Sometimes violence can be breathtaking. That’s literally true for those living in the conflict-ridden West Bank city of Ramallah, where tear gas can cloud daily life during political protests and breathing in and out isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Which is why two longtime D.C. yoga teachers say they traveled to the area at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last month to give an eight-day training course for yoga teachers at Farashe Yoga, a nonprofit community yoga center in Ramallah.
The training is the first of its kind in the West Bank. The 15 women who participated — several of whom came on buses from surrounding villages for the nine-hours-a-day classes — say they hope to take what they learned about yoga’s deep breathing and stress-relieving postures to schools, community centers and refugee camps.
The teachers work with Anahata Grace, a D.C. nonprofit that brings yoga to populations in need. That program was administered by Angela Cerkevich, a full-time yoga instructor and doctoral student in George Washington University’s Department of Professional Psychology. This time, Cerkevich teamed with another local yoga teacher, Shawn Parell, to teach the West Bank classes. They used two Arabic translators, explaining the terms and poses on a white board in English, Arabic and Sanskrit. The sessions were held in Farashe’s tranquil second-story studio. It’s decorated with a butterfly motif and white linen curtains, but it overlooks the snarled traffic and overflowing sidewalks of downtown Ramallah.
“Our mission is to bring yoga to vulnerable communities where physical movements are very restricted — with checkpoints and outbursts of violence — and where daily stress levels are very high,” said Parell, 28, who is also the director of programs for Anahata Grace. The organization was founded in 2007 and that year, the group launched a similar training program for genocide survivors in Rwanda. Since then, the organization has facilitated yoga programs for veterans and for homeless teenage mothers.
All of this may not be as idealistic as it sounds: The U.S. Army and many other militaries across the globe now offer yoga as a means of preventing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The ancient mind-body practice has long been used in its native India to remedy everything from depression to insomnia to infertility. Hundreds of Indians attended a massive yoga class in the seaside city of Mumbai after the 2008 terrorist attacks.
In the era of the $98 yoga hoodie, the practice’s spiritual side is often overlooked.
“Many teachers of yoga consider selfless service or ‘seva’ to be an essential element of a comprehensive yoga practice,” said Richard Karpel, president and chief executive of Yoga Alliance, an Arlington-based organization whose mission is to educate and support yoga in the United States. “So, it’s gratifying to see that more service programs like the West Bank teacher training and nonprofits like Anahata Grace are popping up around the country.”