Yoga with Syrian Refugees

Since January, with renewed inspiration from the 2016 Rikhia peeth yajnas, I have been offering my seva in Bekaa valley, Lebanon, where 800,000 Syrian refugees live in informal camps. The work involves making tent-to-tent visits around the refugee settlements; packing and distributing stoves, mattresses, clothes, food and fuel to those in need; and teaching the children – mainly English, but also a bit of yoga.

Last week I launched yoga classes for a group of ten young refugee women, ranging in age from 13 to 45. It was wonderful to see them relax into the simple practices, let go of the tensions they hold in their shoulders and bellies, breathe a little deeper. In the chats after the classes, they tell me about their stress and insomnia and the muscle pains caused by the hard physical labour they do. Girls from the age of 12 have no access to schooling. Even the teenagers in the yoga group work back-breaking 13 hours planting and harvesting potatoes during the farming season; for this they get paid 4 dollars a day.

In our yoga session, the girls are focused and eager to learn, though sometimes one or another of the postures makes them giggle. The second time we meet, I ask if any of them would like to learn English in addition to yoga; all hands shoot up. One of the young women in the group was studying mechanical engineering in Syria, but has no way to continue her education here in Lebanon for lack of English skills. These girls and thousands of children and youngsters like them, all growing up in refugee camps, need training and opportunities. Otherwise they will be a lost generation.

Serve, love, give

Extreme circumstances bring out the worst in people – but also the best. Witnessing the generosity of those who themselves have next to nothing has been one of the most poignant experiences here in Bekaa valley. I have been offered tea and even lunch in the tents of refugees with only one pair of flimsy shoes to their name. One man keeps a few chickens behind his shack and gives the eggs from his hens to neighbours when they fall ill. The same man grows roses, a thousand at a time in a tiny greenhouse, to make the world more beautiful.

Jignasu Mantramala, Finland