Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza – In a small hall with soothing music in the background, women close their eyes and imagine they are somewhere more reassuring than Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp. Women who have lost their homes and livelihoods to war breathe away their tensions, their exhausted bodies moving softly and uniformly.
In a year that saw a third Israeli war on Gaza in six years, the physical and emotional health impacts on residents of the coastal enclave have been dramatic. Add to this eight years of a crippling siege, and residents’ levels of stress, anxiety and depression have surged.
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Sarah al-Hafi, 44, who lost her modest house in the 51-day war, could not hold back tears as she described the fallout for her family: “We’re now eight family members living in the only room that remains from our destroyed house. I have diabetes, high blood pressure, infections in the chest.” Her family has also suffered from breathing problems associated with living in a destroyed house, surrounded by remnants of explosives and dust, she said.
INTERACTIVE: Portrait of a yogi
In Gaza, where Palestinians have been under siege since 2007, health institutions and trained foreign psychiatrists have been teaching residents techniques to reduce anger, ease family tensions and regain a sense of control over their lives – including yoga.
“I was struck by the eagerness of so many people to learn about meditation, relaxation techniques, visualisation and yoga to reduce stress,” Ned Rosch, a certified yoga teacher from the United States, told Al Jazeera. In close collaboration with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and the Centre for Mind-Body Medicine’s Gaza Project, he has facilitated a series of experiential stress reduction workshops.
I was struck by the eagerness of so many people to learn about meditation, relaxation techniques, visualisation and yoga to reduce stress.
Mariam Shaqqoura, the director of a local women’s health centre, cited a large turnout after Rosch’s visit. “We teach women yoga practices to help them break their boundaries and take their stress out, and it’s not only a psychological therapy; it also helps them deal with their physical pain,” Shaqqoura told Al Jazeera
Hafi, who has attended a couple of yoga sessions, said the practice has brought hope and relaxation back into her life.
“A while ago, I preferred to stay isolated from people and [was] getting angry at my children on a daily basis, seeing nothing but the darkness of life,” she told Al Jazeera. “Now, I can’t wait to attend the next yoga class and dive into my calm world, imagining a bright life where me and my husband are rebuilding our house and bringing whatever our children are wishing for.”
Rosch said the practise of yoga can be “exceptionally cathartic” for women who have lived through traumatic experiences.
“Virtually everyone had a story that broke my heart, and each of them revealed to me another layer of what it’s like to seek to live in Gaza, striving for some semblance of dignity in spite of a suffocating siege, tens of thousands of bombs, and a world that seems immobilised to hold Israel accountable,” he said.
Sahar, a 49-year-old cancer patient who lived through the war, had one of those stories. She recalled visiting al-Shifa hospital this summer for a chemotherapy dose. While she was there, she encountered a mother screaming for her lost son. The mother had been convinced her son had taken shelter at the hospital, but while there, she found out that two of her boys had been killed in an Israeli attack. “I can never forget her face when she found out about her loss,” Sahar, who did not provide a last name, told Al Jazeera.
Stress-reduction classes have helped make her “more calm” and positive, Sahar added.
During Rosch’s first workshop in Gaza, he told participants to visualise a beautiful place they could share with their families and loved ones.
“When I asked what that place looked and felt like, the most common response was that it was hard to push out of the way the horror of the summer,” Rosch noted.
Sahar said she tried to imagine herself in a beautiful, green garden of a small house. “Only me, sitting there alone in complete tranquillity with nothing to think about – it’s just a feeling that makes me happy and boosts my mood,” she said.
These types of stress-reduction techniques can assist with the management of perceived stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue, while reducing the risk of factors for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high blood pressure, experts say. Physiotherapist Maha al-Shamy, 42, told Al Jazeera that many diseases can be caused or worsened by deteriorating psychological health.
In addition to yoga, the Future Magic Centre in Gaza uses a variety of other techniques to address women’s psychological health, including bio-energy therapy, therapeutic massage, colour therapy and aromatherapy.
“War and psychological tension and fear affect the muscles of the body negatively, making the person in need of physical treatment that we provide through our bio-energy therapy,” Mohammed Abu Rjeila, the centre’s manager, told Al Jazeera, noting that psychological distress can manifest more clearly in women. “We balance the body, the mind and the soul… If you take care of the woman, you take care of the whole society.”