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.”
Maha Shawreb, an Arab American raised California, co-founded Ramallah’s all-volunteer yoga center, Farashe Yoga, in 2010 because there was a real desire for a space for women to keep healthy and find peace despite their circumstances.
Shawreb said the recent teacher training program was especially important in a place such as Palestine where there is little in the way of safe recreational parks because of the political situation. “When one of the women said to me that during the training that she’d been sleeping better because she doesn’t have the same anxiety, my heart swelled,” said Shawreb, 34, who previously worked in the District in international development and starting studying yoga in the city before she was posted to the West Bank for work.
“Yoga can’t solve all their problems, but hopefully it can serve as a reprieve,” said Shawreb, who now teaches yoga full time. Additionally, “the students can bring yoga to their villages and neighborhoods.”
The group paid for the Ramallah trip by holding yoga classes in Washington where donations were collected for the project. More money was raised at September’s D.C. Global Mala event, a day-long fundraiser where yoga teachers led 108 salutations to the sun and gave the proceeds to a number of causes. Area studios pitched in, as well: Flow Yoga in Logan Circle hosted community yoga classes to raise money, and Lil Omm Yoga in Palisades donated prenatal yoga training manuals.
Aside from language differences, there were specific challenges to teaching yoga in the West Bank. In Washington, the challenge is getting people off their electronic devices long enough for a class, Parell said; in the West Bank, it’s more about convincing women to leave their homes and children long enough. In Washington, people tend to want “gym yoga” — yoga that’s stripped of its religious content and more about cardio than the search for inner peace. In Ramallah, the curriculum was closer to the yoga practiced in India. While the students enjoyed the more rigorous poses, they said the mindful breathing technique known as pranayama and the sleeplike meditative state known as yoga nidra were the most practical.
“One woman told me that when tear gas is fired, her children are so terrified that they stop breathing,” said Parell, who served as deputy director of communications for the United Nations Foundation before becoming a full-time yoga teacher in 2010. “She thought yoga’s breathing practice could help them.”
Nahad Banbak, a mother of four, said the training inspired her to try to open a yoga studio in Bethlehem. “I hope I will increase my society’s awareness of yoga,” Banbak said. “I’m just full of thanks and gratitude.”