A New Generation Spreading Yoga & Peace To Underprivileged Communities In Lebanon
“Service is a natural expression of love. It expands the heart and widens the vision. Life is not fully lived if you do not serve and love all humanity. Think how best you can utilise your energy, intellect, education, wealth and strength for the betterment of others.” – Swami Sivananda Saraswati
One of the more challenging issues that Lebanon faces each day is the dire refugee crisis that continues to grow alongside an extremely unstable economy fused with a complicated political status within the country and the region. There have been estimations that Lebanon has been a home to approximately 300,000 Palestinian refugees plus another 10,000 from Iraq (for the most part) before the civil war in Syria began in 2011 (more here.) In addition to the camps, where refugees have lived for decades with little resources, employment or education, there has been an influx of over 1 million Syrians who now represent one-fourth of the population (some say more – close to half). Syrians are classified as “displaced persons,” and inadvertently generated further friction, strife, and hardship between others in refugee communities. Lebanon undoubtedly has more refugees per capita than any other country. These existing challenges are finding new solutions through various NGOs who have teamed up as a new generation desiring to help and contribute solutions to an existing problem where a political “policy of no policy” endures.
This is where Sandy Peters comes into the picture. A gentle, kind, loving young woman who teaches yoga and mindful meditation while establishing an NGO called “Koun” – meaning “be” in Arabic. Although the NGO organization is still fine-tuning the last legal documents, Sandy is actively weaving her work within the web of other NGOs operating on a horizontal community level, working jointly to offer new responses to existing problems that need multiple solutions. It’s fascinating how well they bond forces, showing a keen sense of interconnectedness with clarity in all their initiatives.
In Sandy’s words, “being is literally what yoga is all about. Koun’s mission is to make yoga accessible to everyone.” The overall objective of Koun “believes that psychological wellbeing is a condition that every individual should have no matter the age, race and social class. We aim to promote physical, mental and emotional health in various underprivileged and traumatized communities through the science of Yoga, which includes asana (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques) and relaxation.” In a nutshell, here are the goals Koun sets out to realize:
- Make yoga accessible to those who need it
- Promote total well-being
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Develop the ability to face problems and conflicts
- Develop mindfulness
- Increase acceptance and compassion
Sandy has entwined her work at Koun with other incredible NGOS to achieve this as a brilliant web of community assembling. The work that she contributes in a refugee camp in Akkar is as a team member of Mishwar, a creative Scottish-based NGO that has been in effect since 2016. The Mishwar objective “is to provide support for refugee communities by launching creative projects led by the communities themselves, and encourage them to foster further initiatives for the benefit of their community well being.” They continue to cultivate workshops of music, arts, sports (yoga being one of them), and cinema “with the goal of educating youth, unleashing their potential and supporting their communities.”
Sandy works with Syrian children alongside other yoga teachers, like Dana Saadeh from Mandala Beirut Yoga. The kids just displayed their artwork this past weekend to a Beirut public, which was supported by the German organization FNF Lebanon and Syria who collaborated with Mishwar. The yoga teachers teach the children the basics of yoga, breathing, and mindfulness. As Sandy states:
“It is very challenging at times to work with children that have understandably gone through a great deal of trauma and are mostly unschooled, receiving very little discipline if any, and grounding them is the toughest assignment. They are getting used to it with time, practicing and understanding that “being calm” is the most valuable element in the process. Those are the trials but seeing the work over a period of time, you begin to notice the subtle changes that are taking place. They are doing yoga, they are learning how to breathe through issues, and grounding themselves (as well as the other creative workshops) – all of which brings them to a new level of awareness and attitude to approaching their daily distresses in the camps.”
Koun is also a part of the “Yoga for Peace” project – a Training of Trainers program initiated by Tools for Inner Peace and supported by Salam. It’s a 10-month program that allows a group of female social workers supporting refugee kids in Bekaa to integrate yogic tools into their psychosocial support activities with kids. “I am very proud to participate in this program because it enables others to share these transformative yet practical tools in their psychosocial work with kids. It allows enough time for the teachers to integrate and deepen these practices, going way beyond the surface.”
Koun similarly offers weekly yoga classes in Shatila at Shatila Studios to Syrian and Palestinian women who do embroidery. The brilliant embroidered piece above should give you an idea how much fun embroidery can really be (amazing, don’t you think?). The main focus of this project promotes the mental and emotional wellbeing of the women. “It’s a focused initiative that offers yoga and the philosophy around it to help build resilience, as well as alleviating suffering in the aftermath of traumatic experiences,” states Sandy. The women enjoy practicing yoga, a very new tool in their toolkit, which makes them “feel productive, fit, relaxed and calmer.” What is pronounced is that they all have begun to slowly transform their reactions to outside stimuli, and feel much more grounded in their state of ‘being’ and response to things. “I enjoy these women thoroughly and love the impact that the yogic philosophy offers them. These tools that they’re learning will be used in various ways. It goes back to the notion that if you want to change anything in society, we first have to change ourselves. This is where transformation begins to take place,” states Sandy.
The last integration of Koun involves a center called “A Migrant Community Center” operating under a NGO called ARM (Anti-Racist Movement), which is quite unique for Lebanon. It started in 2010 as “a grassroots collective by young Lebanese feminist activists in collaboration with migrant workers and migrant domestic workers, following a racist incident at one of Beirut’s most well known private beach resorts (Sporting Club).” They officially became an NGO in 2012 and have a mission to “make meaningful improvements in the quality of life of migrant workers in Lebanon and their capacity to self-advocate to advance their socio-economic rights, and to contribute to a strong and powerful migrant civil society, with a focus on women as leaders of change.”
Sandy offers yoga classes to freelance domestic workers which specifically caters to their needs. However, you never find full-time, live-in, domestic workers there as they rarely have time for outside activities (usually one day a week spent with friends who have become family members or who are family).
The main focus is on building core strength and flexibility in the body, as their work is very demanding on a physical level. The other aspect is targeting their very real sense of feeling “inferior” or less than others in society. “We spend a great deal of time building confidence from within, making them feel equal and worthy in society,” shares Sandy. These core feelings are understandable as many of these women have left their families and are navigating through a complex society on their own (support is growing). They are significant contributors within the social fabric of society, working in various businesses and within diverse types of family units. “They do matter and their work is extremely valuable, and often they are not treated as equals (sometimes underpaid too). Everyone needs to feel appreciated, to feel loved and valued and this is not necessarily a given by their employers or members of society.”
What becomes evident throughout Sandy’s journey and mission with Koun are two-fold: interweaving yoga into a web of NGOs that have joined forces as solid community builders of sorts, and a new generation that view existing issues as opportunities to contribute solid tools to transform challenging matters within society. They have the time, energy, and know-how to “better” their communities and they are doing the work, the ‘service’ to others, and it is very essential labor in their eyes. “We are all making a difference within our communities. Slowly but surely we’re creating new ways of dealing with old problems that have escalated by ironically using a variety of long-standing skills/services (yoga, art, social work, sports, etc.) one-step at a time,” Sandy declares.
And we, at The Wellness Project, totally agree with her. The positive attitude and resilience found in the younger generation of NGOs from around the globe (very important detail to note- including those they are in service to after all) and Lebanon is truly a breath of fresh air. Their feet are on fire, their hearts are wide open, and they have found some kind of inner peace doing their work. Change is on the horizon. Let’s all participate; it awakens our passions and creates a stronger sense of community with purpose and aptitude to create a new vision of how things can be transformed right in front of our eyes together in UNITY! Share your projects with us; we’d love to hear about your marvellous initiatives in action to help make the world a better place. Peace. Hope. Action. Love. Unity.
All photos are from Sandy’s Facebook page except Shatila’s embroidery: https://www.facebook.com/KounLebanon/
Embroidery from Shatila Studio’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ShatilaStudio/