Robyn Long with Josie Shagwert*
This post is based on my experience sharing yoga with Syrians who have sought safety and refuge in Turkey. In Gaziantep and Şanliurfa, two cities now home to approximately 500,000 Syrians each, I taught yoga classes for civil society groups, women’s clubs, and schools in the spring of 2015. I am honored that my co-author Josie Shagwert has contributed her insight on the experiences of community development and life in exile as a member of a civil society organization promoting peace and democracy in Syria.
Yoga is a mindful activity that supports the interrelated physical, social, and emotional needs of people who have experienced traumatic events, such as war, displacement, and resettlement. Yoga practices offer survivors of such events an opportunity to experience relaxation and a sense of peace within themselves. Also, through yoga, participants have an opportunity to learn tools, such as breathing practices, which they can draw upon to address post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as an accelerated heartbeat or difficulty sleeping.
Our experience in yoga programs for Syrians displaced by war offers insight and lessons for future programs and instructors in similar contexts. Namely, in communities displaced by conflict and violence, yoga programs focused on healing must be linked with existing networks and culturally-rooted practices. These networks and practices, formal and informal, are powerful resources for support and provide a sense of normalcy as people adjust to life in a new country.
In yoga programs tailored for survivors of trauma and grief, teachers often discuss the art of “holding space” for participants. The concept of holding space spans the physical setting (e.g., how to arrange the yoga mats) to the emotional environment (e.g., how we foster a compassionate, stable, and non-judgmental atmosphere for participants to work through their experiences). The emphasis in these contexts is usually on the individual. For example, an instructor may provide ten minutes at the end of a class for relaxation, perhaps with a guided visualization or breathing practice. Afterwards, the teacher would be available for participants to discuss any emotions that surfaced or their experiences during the practice.
When offering yoga to communities displaced by war, our recent experience suggests that yoga instructors should shift their focus of holding space from the individual to the group level. In fact, we found that it was critical for the instructor to be part of and contribute to the collective space that communities had already created. This sometimes meant discarding static notions of the “best” ways to practice in favor of adapting to the local atmosphere and practices, including making space for conversation and comments during class and doing traditional dances afterward. By adapting in these ways, both the instructor and the yoga experience gain more traction, trust and legitimacy in these settings – and thus are able to more fully contribute to healing for the participants.
Yoga for Syrian communities in exile
Syrians who have sought safety in Turkey face an array of daily challenges. Turkey is host to the largest number of Syrian refugees, with nearly 1.8 million registered in the country . Many of the refugees live in camps that provide at least basic levels of food, shelter, and healthcare. Many, however, live outside of the camps and lack access to healthcare, stable shelter, employment, etc. Very few speak the local language fluently and nearly everyone has to adapt to new living arrangements and assume increased family responsibilities. Each person has a harrowing story of escape and has lost or been separated from loved ones. People are simultaneously building a new community while striving to promote stability in their homeland. In this context, they have formed support networks in everyday environments such as work, school, and informal social settings.
To promote the wellbeing of Syrians in this context, we offered yoga in a range of group settings, such as the workplace, women’s clubs, and schools. Yoga was welcomed by multiple groups as an activity for people to learn skills for relaxation and healing. Several basic considerations were taken into account when designing the classes:
1. Integrate traditional social activities into yoga
Social activities are a critical aspect of community building in Syrian culture. For example, after a club meeting, women typically converse over tea and snacks. In a school setting, children often sing and perform dabke, an Arab tradition that consists in dancing in a circle while holding hands. These collective activities are particularly important for Syrians displaced by war because they promote a sense of solace as a familiar activity from home.
Creating time for social activities after yoga provides a grounding activity for participants after individual relaxation and reflection. In our experience, the activities happened organically and they brought participants together to support one another – which was beneficial as new emotions can surface during or after yoga. It was also during these activities that participants expressed the impact yoga had for them. For example, it was in a circle while dancing dabke that girls at school remarked on how yoga made them feel energized, relaxed, or “free to breathe”.
2. Remain flexible to the time and needs of organizations
Yoga that takes place in a setting provided by an existing organization must be flexible to the needs and drive of the members of those groups. For example, Syrians working in the civil society sector are undertaking critical work for the future of their country. They are building alliances to promote democratic decision-making and leveraging resources to foster peace building. As they tirelessly work around the clock, they balance ongoing concerns for the future of their families and communities.
Ensuring that yoga programs are accessible in such contexts requires that an instructor is flexible to the participants’ schedules. For example, we found that workers from one such organization were hesitant to take 60 or 30 minutes for yoga in the days preceding a large conference. People were more willing to take 15 – 20 minute for class, especially if built in as part of the lunch break. It could be easy for a yoga instructor to insist that participants need the usual class length for maximum benefits. Instead, it was important to recognize that their drive to work extensive hours is part of their emotional support; for many in the civil society field their work fuels a sense of hope for the future. In this context, flexible yoga class schedules, including abridged ones, were welcomed as an invitation for relaxation and chance to refuel in a timeline that would not add an psychological burden (e.g., the stress of losing too much time from work that fuels a sense of well-being).
3. Promote individual practices at home
In all settings, it was important to provide participants with simple take-home practices. For example, we offered civil society workers handouts that included a ten-minute practice consisting of a few poses to relieve back pain and a breathing exercise. The purpose was to provide a resource for people to develop enhanced relaxation skills. We also found that some participants were shy to fully practice poses in a group setting, even in gender-specific classes. They did, however, report practicing at home and would seek guidance on how to modify or develop their practice further. Similarly, children were enthusiastic to have yoga homework assignments to share with siblings.
4. Welcome conversations – and laughter – during and after yoga class
The greatest lesson learned, perhaps, is that laughter is a secret weapon and is a welcomed part of yoga. In a group’s first few classes, participants periodically joked with one another about the challenges of learning a new activity. Sometimes they affectionately teased or challenged one another, and at other times remarked on their own abilities. As a yoga teacher, it was important to welcome their collective energy and compassionately respond and be part of the conversation. In fact, it was in the brief moments when we caught our breath between jokes that someone shared their emotions or reflected on how yoga helped them relax.
The social spirit of practicing as a community
Although the concept and practice of yoga was new to most of those who participated in classes with us, they demonstrated a willingness to try it and, in many cases, embraced it. We feel that this openness was partially due to Syrian people’s own resilience and partially to the introduction of yoga through trusted existing groups. Syrians within and outside their country regularly demonstrate incredible resilience, meaning that they positively adapt despite circumstances of adversity. Although most Syrians have endured immeasurable loss, the people that we shared yoga with had an incredible ability to laugh and appreciate the moment at hand, an approach that aligns with the philosophies that underpin yoga. The spontaneity and social spirit the participants brought to practice opened space for a deeper experience for all. We feel that because the programs were adapted to local approaches, it will have a more lasting effect as a practice that participants are more likely to turn to for healing in the future. In this context, giving hand-outs with visuals that explain postures for at-home practice becomes even more important. While yoga has a profound role in promoting individual healing, practicing as a community is what keeps alive our humanity and links us together in support of one another – a lesson that we were reminded of in this experience.
* Josie Shagwert is the Director for Development at the Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSD) in Syria.
 Syrian refugees, five years into the crisis, Lebanese American University. April 16, 2015.
Top image in article: women in a community class, Photo © 2015 Robyn B. Long
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.