In pictures: Yoga in Gaza and escaping life under siege
In a modern-style building in Gaza City a white banner catches the eye: “Gaza’s first Women’s Yoga and Circus Hub." The centre opened in 2018 and, amid an Israeli siege, power cuts and attacks by Israel's army, has become an oasis of calm for hundreds of women and girls. (MEE/Walid Mahmoud)
“Here, we mainly aim to use physical activities to relieve people from all of the psychological pressure that Gaza’s women have been a victim of for years,” said Amal Khayal, the centre's co-founder. "We also create a network where women can support one another in this difficult environment.” (MEE/Walid Mahmoud)
The idea came about when Suzan Church, an Irish aid worker, taught her Palestinian colleagues yoga in 2016 to relieve stress, Khayal said. Another Irish aid worker, Jenny Higgins, then taught her Palestinian colleagues aerobatics and social circus tricks. (MEE/Walid Mahmoud)
Khayal pitched the idea for a centre to several NGOs before the Aisha Association for Woman and Child Protection stepped up. The funding has paid for tuition for 30 female graduates in nursing, physiotherapy and psychology: 16 now specialise in yoga and the rest in circus skills. (MEE/Walid Mahmoud)
But the project has not been without resistance from wider society. “People conflated yoga with meditation and thought they were the same thing,” Khayal said. “Some extremists went further to suggest that we were spreading Hinduism through yoga, and you could imagine the troubles that created.” (MEE/Walid Mahmoud)
The blockade also created obstacles. “It’s nearly impossible to import basic commodities into Gaza, let alone yoga equipment,” Khayal said, “but we had help from foreign aid workers who brought the yoga and circus equipment with them in their ordinary passenger luggage." The centre is now attended by hundreds of women and also teaches awareness about domestic abuse and trauma (MEE/Walid Mahmoud).
Khayal also said that the many of the staff are educated psychologists who can help attendees deal with war trauma and conflict at home. In March, the centre hosted French, Belgian, Polish, Finnish and Canadian diplomats. “We want the whole world to see that Gaza is home to great potential and talents that would thrive if life were allowed to find its way back into the enclave,” said Khayal. (MEE/Walid Mahmoud)