Palestinian women looking for a sense of peace are taking up the ancient practice
- By JOSHUA MITNICK
In the village of Ni’lin, on the West Bank, the class began with Palestinian women sitting cross-legged in a darkened room of the local community center. They had shed their head scarves and hijab dresses, revealing shorts and sweatpants. Curtains were drawn over a window looking out on a nearby Israeli settlement. Men weren’t allowed, so I waited outside (and got details afterward from the participants).
The instructor started with breathing exercises intended to spur relaxation, detachment and spiritual harmony—a state of mind not normally associated with the chronic tensions of the Palestinian territories. “It gives you a sense of peace and teaches you how to reduce psychological pressure,” said Jaleela Khwaja, a 42-year-old yoga instructor who has been leading classes in Ni’lin for a year. “This is an important thing for Palestine.”
Tanya Habjouqa for the Wall Street Journal
More Palestinian women have embraced yoga as a way of coping with the stress of economic crises, political deadlock and conflict with Israel for control of the West Bank.
Yoga is largely unknown among the Palestinians. Over the past year, however, more women have embraced the regimen as a way of coping with the stress of economic crises, political deadlock and conflict with Israel for control of the West Bank.
A nonprofit yoga studio in the relatively cosmopolitan city of Ramallah—where the gyms used by Palestinian elites often feature yoga groups—is bringing the practice to villages like Ni’lin and to urban refugee camps. These areas are more culturally conservative and prone to clashes with Israelis.
“One of the reasons we started it is to create space that is not easy to find here,” said Maha Shawreb, the founder of the Farashe Yoga studio, which has trained some 16 instructors from around the West Bank to start women’s classes and introduce yoga clinics in schools. “You are closed off physically and have a lot of demands and restrictions.”
Palestinian students and instructors describe the benefits of the classes as part exercise and physical therapy, part spiritual meditation and part women’s empowerment.
“It gives us a feeling of disconnect from the external world,” said Zudiyeh Amira, a 50-year-old student of yoga in Ni’lin. “You forget about cooking and the needs of the house.”
Ms. Khwaja said that she has even resorted to yoga stretches to keep cool amid what she calls “provocations” by Israeli soldiers. “If they asked me to stop and stand at a checkpoint, they think it’s a kind of a punishment. But for me, it’s a chance to practice sports.”
Ni’lin is a sleepy farming hamlet that slopes down toward the Israeli border. For several years, weekly demonstrations have been held here against Israel’s West Bank separation barrier, which blocks access to village olive groves. As in most West Bank villages, women have little opportunity to engage in physical exercise beyond the work of the annual olive harvest, and there are few chances to socialize.
Ms. Khwaja said that she spread the word at wedding parties, prodding women to ask their husbands to foot the 15-shekel ($4.20) monthly fee.
“It wasn’t easy to have a women’s gathering in a conservative town, but we did it without provoking anyone,” said Shamiyeh Suruh, an instructor in Ni’lin, wearing a black hijab. “We said that women need to get out of their homes…. Many men thought this was Buddhist worship. At the beginning, they were annoyed,” she said, but now they don’t see it as a threat.
The West Bank isn’t the only distressed region where yoga has been introduced as a means to ease stress. The exercises have been used since 2007 among refugees in Ethiopia and rape victims in Rwanda as well.
Still, the Muslim world has given yoga a mixed reception. In Malaysia and Indonesia, religious councils have passed fatwas outlawing participation. In Iran and Lebanon, by contrast, the Indian practice has attracted a loyal following.
It took Hayat Abu R’maes, an instructor from the West Bank village of Zatara, near Bethlehem, several months to recruit a steady class. Women’s sports are virtually nonexistent there, and would-be participants were challenged by their families. “They were asked, ‘Why do you need this sport? And what is this sport about?’ ” said Ms. Abu R’maes.
In the West Bank, Palestinian instructors and students said that yoga reminds them of the prostration and meditation performed during Muslim prayer services. “When we pray, we go into deep prayer,” said Ms. Suruh. “We forget everything on the outside.”
But in some cases, the Ni’lin instructors have done the opposite, taking students to practice yoga on rocky hilltops overlooking Israeli settlements—less than a half mile from farmland cut off by Israel’s barrier. “I tell them, ‘We cannot reach our land,’ ” said Ms. Suruh, ” ‘but we can breathe the air from our trees behind the wall.’ ”
A version of this article appeared September 20, 2013, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: yoga’s repose on the west bank.