It is a tremendous honor to be the recipient of "Yoga Article of the Year 2015" for my article on sharing yoga with Syrian communities. Thank you to Seattle Yoga News for recognizing this work and for sharing it with the broader yoga community.
The true recipients of the award are the courageous Syrians that I had the opportunity to work with in offering yoga. Their lives have been uprooted physically and polarized politically, and they have suffered immeasurable loss. They faced their grief and life’s uncertainty with love, humor, and an unstoppable drive to support one another – the foundation for collective healing.
Endless gratitude to everyone who has been part of this project – I look forward to building on the momentum with you to continue offering yoga to more Syrians and other communities impacted by conflict.
Read the original article on the Seattle Yoga News website.
This is the first #sevasaturday post –check out the past post discussing seva from Nov. 21, 2015.
Last spring I was fortunate to have had an opportunity to volunteer with a Syrian organization and offer yoga to Syrians who had sought safety in Turkey (here’s an article about the project). Back home in Seattle, I’ve explored ways to continue supporting Syrian communities. Friends and colleagues have asked for information on how they can help too. Here are a few ways that I’ve found to be active in supporting Syrians.
1. Donate funds to grassroots organizations promoting peace
Several inspiring Syrian organizations are building a brighter future in their country by promoting civil society, human rights, and peace initiatives. Three great places to donate funds:
Winter is coming and refugee camps will be cold in Europe and the Middle East. Children need hats and sweaters to keep warm in the camps. Syrian women are also in need of reusable menstrual pads. A Seattle-based organization is coordinating the delivery of these items – see the post by the Salaam Cultural Museum.
3. Make your voice heard in supporting Syrian refugees
Sadly, in the wake of the attacks in Paris, many politicians and individuals are attempting to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. This response is based in fear and collectively punishes people who are fleeing the same violent groups that carried out those attacks. Here are a few ways to promote compassion:
4. Be a volunteer in programs for Syrian refugees in your community
The International Rescue Committee has offices and networks throughout the US that facilitate refugee resettlement. Check out their Volunteer Page to find opportunities to welcome Syrians locally.
Google other local organizations in your community. For example, World Relief in Seattle is gathering supplies to furnish homes for refugees, recruit English tutors, and organize events.
Seattle Yoga News Article: A yogini’s perspective on the tragic events in Paris, Beirut and so many others in our hearts
This article was originally published by Seattle Yoga News on November 16, 2015.
A week of tragic events has reminded people around the world that life is incredibly fragile. Senseless acts of violence have stolen hundreds of lives across Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Aleppo – the list of affected communities is long. As I reached out to friends in ensuring their loved ones were safe, my heart grew heavy as the news became increasingly tragic with each day. Then I remembered that yoga offers us a powerful framework for moving forward in the wake of tragedy – shraddha.
The concept of shraddha
Shraddha is Sanskrit for faith, a trust, or certainty of confidence. The Yoga Sutra-s introduce the meaning of shraddha in the first chapter. Sutra 1.20 reads “sraddha virya smrti samadhiprajna purvakah itaresam”. My teacher T. K. V. Desikachar interprets this sutra as: “Through faith, which will give sufficient energy to achieve success against all odds, direction will be maintained. The realization of the goal of Yoga is a matter of time” .
Shraddha is the foundation of one’s yoga practice. It is not a religious concept or a blind faith in life, but instead an internal faith based on one’s life experiences. Mr. Desikachar describes it as an unshakable conviction and the “energy which will hold us on the right track” .
The origins of shraddha further elucidate the word’s meaning. It is derived from two words: “shradh”, which means “remembering our ancestors with gratitude”; and “dha”, which means “to hold” or “to sustain”. In yoga, cultivating shraddha is paying gratitude to those who passed away and honoring the knowledge that they shared . This knowledge and our gratitude keeps us on the path of yoga. It sustains us through even the darkest of times, such as when we start to doubt ourselves or the world around us.
Shraddha and recent tragedies
Whether or not we have been personally affected by the recent attacks, the pain of others feels raw and our sense of security has been shaken. Fear has become a dominant reaction in many circles and across social media outlets. This fear is dangerous. It narrows our view of the world. For example, in light of current events, this fear may follow a trend of wrongly blaming Islam and followers of Islam.
Practicing yoga implies that we approach the world from a place of clarity and love, not fear. We cannot practice or teach yoga from a place of fear. Fear paralyzes us from following the path of yoga, from having compassion with all beings, and from extending kindness into the world.
Shraddha is the opposite of fear. It is faith in ourselves that we can rise above pervasive violence and widespread fear. It is a conviction that affirms our humanity with one another – regardless of where we live or what religion we may practice. As Mr. Desikachar explains, “Faith is the conviction that we have a force in our heart which will protect us in difficult times and helps us to see the positive aspects” . Shraddha empowers us to connect with our inner strengths and the resilience needed for healing.
Yoga gives us an opportunity to cultivate a stronger sense of shraddha, which enables us to move through emotions so we don’t get stuck in cycles of negativity.
Where does one find shraddha? In the heart, the place of our deepest awareness. Shraddha is a light within our hearts that casts away fear. As with all concepts in yoga, it starts within ourselves and extends to others. Fostering shraddha enables us to listen, speak, and act from the heart.
How does one cultivate shraddha? By practicing yoga regularly. There is always an opportunity to cultivate shraddha – especially when we are working through emotions after violent events. Below are a few ideas for focusing on shraddha in the wake of tragedy.
Try one or all of the above ideas in a single practice – and share other ways that you bring faith and healing into your practice.
The ancient yoga texts emphasize that we each have a greater consciousness that shines like a light inside our hearts. That light connects us with one another. Fear prevents that light from shining. Shraddha makes it an unstoppable force of love. In times of tragedy it is even more important that we focus on the light within, because, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
A simple practice to cultivate shraddha
This practice uses the mantra “Om Shraddhaya Namah”. Om is the Sanskrit syllable that embodies all other sounds in the universe. Namah means to “to praise”. Thus, this mantra is giving praise to shraddha.
1. Sit in any comfortable position, such as in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Or you can sit on a blanket on the ground.
2. Close your eyes or set your gaze on the ground in front of you. Take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose.
3. Place your hands over your heart, with the palms facing down and one hand over the other.
4. Inhale: Silently recite “Om” while you stretch your arms out to the sides, palms facing to the front.
5. Exhale: Softly say “Shraddhaya Namah” while you bring your hands back over your heart. You can also say the phrase silently.
6. Repeat steps four and five 8 – 12 times.
7. Rest your hands in your lap and let your breath flow at a natural pace. When you are ready, slowly open your eyes.
References and Notes
1. Desikachar, T. K. V. (1999). The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Published by Inner Traditions, 244 pages.
2. Desikachar, T. K. V. (2001). What are we seeking? Published by Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, 176 pages.
3. There is a specific practice called “Shraaddha” in Hinduism that entails honoring ones parents after they pass away. In the Yoga Sutra-s, Shraddha is not linked with any religion but instead one’s beliefs and practices.
This article was originally featured on Seattle Yoga News, May 27, 2015.
I spent this spring sharing yoga with Syrians seeking safety and refuge in southeast Turkey. I arrived well versed on the four-year Syrian crisis, prepared to teach yoga in Arabic and ready to be of service to people as they healed the wounds of conflict. When I arrived, the crisis was entering its fifth year and more than 220,000 Syrians had lost their lives. The news was always grim.
Grief, distress and heartache were omnipresent when I arrived. But the most tangible sentiment I perceived was the sense of support and community that the Syrians brought to each yoga session. After only a few weeks of sharing yoga in local organizations, it became clear that their social spirit was their strongest source for healing. Yoga became a unique opportunity for them to connect with each other as they coped with distress from the crisis.
Life in Turkey
The Syrians who participated in my yoga classes had all endured immeasurable loss and survived harrowing circumstances. Many had watched in terror as their towns had been bombed or raided while their loved ones were imprisoned, executed or abducted. Many had fled after being targeted by the Syrian regime or extremist groups such as Daesh (the Arabic name for the Islamic State). The crisis disrupted all aspects of their lives; they were forced to postpone marriages, close family businesses and withdraw from university studies. The crisis unraveled the social fabric of everyday life; families were torn apart and communities were polarized by new religious and ethnic lines. One participant shared that her husband was en route to seek asylum in another country — a dangerous journey — and she had not heard from him in one month.
Unfortunately, life in Turkey did not guarantee safety or hope for the future. Many people concealed their identities by taking on new official names and using pseudonyms in public. A large proportion of the 1.8 million Syrian refugees in Turkey currently live in camps that offer basic levels of shelter, food and healthcare. The majority of people I met, however, lived in urban areas without access to even these basic resources. Even within this context, people warmly welcomed me into their organizations and homes to share yoga.
Yoga for Syrians
A growing number of humanitarian agencies are discussing the need for conflict and post-conflict programs to incorporate ‘psychosocial services’ – a broad term used to encompass a range of activities that increase emotional resilience. In this case, Syrian health and civil society nonprofits were receptive to yoga as a psychosocial activity that promotes relaxation techniques. I collaborated with organizational representatives to discuss the context of classes, give presentations on the psychosocial benefits of yoga and schedule classes.
Within this framework, I taught one to two yoga classes each day, each one lasting anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. I offered daily classes to employees in a civil society organization, and periodic classes at youth schools and women’s clubs. Adult classes typically included four to ten participants per class whereas the classes in schools ranged from 20 to 50 students. The sequences consisted of breathing practices, guided relaxation and simple poses that could be done wearing normal attire. Over the course of a few weeks, I introduced participants to home practices and provided handouts in Arabic. Handouts for adults were short relaxation practices to address the most common ailments reported: back pain and difficulty sleeping. Children received copies of breathing practices (with a fun twist) that we did during class.
Classes were positively received across organizations. Nonprofit employees reported better concentration in their offices after lunchtime yoga sessions. School teachers expressed amazement at how effectively the children learned to focus on their breath, and they enthusiastically asked for resources to continue yoga activities. Children shared that they not only enjoyed the take-home practices, but also shared them with siblings. Women described a weight being lifted from their chests when they completed breathing practices before bed.
However, there were moments in several classes when the grief was so palpable that I had to pause and take a few deep breaths to ground myself while teaching. This sorrow was particularly salient when I was teaching a women’s group whose children had been abducted by Daesh. The walls where we practiced yoga were laminated with photos of smiling children, their names and ages inscribed at the bottom of each image. Their mothers were all from the same town and it was unlikely any of them would ever see their beloved children again.
The feeling that was more substantial than grief was the social spirit that the Syrians brought into every yoga session. During classes, people would affectionately joke with one another about the challenges of the new activity. They playfully debated if yoga could cure conditions such as a smoker’s cough. After classes, participants were eager to keep spending time together. Women served cake and tea as they caught up on news about each other’s families and quizzed me enthusiastically about my family plans. Nonprofit workers organized post-yoga luncheons and city excursions where we discussed yoga philosophy. At the conclusion of their classes, children sang and performed dabke, an Arab tradition that consists of holding hands and dancing in a circle. The solace and joy they created and found in each other’s company was unmistakable.
Community and Collective Healing
Syrians in Turkey are seeking at least two avenues for healing. First, they are searching for ways to cope with their individual experiences of violence and loss. Second, they are processing a collective memory of painful events and injustices — all while striving to build new communities.
Syrians are actively building support networks that reinforce the significance of collective healing after a collective trauma. In fact, a growing body of research on collective trauma emphasizes that psychological outcomes are more closely linked to social support than with an individual’s history of direct exposure to events like violence or torture. The World Health Organization even recommends large-scale programs to promote healing from trauma as a necessity to prevent further violence, and as a prerequisite to post-conflict reconciliation.
Integrating yoga into programs for survivors of collective trauma is a relatively new type of intervention. In the U.S., the majority of trauma related programs (yoga and non-yoga) are modeled after a biomedical framework focused on the individual’s experience. The Syrians taught me the importance of moving beyond this structure so that yoga also fosters collective healing. In each of the settings where I taught, it was important to ensure yoga was part of and contributed to existing support mechanisms. Yoga simply represented an opportunity for a social activity that led to community discussion and goal setting.
The social spirit that Syrians brought to our yoga sessions created an environment that nurtured resilience and healing — for them, and for their communities. Their sense of togetherness reminded me of a quote by my teacher, Mr. T. K. V. Desikachar, on the topic of faith and healing: “…the energy of togetherness is much more than the sum of individual energies” .
I hope that all of my future yoga classes vibrate with such a strong sense of togetherness, from Syria to my new home in Seattle.
 Desikachar, T. K. V. and Martyn Neal (2001). What are we seeking? Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai, India.
It is a tremendous honor that my article on sharing yoga with Syrians won "Yoga Article of the Year" in Seattle Yoga News. Endless gratitude to everyone who was part of and supported this inspiring project.