Can yoga heal trauma among Palestinians, Lebanese?
Ancient practice seen as a healer in region with high stress levels and anxiety due to decades of conflict and ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In the occupied West Bank, an unexpected source of solace for a traumatised population has emerged in the form of the Farashe (butterfly in Arabic) Yoga Center.
Founded in 2010 in Ramallah and run by volunteers, the centre has seen rising demand for its classes from Palestinians suffering bouts of anxiety and elevated stress levels.
Majdal Soboh, a 27-year-old volunteer who teaches at Farashe, told Al Jazeera by telephone the school was set up to provide “coping mechanisms” to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
“We provide wellness tools… Though Palestinians in themselves are a resilient community, they need help to keep themselves in good mental and physical health,” said Soboh.
Farashe teachers regularly visit the Amari refugee camp to the east of Ramallah to teach Palestinians there yoga.
Teachers and students sometimes find it difficult to come to Ramallah from other cities due to road closures and checkpoints put up by the Israeli military, Soboh told Al Jazeera.
‘Chronic exposure to stress’
For the Palestinians, their anxieties go well beyond post-traumatic stress disorder, said Soboh, adding that people in the area suffer from “chronic exposure to stress” and yoga is “therapeutic” for them.
Farashe sustains itself by holding teacher training programmes locally so it does not have to hire faculty from abroad and can overcome its first-year difficulty of finding Arabic-speaking teachers.
“We eventually overcame it by holding teacher training programmes,” said Soboh, who underwent yoga instructor training at Svyasa Yoga University in India’s southern Karnataka state.
Farashe caters to students of all faiths, overcoming initial hesitation among learners due to yoga’s association with Hinduism, said Soboh.
“It melted away as students realised the benefits. Moreover, we don’t use chants or yogic rituals.”
The space for its Ramallah centre was donated by Bridge Development Group, a Palestinian real estate development company, said Soboh
Farashe’s coordinator Ameena Mahmoud told Al Jazeera the people in Palestine face emotional disturbances that yoga can help address.
On the coast of the Palestinian territories, at a distance that could be covered in mere hours by car, lies the besieged Gaza Strip, which has witnessed several bouts of relentless bombings by the Israeli military. While Farashe doesn’t operate there due to severe limitations on movement imposed by Israeli authorities, they try to help.
“We are unable to go to Gaza but keep in touch with yoga teachers there,” said Soboh.
Only weeks ago, artillery and air raids on Gaza that lasted several days killed more than 250 people, including 66 children, wounded hundreds and destroyed many residential and office buildings.
It is not only the occupied West Bank and Gaza that are seeing an increased interest in yoga but also Lebanon.
Aaed Ghanem, founder of the Beirut Yoga Center in the Lebanese capital, regularly visits Palestinian refugee camps in the country to teach yoga there.
Ghanem said he comes across many Palestinians who break down when he meets them in the refugee camps in Lebanon.
“Some of them get so much relief after our workshops that they come to our yoga centre where we give them free sessions or offer big discounts,” he said.
Ghanem, who has been practising yoga since the days of the Lebanese Civil War, said there is incredible anxiety in Lebanon.
“Due to the political and social situation in the country, daily discomfort and stress are high,” he said.
He says there were 15 students present in his studio when the deadly, and deeply traumatic, Beirut Port blast took place last year.
“It happened just a few hundred metres from our yoga centre and a glass door came down crashing,” he said.
Some Lebanese objected when he was setting up his studio in 2014, the 40-year-old yoga expert said.
“Around four to five years ago, members of the intelligence services visited the centre to see what was being taught,” Ghanem said, adding that there is less opposition to yoga now because of increased awareness.
Yoga to heal trauma, ‘teach optimism’
The United Nations recognised June 21 as International Yoga Day in 2014, signalling an increased interest in the ancient practice around the world.
This year, the UN announced the theme: “Yoga for wellbeing”. According to Soboh, the day is an opportunity to recognise the importance of the ancient practice.
Health experts and psychologists say yoga can be useful in healing conflict-related trauma.
“The asanas (yogic poses) help the body release adrenaline and dopamine after sustained practice,” said Fazeeha Ashkar, a 32-year-old yoga therapy teacher and Ayurvedic (ancient Indian medicine) doctor based in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Counselling psychologist Salony Priya, based in India’s Kolkata, believes yoga helps develop “learned optimism”, a concept developed by American psychologist and author Martin Selingman.
“It involves challenging negative thoughts. Breathing exercise and yoga postures help the body produce feel-good hormones,” Priya, 50, said.
In conflict-hit areas, there is helplessness, insecurity and trauma, she said.
“Meditation and breathing exercises help produce gamma waves in the brain, which lead to positivity and coping.”