Originally from the UK where she studied Development at Oxford, Bex Tyrer now lives in Ubud and teaches at the Yoga Barn. In about ten days’ time, she’s embarking on an unusual and visionary project: taking a group of teachers from Ubud to Palestine, to bring yoga, dance, Tai Chi and other movement practices to people with limited opportunities of this kind. Catriona Mitchell talked to Bex about the impetus for the ‘Palestine Yoga Movement,’ and what she hopes to achieve.
Bex, the Palestine Yoga Movement is your brainchild. What led you to set up a project like this? It’s quite a radical thing to do, in some ways.
My BA which was in politics. Afterwards I took a year off, came to Asia and met so may Israelis who were travelling. And I spent a lot of time with one who had been working for Mossad and was having a really hard time coming to terms with what he’d been doing. It really shocked me – we were about the same age and I was hearing these horror stories of what this guy had done. So that really sparked my interest in Palestine.
Then I went to do my M Phil in Development Studies at Oxford, and got involved in the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. A person there told me about a cycle ride that was going from London to Jerusalem and I joined it. There were 18 of us, all from different backgrounds, a lot from Muslim backgrounds. We all made it in, and I was blown away by what I saw and what I didn’t know. For someone from a background in politics and development, getting there, wow it was really different on land. I stayed for two years and worked for an organisation called the Alternative Information Centre, primarily as a journalist and editor.
Did you practice yoga while you were there?
At that time I wasn’t practicing yoga. I found it very hard to, in that situation.
So how did you deal with stress?
I didn’t. I didn’t eat and I didn’t sleep. I just worked a lot, and eventually after two years I just knew that my nervous system was really shattered, and I wasn’t responding well in tense situations. So I left… I moved to Asia and became a scuba diving instructor and yoga teacher.
You now teach at the Yoga Barn in Ubud. What inspired you to combine yoga with activism?
Here I’m teaching people who are very, very privileged. I feel we have a lot of power in the little community that we have here, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. And so I just did a little experiment in June: I went back to Palestine and “I thought I’m going to teach yoga.” I didn’t know if it was going to work, I didn’t know if I would be laughed at… I contacted friends over there and taught as much as I could in two weeks, and I had an incredible response. A really, really amazing response – people loved it.
Had the Palestinians you worked with had any prior experience of yoga?
Yoga actually is infiltrating various parts of Palestine now. There’s a couple of part-time yoga studios, there are some part-time yoga teachers, there are some US-based organizations that have been running teacher trainings there. Now there are some women from the most strict refugee camps – strict in the Islamic sense – who have been studying yoga and are now yoga teachers. Those women were amazing, and they wanted more support from me. Their access is very limited.
I actually brought one woman over here for further training at the Yoga Barn in June, so she came and did a one-month course. And that’s something I want to keep doing. We have another woman coming in November for another teacher training. They have to pay for their flights, but everything else is paid for once they’re here.
Where did you teach, on this last trip?
I went to Ramallah, which is the capital, and I worked in Jenin refugee camp, and Bethlehem. In Ramallah it’s more cosmopolitan; I had more people, men and women. Also I had Muslims and Christians side by side, and for me that was really powerful because, speaking to the Christian women, they would say they had more in common with me than their Palestinian counterparts; getting them working together and being sensitive to one another in terms of contact and so on, for some of them it was a big deal. Some of the Islamic women wanted to work with me; they didn’t want to work with the Christian women. It was interesting to see that play out.
Did you come up against a belief that yoga is in conflict with Islam?
Not just Islam; also with Christianity. I’ve had some Christians say to me “my doctor told me yoga is against God.” So it’s about breaking down your definition of yoga and saying it’s a practice for living. It doesn’t need to be under any label.
As a teacher, here in Ubud I can say anything about spirit, about the divine, about love, and anything goes. It’s interesting to have to reel that back in and make it more grounded.
What sort of lives are people leading in the refugee camps? What sort of day-to-day problems do they have?
Domestic violence is a big thing. The men have nothing to do. It’s a very frustrated situation, with really high unemployment. The unofficial figures say 60% unemployment. And a lot of the men are in prison, so the women are the sole breadwinners for the family, which is hard especially for Muslim women.
And in broader society? What kind of disturbances have you encountered – problems that might be addressed, or alleviated in some way, by yoga?
Displacement, frustration, limited movement – and that’s something I keep coming back to. People do not have freedom of movement there. You cannot go from A to B; you need permission, or the road is closed, or there’s a roadblock. To go to Jerusalem for example – traditionally Jerusalem has been part of Palestine; there are a lot of Palestinian families there. It’s a very important site for people to be going to. There’s a big checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. You feel like you’re a farm animal going through there, because they’ve got the turnstiles, the cameras, the bells. The sound goes, you go go go, get through as much as you can, and then the gates will lock and you’re stuck.
If you go through that every day, it’s a feeling of complete surrender, of being stuck in the system…. It creates a passive population or the absolute opposite, the kids who will go out and become fighters because what else do they have? I can see it so clearly… it’s so clear, why kids pick up guns. I don’t think I’d be any different. I’d also feel that continuous fear that my government’s been feeding me with since the time of my grandparents. That’s something that’s there deeply. I think it hits people deep in their psyche. There’s so much anger and rage there, pointed at the other, the Israeli. They’re the enemy.
How will the Palestine Yoga Movement be of use?
What I feel about this cult of the body that we have going on in the 21st century is, I’m ok with that because if people are going onto the yoga mat, eventually something deeper comes. There’s so much wisdom in this connection between the body, the mind, and the breath. It brings you to the present, it takes you out of any stories. And to me that’s the tool for living. How much suffering we cause ourselves through getting caught up in the mind. Yoga is a wonderful way to calm that down. And I think that with daily practice – even if it’s just 20 minutes a day – you are taking steps to shed those layers of potential suffering, and that’s what’s so powerful.
A huge one is fear. That’s what was remarkable when I was teaching last time – even teaching hand-stands – how scared people were of hand-stands, compared to my regular class at the Yoga Barn. There’s a lot more fear. I think it’s from growing up in a culture of fear. A lot of people have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from living through two intifadas and perhaps the invasion of the ‘60s and so on. I know this first-hand – even from my friends my age – they would wake up screaming in the night.
Why would handstands provoke that fear? Why hand-stands in particular?
Things that we find challenging in our yoga practice are primarily things like going upside down, because you’re getting out of your comfort zone and doing something you aren’t used to. It takes a little bit of courage just to give it a go. And once you do give it a go… something shifts in your whole life.
I know yoga teachers who have had PTSD themselves, or drug addictions, or whatever else… they really know the benefits first hand. A lot of teachers teach from that standpoint: they say “this is my background, and this is what I am now, and in the middle there’s yoga.”
It sounds so simple but with inversions it’s turning our world upside down, it’s seeing things differently, it seeing beyond our usual range of perspective. How many women have I heard saying they aren’t strong enough? And yet I’ve seen the rest of their practice and they’re super strong. These are stories that we tell ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing these tricks on the yoga mat, that’s not at all what it’s about. It’s the energy that’s required to give it a go, the attitude that’s required to give it a go.
Let’s talk about the Palestine Yoga Movement. This forthcoming trip starts on the 21st of October and will run for 17 days. How many teachers do you plan to take with you?
Last time it was just me; this time I want to take seven, possibly eight teachers over. Kathy Gade and I will teach AcroYoga; she’s an acrobat and really good at what she does; I’m going to be teaching yoga as well; we have Loch Burnett who’s from Australia and will be teaching Tai Chi and dance; we’ve got Ash Bond who’s English and she’s going to be teaching kids’ yoga; hopefully a Balinese Capoeira teacher, Noko, but it’s very hard to know if we can get him in. Kamau Abayomi really wants to come to teach hip hop to young people, and we’ve got Rosie Bryant filming; she also wants to do some musical collaboration with the Edward Said Conservatory of Music in Ramallah and the Middle East Orchestra in Jerusalem.
Aren’t some of these practices like Capoeira quite complex? Won’t they take time to learn?
This is about giving people experience, so that they can get a taste for it. It’s creating a foundation for something that can grow. I would like to train local teachers and really help to support this grass-roots movement.
Have any of the teachers been to Palestine before?
How do you think the teachers will react to what’s ahead?
I’ve been doing my best to find different articles for them about what they’ll be going into, and – well, who knows how they’re going to react, but I’ve got a really solid team.
After seeing the reality of life there, I want to see how we integrate that into our teaching here. I know it’s given my teaching a different depth that it didn’t have before. So it’s a two way dynamic that’s going on.
What is your highest hope for the project as a whole?
I just hope it’ll be sustainable, that it’s something we can keep funding. The need is there, the demand is there… I wouldn’t be going if I didn’t feel people wanted it. I’m not a missionary trying to take yoga to a Muslim country.
I don’t want yoga just to be where it’s heading, which is in corporate studios for white middle class women. That’s not where it’s come from and it’s not fully seeing the potential of it. The commercialisation of yoga in the last 10 years… how much people pay to do a yoga course! That’s fine; I just want to redistribute some of that money.
To learn more about Palestine Yoga Movement, or to make a much-needed donation towards the Ubud teachers’ travel costs, see:
Promotional Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZU_k0IuTjE