Not so concerned with secrets that the breeze at dawn holds these days. Instead Rumi’s messengers of pain are occupying my stiff and in-transition body and mind in the later-morning hours. Autumn has definitely arrived, which is always confusing for me but more so in a tropical climate surrounded by palm trees. It’s like a regular East Coast or Midwest summer – unpredictably hot with a chance of rain or hail. The breeze provides a refreshing break from the stale and unbearable dehydrated state of mind, but my allergies are signalling all sorts of irritants floating in the air and tickling all my delicate senses, especially my overly-responsive nose which just got a whiff of the garbage truck passing by causing a oratory and olfactory ruckus on this very Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah, the last of the celebratory season in Israel.
Truth be told, my senses are a bit dulled after my trip to North Africa. Travel is stimulating, exciting, and inspiring most of all, but coming back “home” is always slightly depressing. The change in seasons, the harvest, and the moon phases also all have their esoteric effects. The Mediterranean waves were huge yesterday, surfers catching their rad thrills; they look like a shiver of sharks from the perspective of my twilight run at Independence Park near the Hilton Hotel. A few short meters above offers a different view, like some low-budget horror flick from 1981. The water is all of a sudden too cold for me to swim in now, ironically the jellyfish no longer pose a threat like they did in July and August.
So we try to get back into yoga again – get a routine going. My body’s mountain air aches and pains are gone now. The effects of altitude sickness still linger, however, in the form of digestive imbalances.
A description of my physical and mental well being is in order before getting to the point, which is a yoga workshop I attended a few days ago aimed at tackling the issue of coexistence and peace in the Middle East between Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli women.
The connection between the human body and human relationships with other people has always been an interest of mine, and the revelation that through one’s own senses and limbs a person is able to relate to themselves thus connecting to others through social interactions. The sense of community is also a related theme that accompanies my solo yoga practice, every time I am on my mat. Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenon of Perception” being the nucleus of this faceted interest in ballet, yoga, movement, the release of endorphins in general and how they make me perceive the world with each and every stimulant being an experience that shapes who I am. With every down-dog is a whole new set of emotions, with every shoulder stand and sun salutation, I experience and relate to the person next to me in a different way. Through the knots and joints and pulled muscles, I tap into a psychologically deeper place, which causes my outside world to also be affected – mainly by I and Thou relationship(s).
So it’s obvious why a yoga workshop dedicated to the coexistence of Jewish-Israelis and Arab-Israelis in Israel – during a time of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the possibility of a war with Assad’s Syrian regime, post-coup revolutionary processes in the now, non-Muslim state of Egypt, and of course, the impending and apocalyptic doom of Iran’s nuclear program – is of interest to me. The aim of the workshop was to get the two religiously, culturally different groups of women to do yoga together and discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East with each other, specifically the way Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis interact on a daily basis in Israel proper. I have been trying to find an intriguing way to integrate yoga with conflict/community situations for some time now, because I think it can be a useful tool in empowering individuals – first on a personal, individual level, and then in the wider context of social relationships, community development, and finally the interactions in conflict-ridden zones of the world (intractable conflicts being the most socially fascinating because of the distinct and polarized narratives each side paints). So attending this workshop was essential but the first day of the four day experiment left me with a bitter, disappointed, and even-more cynical taste in my mouth for the promising combination of yoga and it’s effects on peace in the Middle East.
It’s not just because the Arab-Israelis that signed up for the workshop didn’t show, although I think that made a huge difference. But more so, it was because immediately after our first day’s work concluded, there was an Instagram post (a lovely photo of all 10 Jewish-Israeli female participants in a yoga pose) with a caption that read “Day 1 of ‘The Workshop‘ was a great success.” I cringed when I saw my name and my body representing the “great success” because since we didn’t have Arab-Israeli participants, wasn’t the entire project a failure?
Of course we discussed what could have been done to make the workshop more accessible to the absent group of women, for next time. The fact that it was in the middle of the day, in the middle of the urban, affluent, and non-Arab part of town in Tel Aviv were all valid points. So we discussed how to better bring “them” in next time. I suggested perhaps we focus on the yoga practice instead of the conflict in the beginning – just getting a bunch of women together from varying backgrounds to work on themselves, take some time for their personal bodies and minds together in a community of people that have a few very foundational things in common – being female and all calling these specific Middle East coordinates “home.” Let’s give the occupation and the conflict a rest and just focus on coexisting for a minute; maybe then we could get them to be more inclined to join “us” in a dialogue. This idea was shot down pretty quickly by one of the facilitators of the workshop: “Not discussing the conflict would be perpetuating the status-quo and encouraging the occupation,” she said. I didn’t take it personally but was exhausted by the superficial and disingenuous conversation that ensued. After all, how can you argue with big words like that?
I think the whole point of yoga was sorely missed in this workshop and the ancient practice of meditation and flow was used instead to promote an agenda that was admirable only on the surface. We were all given logo stickers, and t-shirts to wear during the yoga practice, which is fine, there is nothing wrong with good advertising and marketing; but, please, don’t cheapen the already worn-out, torn-up Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Don’t make it about holding hands and singing songs together without the other group even being present. Don’t deny the fact that yoga is a personal and community practice first, and don’t make acknowledging this fact a perception of “maintaining the occupation.”
The potential of movement and the human body to work out emotional and spiritual connections was not discussed – the mind-body connection was not really addressed in general. Using the body as a way to connect to other bodies and as a healing and empowerment tool through movement and through the joints was passed off as unimportant and irrelevant. The exquisite physical, emotional sensations varying poses can have on a woman was completely ignored.
Yoga has become – let’s face it – an expensive, privileged, white girl sport despite it’s humble, historic, and ancient beginnings, which all stem from a spiritual tradition within Hinduism, Buddhism and in India. And it’s true, I personally am guilty of utilizing the appropriated Western notion of this mental, physical and spiritual practice; but if yoga has taught me anything, it’s that as a human being I will always be learning and there is no better way to learn the world than to realize, on a daily basis through our trials and tribulations, how you shape it’s existence and how it shapes yours simultaneously.
I appreciate the effort and I am grateful for meeting people from the Israeli society that are both interested in yoga and in learning more about the conflict. Also, the actual yoga practice was creative and I enjoyed the energy of different and new teachers. At the end of the day dialogue is always a first step – so the workshop wasn’t a total failure. I’ll pay $25 for the conversation, the personal story that one Arab-Israeli facilitator shared with us, and a t-shirt, which we were obligated to buy in order to participate. Maybe in the future if they go together to a more culturally neutral area and make the workshop activities more in tune with their ambitious goals, I might give it another chance and join; however, the workshop left me a bit more cynical about the situation in general. The whole thing was like a deceptive ploy to promote specific teachers to make them seem more connected with human nature thus making them more marketable – using yoga and a decades-old conflict between real live human beings as a marketing tool.
I dunno, at the end of the day, yoga is yoga and war sucks, but the question “can’t we all just get along?” accompanied by a laugh track and uttered for the sheer sake of seemingly deceptive sincerity rubs me the wrong way. But it does reinforce the notion that ambitious goals are often just that. I prefer to get back to basics and just do yoga with people and create an accepting community without forcing any particular dialogue or agenda down anyone’s throat.