Yoga for refugees – volunteering in Lebanon

lebanon refugee camps volunteering bekaa valley
Last year I spent a week in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camps on a yoga for refugees project with Tools for Inner Peace, a new charity which I’m now a trustee on, in collaboration with a local charity, Salam LADC 

Tools for Inner Peace is a long term project set up by Minna Järvenpää to enhance mental health and well-being among refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley through simple, gentle yoga and relaxation techniques. I became involved as one of the charity’s trustees in 2016 and visited Lebanon in April 2017 to see some of the projects in action.

There are over 800,000 refugees in this part of Lebanon and a quarter of the country’s entire population are refugees. Salam charity was founded in Lebanon in 2006 and aims to improve the lives of refugee communities and helping them connect with their host country. Read more about the ethos and founding story of Salam here.

We believe in the necessity of inner peace in every human being (salamladc.org)

Tools for Inner Peace partnered with Salam to provide yoga and relaxation classes to women and children in the camps – although they are officially referred to as settlements.

Life in the settlements (refugee camps)

lebanon refugee camps volunteering salam ladc charity

I spent ten days working with Salam charity on activities ranging from food and materials distribution to setting up a mini cinema for refugee children. See gallery below for pics.

 

In the Bekaa Valley, private farm land has been used to house informal settlements for Syrian families, many of whom have been here between five and seven years now with little sign of any end in sight.

The settlements I visited or drove by were of varying sizes, some housing just a few families others are up to three or four hundred people, mainly Syrian refugees, with new families still arriving (our location in Bekaa Valley was less than 20km from the Syrian border).

Life for families is hard with no formal refugee status to obtain and no certainty over their future. Refugees are easily exploited by farm landlords who can charge high rents for living on their land. It’s also not uncommon for families to work 14-hour days on the farms for $4 a day or sometimes nothing.

Schools might be far to travel to so many children may receive little or no education with few job prospects for adults. This is coupled with an anti-refugee atmosphere as locals often feel Syrians are ‘taking their jobs’, a rhetoric echoed across the world, which hampers chances for integration.

The settlements I visited had lots little children running around, all under the ages of five or six looking slightly dishevelled. Many would have been born in their new host country and know no other way of life. While the slightly older ones would have left their country during school years so are likely to have memories of their past life and possibly even missed out on some years of education.

A few will be taken under the wings of UNCHR to another host country but according to one woman I spoke to this only happens to about five out of a hundred families. She said she hoped one day they can leave the camp by boat or plane and set up life somewhere else.

Yoga for refugees

taking a yoga for refugees in lebanon tools for inner peace

Minna and I joined Salam’s roster of weekly activities such as educational play sessions and food and supplies distribution, as well as organising our own yoga sessions in and around the camps. By the end of last year Minna was running weekly yoga classes in three refugee settlements and two centres that provide services to refugees.

The yoga is so simple but so effective. Simple techniques work on the nervous system to bring about deep relaxation. Through gentle poses and breath work the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated which calms the body and strengthens the relaxation response, while the sympathetic nervous system with its stress response calms down.

One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

The need here is profound. As many as half of refugees are experiencing psychological distress or mental illness. One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and up to 60% in adults. The result of this is tension and anxiety, played out by nightmares, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, loss of concentration, anger and aggression. A key to the treatment of psychological trauma is soothing the nervous system and inducing the relaxation response which is what the yoga does.

Minna set up Tools for Inner Peace has she experienced firsthand the stress and anxiety caused by war while she worked as an international diplomat in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. She discovered yoga and meditation as a means of maintaining balance under stressful and occasionally dangerous circumstances and is now committed to sharing those healing practices with others in need.

 

Tools for Inner Peace also runs yoga classes for refugee groups in London and around the UK thanks to funding from Sport England so if you know of a refugee centre who might benefit from classes please get in touch.
Find out more about our work with Tools for Inner Peace here and the latest crowd-funding campaign, Yoga for Peace here

Review: Amchara Detox Retreat in Gozo, Malta

amchara spa malta juice detox review

In August I visited Amchara Detox Retreat on Malta’s sister island, Gozo for a review in Health & Fitness magazine. I stayed for five sunny days, three of which I spent on a juice detox and two were spent on a raw food diet. After a summer of festivals, holidays and fun it was a welcome break but the no-food-only-juice days were a shock to the system, mainly mentally because I hate going hungry! But after day two I started to settle into the process and after a few treatments a more positive feeling took over. Amchara is a laid-back, down to earth, nurturing and the people (staff and guests) really make the stay extra special. If you’re a first-timer to detoxing or fancy a relaxed retreat this is a great place to start. Here are the highlights with snapshots of my stay…

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About Amchara Detox Retreat

Guests come to detox and fast at Amchara for a variety of reasons: to inspire a healthier lifestyle; learn about detoxing and nutrition; lose or manage weight; address health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome; or simply to rest and recharge. The Amchara team includes naturopaths, a colonic therapist, a health director, a raw food chef, massage therapists and a yoga and fitness instructor – all are invaluable at guiding and inspiring guests through the process, and always on hand for advice.

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The juice detox programme

An initial health screening with the naturopath identifies which of the two programmes you should choose: a classic juice fast aimed to stimulate the body’s natural healing processes or a raw food diet. I chose a three-day juice fast and two days of raw food. Based on the philosophy of functional health, Amchara aims to tackle the underlying cause of health conditions, not just the symptoms. Your relationship with food as well as your lifestyle, genetics and environment are all considered. You can stay from three days to a month or more and there are no fixed start dates.

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A typical day at Amchara

The vibe here is relaxed and laid back. Juices and superfood shots are delivered with nameplates daily at 9am, midday and 3pm, with an evening broth at 6:30pm. The juices are based on a mixture of beetroot, cucumber, fennel, courgette, apple, carrot, celery, ginger and lemon to support your digestion, cleanse the liver and feed your body with essential nutrients and vitamins.

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The shots of nutritional super supplements can include chlorella, wheatgrass, spirulina, turmeric, maca and bitter aloe, selected by the naturopaths to suit your health needs. Headaches, fatigue or nausea can be experienced before you feel better – I felt grumpy, hungry and had headaches on the first day, but this cleared by the end of day two. To stave off hunger, we had unlimited herbal teas and psyllium husks with water– as well as lemon and Himalayan salt with water to aid hydration and the detox.

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Gentle activities such as yoga, Pilates, a walk, a health talk or aqua aerobics punctuate the days but there’s no pressure to join in. The mellow evening activities might involve a local guest such as a Tibetan sound healer or a group sunset walk. Bikes are available for a coastal ride or you can go for a gentle jog. Other activities include visiting the local town, Victoria or going to Comino island.
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The treatments

An important part of the detox process at Amchara is intestinal cleansing, so colonic hydrotherapy and enemas are encouraged. Sally Jobes, a registered colon hydrotherapist, is a wealth of information. I chose an enema (once with water and once with coffee, which stimulates liver detoxification) and felt brighter with a burst of energy after. You can also have massages, facials, lymphatic drainage and food intolerance tests. All treatments cost extra. I also had a health mentoring session with health director Kirstie Chisholm (€180 for 90 minutes). After discussing daily nutrition, emotional concerns, stress management and work-life balance, I walked away with a manageable plan.

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The rooms

With only 26 apartments at the retreat, you can enjoy a peaceful atmosphere but still be sociable. Each apartment has air con, a spacious double bedroom, living area, fully equipped kitchen, bathroom and a balcony or veranda overlooking the central pool.

 

In a nutshell, is Amchara for you?

If you’re looking for a relaxed and gentle detox experience, Amchara is perfect. There are no bootcamp vibes and ideal for first time detoxers. If you’ve had enough of the juice cleanse you can go onto the raw food programme, no quibbles. I left feeling mentally and physically revived. There is also Amchara Somerset for those looking for a UK detox.

Visit: amchara.com for prices and more info

 

Best retreats for diet, detox, health, wellbeing, fitness and therapy

Psychologies March issue retreats

Read my piece in this month’s issue of Psychologies magazine on the best retreats around the UK and Europe for health, fitness, diet and general wellbeing.

It features the fabulous Surfing is Therapy, FitFarms, Successful Relationships and NuBeginnings. If you’ve been on a particularly good retreat let me know – would love to hear about it!

What is a Vipassana – and how I got through 10 days of silent meditation

vipassana-meditation

vipassana-meditationI’m back! Having just landed back to earth after TEN days of silent meditation in Hereford, I’m eager to spill the beans. Yes, I was on a Vipassana meditation course and my, my, was it tough but with mindfulness, consciousness and awareness being such hot topics right now, it’s more relevant than ever to learn what we can learn from these ancient practices.

If you’re not familiar with a Vipassana, it’s an ancient form of meditation (thousands of years old) which aims to ‘purify and quiet a chattering mind’ and by doing so, you can learn to become resilient to the ups and downs of every day life.

It’s only been a popular practise in the west for the last 20-30 years through the teachings of an Indian-Burmese man named S.N. Goenka and in recent years, centres all around the world have cropped up thanks to his desire to spread the word…

The meditation is guided through Goenka’s audio and video recordings. The teaching is about sharpening the mind’s awareness with the ultimate aim of remaining ‘equanimous’ – in balance – to both negative and positive experiences.

It’s not about suppressing emotions, it’s about observing them, watching thoughts come and go, and not being affected by them.

This meditation practice teaches us to be mindful that positive and negative experiences come and go so craving the positive and feeling averse to the negative can only lead to unhappiness. Best to stay neutral and feel balance in mind at all times. A tall order I know!

I’d heard it was hard, but how hard can hard be? I quickly discovered it was no walk in the park – or a bundle of laughs for that matter – it was like a long-distance mental endurance test, every single day. It was even harder than the marathons I’ve run.

Apologies in advance if revealing my experiences spoils it for anyone. I know one of the key reasons the week is spent in silence is so that no one discusses and compares their experiences. What each person goes through is very personal and unique so please bear in mind this was my personal experience and not necessarily what others went through.

The RULES: The ten days of no talking, gestures or touching. No books, pens, phones, music, gadgets, cameras or exercise (including yoga) and no religious practices, rites or rituals. Men and women are separated to also avoid distraction.

The gruelling timetable featured a grand total of THIRTEEN hours of meditation a day. We were also governed by the gong, with the first dreaded gong waking us at 4am and the last one that signals bed time goes at 9pm. Every night I was out like a light by 9:30pm.

Apart from the lunch hour and breakfast hour, there was no other activity scheduled apart from meditation, simply because continuous practice is thought to be the route to success. So we meditated, hour after hour, after hour, after hour.

I don’t want to spoil it too much for people who want to do the course so I won’t divulge too much about the technique or the experiences during meditation.

We were looked after so so well. I think people imagine a Vipassana is a cold and lonely experience where you’re thrown into a dark room to contemplate life for ten days. That couldn’t be further from the truth!

We were fed amazing veggie/vegan food and the accommodation was clean and comfortable and always heated up to the max, especially comforting when it’s November and blowing a gale outside.

Staff include past students and volunteers, all AMAZING and the meditation hall is so warm and cosy and decked out with all the cushions, blocks and blankets you could need.

There will be many moments and days of despair but these comforts really really do help so well done team Vipassana.

A few of my notes and observations from each day…
DAYS ONE – TWO: it didn’t take long to start asking myself why on earth I was here. How was I going to get through these stupendously long and boring hours and days?  A shell-shocked glaze had rapidly fallen on everyone’s faces as the full extent of the never-ending timetable was sinking in.

People were falling asleep left, right and centre during meditation – heads rolling, bodies jerking and the sound of snoring drifting across the main meditation hall. We were all so unaccustomed to this!

DAY THREE: we’ve been observing our breath going through our nostrils for three days now so everyone was slightly confused. The aim: to quiet a chattering mind. That’s enough reason for me so I kept going. But at one point I sneaked a peak to look around the room and saw strained faces with eyes shut tight, searching for the meaning of life. It almost felt like some kind of gigantic joke!

DAY FOUR: the routine slowly started growing on me and faces around the hall seemed lighter. For the first time I felt like a small weight had lifted and I smiled inside as a new twist to the technique was taught. For the first time also, my mind stopped resisting to the regime and it did in fact quieten down a little. Nice.

DAY FIVE: the new technique hurts! For three hours of each day we spent in ‘Strong Determination’ which means no moving and full concentration on resisting any pain or sensation. No craving to the pleasant sensations and no aversion to the negative sensations – this is the key concept to Vipassana which we’re meant to apply to real life.

DAY SIX: I’m certain athletes, triathletes, marathon runners and ironman competitors would benefit from this practice. Mentally, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do but provides great mental endurance training. It was like running an marathon every day! Occasionally tears flooded my eyes from the pain of sitting in Strong Determination but obviously I was determined to get through it.

DAY SEVEN: I felt like I’d turned a corner and my emotions (in and out of meditation) starting balancing, finally! I looked around again and people looked so cosy in their meditation spots. Some had built huge sofa-like constructions,  with multiple layers of block, cushions and blankets. It was hilarious to watch.

DAY EIGHT: uh oh, boredom kicked in! Having felt like I’d sorted my life out, found a new career, fixed my relationship and balanced my mind, I felt ready to go home. What? I have to stay another THREE days? Cripes!!

DAY NINE: I felt like I was climbing the walls with frustration as minutes felt like hours and the hours felt like days. Everything was annoying me and I had no ‘equanimity’, patience or compassion left in me. I was desperate to go home. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that Noble Silence would be lifted at ten am the following day, hoorah!

DAY TEN: I woke up ecstatic! I even hummed in the shower with a cheery glow inside and counted down the minutes until we could talk again. I’d been dreaming of this day all week!

I know I’m painting a picture of resistance, difficulty and pain (because it was a bit like that at times) but there are also MANY rays of light throughout the week:

The teachings of S.N. Goenka are hugely positive and inspiring. Each video and audio recording left everyone with a rosy, warm glow and a new, more harmonious perspective on how to live life.

When ‘Noble Silence’ was lifted, everyone hugged and cried – it was an emotional week and the (silent) bond you create with people is strangely strong. There were also two pregnant girls there who were a massive inspiration to us all. Could this be a new trend for expecting mothers?

Anyway, I’ve gone on too much and so sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone wishing to go. If you’d like to know any other details please pop your comments below – or read more at the Dhamma Dipa Vipassana site – and would be great to hear from anyone who’s also done it.  Thanks for reading. xx

Follow me on Twitter for more updates @YanarBeauty.

Tried and tested: New Year's day massage in Zanzibar

Local flowers at Mrembo Spa, Zanzibar

Me at Mrembo Spa, Zanzibar

Local flowers at Mrembo Spa, Zanzibar

Having just returned from my big Tanzanian adventure, I couldn’t wait to tell you about my New Year’s day massage by a local, blind therapist on Zanzibar (island off Africa’s east coast). This turned out to be an unbeatable way to see in 2011!

After a few too many drinks the night before in Stone Town – a sleepy tourist town with hundreds of years of Arabic and Portuguese history – I woke up to a wonderful invite by my friend, to go to Mrembo Spa – ‘mrembo’ meaning a woman who loves to pamper herself, in Swahilli – for a massage by Aisha, their blind therapist. An offer I couldn’t refuse as I’ve many massages but never one by a blind person.

Each appointment starts with a relaxing drink of ginger and lemongrass tea, while feet are gently washed in warm, flower-infused water. Local Taarab music (melodic and Arabic in origin with sweet vocals) plays in the background (no rubbishy windpipe music here!) reminding you you’re in one of the most exotic islands in the world.

The massage itself was perfectly gentle for my partied, safaried and travelled-out limbs. After weeks on the go, this was just what I needed. Traditionally, Zanzibari girls indulge in a full body flower scrub before their wedding day, made up of lots of crushed local flowers, cloves, sandalwood and geranium oil and rosewater. Delicious.

Local handmade crafts, Mrembo Spa, Zanzibar A big barrel of lemongrass at Mrembo Spa in Zanzibar

All the products are handmade and natural, using plants and ingredients from the local area, and they’re all available to buy in gorgeously presented bottles and wrapping. The spa also sells locally-made clothes using the famous ‘khanga’ – large, beautifully coloured, printed scarves used by Tanzanian women to make clothes and head scarves. Many of the spa’s furnishings, and even the knickers, are made of this so there’s less waste and more reuse.

Mrembo Spa, set up by a Dutch lady, has embodied so many elements of Zanzibari life, the females and their beauty rituals. On top of that, the staff have a very warm and gentle way about them.

If you ever find yourself down Stone Town’s eccentric, narrow and windy streets be sure to seek it out.

More info about the local traditions on the Mrembo website http://www.mtoni.com/mrembo/

Review: Divine Retreats, Italy

Fattoria Mansi Bernardini, Tuscany Italy

Fattoria Mansi Bernardini, Tuscany Italy

Fattoria Mansi Bernardini Italy

Lucky me, I’ve just returned from a beautiful few days in the rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy on a Divine Retreats yoga holiday. The setting was unbeatable – a 16th century estate restored but still seeping with history and original antique furniture, with several villas and farmhouses, vineyards and 200 acres of land. Welcome to Fattoria Mansi Bernardini.

The week-long retreat consisted of gentle, mood-enhancing yoga twice a day (with Francis D’Angelo from Special Yoga Centre in London) and sessions with holistic practitioners, such as Journey Healing (with Sandra Ferreira), Theta Healing (with Lorena Granata), Remedial Massage (with Krisztina Karanyicz) and Art Meditation (with Dalia Zermon). I also met Yogi Malik from Yoga Magazine, and Miss Eco Glam.

My visit was brief but it was enough to enjoy the fantastic food whipped up from the family kitchen every night as well as local cheese, biodynamic wine from the neighbouring vineyard and olive oil from the estate’s own olive trees. Amazing.

Look out for a more in-depth review in Natural Health magazine next year.

Thank you Divine Retreats!

The next trip will be in Spring 2011.Visit www.divineretreats.co.uk for more details