Freedom on the Mat offers insights not just into the complex nature of intrenched conflict, but also into the nuanced ways reconciliation and reconstruction can be sparked, from the insight out. Using yoga as a lens on life, the documentary maker, Muireann De Barra, weaves listeners through the lives of the women trainee yoga teachers she meets along the way. We encounter their skepticism, fear, resistance and ultimately their resilience. The documentary touches important and powerful questions too, particularly on the role of external aid intervention and the validity of overseas peace agencies entering into Palestine with preordained solutions. While listeners may not be convinced of their approach, they will be offered a more intimate view of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, and perhaps they too will be inspired to step onto their own mat to see what transformation yoga may catalyse from within. This is a different breed of documentary for a different approach to resolution.
– Clare Mulvany, Yoga Teacher and social entrepreneur, Dublin.
“Take a deep breath in” before you get to know the characters of ‘Freedom on the Mat’, Muireann de Barra’s forthcoming radio documentary about yoga in Palestine. Refreshingly, this original forty-five minute audio journey, does not focus on violence and destruction, on Hamas, militancy and tunnels. Instead, de Barra takes the listener to another Palestine — a Palestine where individuals develop creative solutions to daily problems and celebrate life. Accompanied by Palestinian-American translator, Lubna Takruri, the listener arrives at Farashe (Butterfly), a yoga centre located in the center of Ramallah, and later travel to Nillin, Far’a Refugee Camp and Nablus to visit local women and their families.
Farashe is a non-profit and voluntary run organisation training Palestinian women to become yoga teachers. Globally popularized and in vogue, particularly in the United States and Europe, yoga at Farashe is both an international and shared experience. As we enter the centre, we meet the three American teachers, Lainey Sadick, Angela Cerkevich, and Shawn Parrell. Invited by Farashe, they work with Anahata International, a voluntary yoga organization based in Washington DC. We also meet local women ranging in age from their 20s to 50s. With the help of Lubna, who translates from Arabic to English and the other way around, the sixteen women, who gather at the centre, learn the foundations of yoga and develop their practice by learning new poses.
Among the local women on the training course are Jalela Khawaja, Ibtisam Anseme, Mirna Alkhuffash-Alhendi, and Basma (no surname). Jalela, who lives near the Green Line in the village of Nillin, tells us about “the wall.” This eight meter high divide separates “us” and “them,” the Palestinians and Israelis, creating a spatial segregation and confinement that restricts the Palestinians’ ability to travel; the wall’s height weighs heavily on their physical bodies, psyche, and spirit. Basma, a former advisor on women’s affairs to the Palestinian Authority, explains how yoga fits in the current socio-political context and provides Palestinian women with “an opportunity, the chance… to do something for themselves, because they always, as women… are too much involved in doing things for others.” Ibtisam, a psycho-social counselor at Far’a Refugee Camp, and Mirna, who lives in Nablus and teaches yoga at local schools, tell us about yoga’s potential in ensuring personal and communal well-being. According to Mirna, among the Palestinians – children, women, and men living under occupation – the physical, spiritual, and mental discipline of yoga offers a psychological release, and leads to a reduction of intra-family abuse and personal spiritual growth.
Maha, an American living in the Palestinian West Bank and co-founder of Farashe, notes that here, in Palestine, because of its healing and empowering potential, yoga is in high demand. Achieving an individual’s transformation – becoming a butterfly – requires more Arabic speaking yoga teachers, to guide this process. Training these teachers is Farashe’s main goal. These future and current teachers come to the centre and return to the Palestinian towns and villages daily, despite checkpoints, long rides on buses, and the often-degrading treatment by the Israeli military. Why? Because Farashe is a place where they empower each other to create social transformation through an individual, therapeutic one. “We do not impose beliefs or ideas on anyone. Come, practice yoga, and believe whatever you want to believe,” says Basma.
Yoga, as a therapeutic exercise and a deeply personal experience, transcends borders and boundaries. However- and importantly- the documentary recognizes that yoga is not a magic pill; it is not going to (re)solve all global and local problems. And yet, the respite it provides in daily life may just be enough to pause for an “Aum,” the original sound that is said to contain all sounds and languages, and through “Aum” to be reminded of our human togetherness in spite of our differences otherwise.
Before leaving Palestine, the listener realizes that even though this audio documentary is made by an Irish woman, and the Palestinian and American women are the only participants in it, this piece is not JUST about women. Nor is it about the “white” women saving their “brown” sisters, or the American vogue cultural practices taking over Palestine. Rather, this documentary is about working together, because of a feeling of personal responsibility to address global injustice. At Farashe, in Ramallah, this common goal is realized through one deep breath at a time. “Namaste. Salaam.”
-Svetlana Peshkova, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Coordinator of the Middle East Studies Minor, University of New Hampshire, NH 02824, USA- firstname.lastname@example.org