“We thought it was a Buddhist practice of just sitting still and saying ‘om’,” said one woman, at the start of the first-ever yoga teacher training in Palestine’s West Bank. A lack of yoga teachers, and a social stigma from the confused belief that the practice had something to do with a foreign religion, meant that until recently not many Palestinians had had exposure to yoga or meditation. But in 2010 Farashe opened, a volunteer-based nonprofit community yoga centre in Ramallah that focuses on outreach.
In 2012 and 2013, Farashe was boosted when Washington DC-based nonprofit Anahata International ran teacher training for Palestinian women to take the self-care techniques into their communities on the West Bank. With training from Farashe and others, over the last three years, about 80 men and women have become yoga teachers. Today, yoga-based practices are integrated into community centres and gyms, not only among the elite of cosmopolitan Ramallah, but also in the small villages. It’s used in health clinics in crowded refugee camps, and in classes at small private studios led by new teachers trained by international volunteers. “It’s grown in popularity because of social media,” says Nahed Bandak, who has been teaching yoga for 10 years and has seen classes increase from a handful of students to full capacity in recent years.
“People are reading and seeking alternatives to ease what they’re suffering. They want comfort. When they read and see reviews, they want to try yoga too.” The growing popularity of yoga was not without resistance in more conservative areas, with some seeing the practice as being part of Buddhism or Hinduism. But over and over, new teachers who are practicing Muslims came to the conclusion that yoga postures helped them with their own prayers.
During training they spoke about the similarity between the bowing and kneeling in both practices and found themselves more supple for the five-times daily prayers. Many said they also benefited from the focus and stillness of the meditative aspect of yoga, connecting more with the intention and sentiment of their prayers.