When we came to do teacher trainings in the West Bank, offering a yoga class in the Bethlehem refugee camps was hastily arranged to give us some diversity in teaching experience and exposure to what has become a dominant part of the Palestinian’s modern history. Unlike the tented refugee camps I have seen in Kabul, these camps are part of the city with permanent buildings that were established as part of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The women’s class was held at Dheisheh camp in a large room with a worn Persian carpet and the promised yoga class grew from fifteen to forty women, as the word spread. Most of them had heard yoga was good for stress relief and relaxation but had never taken a class. The spectrum ranged from women in their sixties to a serious curly haired two year old who followed her mother along with every pose. The shoes and hijab came off and we started with warm ups as women started groaning and laughing about the pain in their shoulders, necks and lower back.
An hour and half later, they eagerly shared their experiences, their health concerns and asked when the next class was. Even Nahed, who set up the class for us, was surprised by the level of interest and spontaneously offered to teach one class a week.
With the success of the class at Dheisheh, Maha set up a class in a health clinic at Tulkarem refugee camp with invitations to psycho-social counselors at Nur Shams, a nearby camp. It was our first trip into the countryside filled with olive trees and terraced gardens in between several new Jewish settlements along the way. At Tulkarem, we were enthusiastically greeted by Bashar who had taken our men’s yoga training in Ramallah. He proudly gave us a tour of the clinic newly opened and funded by the United Arab Emirates. He asked if we could each teach a class at the same time so with a coin toss, Rama taught the men’s class including four doctors, a dentist and counselors. I taught a group of twenty-five collected by Tahani who had taken the women’t training. She brought many of her colleagues from Nur Shams – nurses, women’s health counselors as well as the woman director of the clinic. Everyone was in full dress so chair yoga it was, starting with breathing, joint work, a few standing poses and ending with lion’s pose. The women collapsed with laughter so no final meditation instead they put on Arabic music using a phone and a few began to dance. Afterwards, I found Rama holding court in a large office space with a captive audience of doctors and counselors extolling the therapeutic benefits of yoga on blood pressure, help balance the endocrine system, improve chronic lung conditions and the list went on. It had been a long day with only tea, juice and Arabic Twinkies to sustain us so we made our farewells and got back into a taxi for the two hour drive back to Bethlehem.
Maha told us later that once the word got out, she was fielding phone calls from five more refugee camps requesting for us to come and teach. What we were most struck by was the openness of the students and their great desire to improve their condition. When they heard yoga could help them with stress through relaxation, improve their health and even bring a sense of inner peace – everyone was at attention. It is perhaps those in the refugee camps that are experiencing the deepest sense of need in the midst of crowded and impoverished conditions with no apparent political resolution in sight.
Starting in Bethlehem when the class was done, I asked if anyone wanted to train to be a yoga teacher so that there could be regular yoga classes in the camps. A handful of people would step forward and say they wanted to learn yoga to be teachers.
We leave with a list of potential teachers and plans for future trainings – some might take place in the camps themselves. There is excitement building, everyone has taken a few steps forward and is focused on what is possible and sharing everything they can remember with their families. And Tahani and Bashar are now teaching breathing exercises to their clients!