42, told Al Jazeera.

    "But you cannot establish peace in this society if you are not at peace within yourself."

    Fakhria started the yoga business from the premises of an IT company she owns with her husband.

    The lack of security and the perception that yoga is unIslamic are two main challenges for women attending classes [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    She was sporty from a young age; raised by a family of athletes in the Afghan capital. She particularly enjoyed gymnastics.

    When the Taliban took control in 1996, she became displaced and fled with her relatives to Pakistan.

    Fakhria believes it is women who have lost the most from the country's conflict.

    "If women of our society are not healthy, mentally and physically, they won't be able to raise their children well," Fakhria said.

    "Yoga is something that also helps with self-awareness, helps with depression, this is why I think it should be accessible to women."

    Mahdia Joya, 21, has attended a yoga session at Fakhria's studio almost every day since 2017.

    She says the one-hour class allows her to disconnect from the misery stemming from ongoing war and conflict.

    "After an hour of doing yoga, I feel relaxed, less anxious and I am able to focus on the positive aspects of life than the negative," she told Al Jazeera.

    "But many women like me who want to attend these classes are not able to come because of the security situation in our country."

    Mahdia Joya has attended classes for a year [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    To make yoga accessible to Afghan women who are unable to leave their homes, Fakhria is trying to develop a yoga app. 

    Her idea recently made it to the semi-final round of a US-based contest for startups. 

    "If I win the competition, we will develop this application and women in Afghanistan will not have to go any where to do yoga," she said. "They can practise yoga any where."

    After a series of talks between the US and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar - with more meetings expected this week - many Afghans hope that the war will finally end.

    But many are also concerned about women's rights should the Taliban assume greater powers in the country.

    Afghan women say life was challenging for them under the Taliban, from 1996 until 2001, when a US-led invasion toppled the group.

    Fakhria says that yoga can help people in Afghanistan cope with the trauma caused by years of conflict [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    During that time, Afghan girls were banned from going to schools and universities and women were not allowed to work or vote.

    They were also not allowed to participate in sporting events and could only leave home if escorted by a male member of the family.

    "If things change politically in the near future and the Taliban come back," said Fakhria, "we will make the Taliban do yoga with us as well."

    Froohar Momtaz helps her mother run the yoga studio [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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