Just before dawn the cry of the muezzin, calling Kabul's faithful to the first of the five daily prayers, awakened me. I arose—a painful process given that I'd spent the night with only a two-inch mattress shielding me from the hard wooden plank that served as my bed—and put on my yoga clothes. No Lycra sports bras or hipster yoga duds, though; in Afghanistan, I practiced in a loose knee-length tunic and wide-leg pajama pants, always prepared for an interruption from the gardener or doorman of the guest house where I stayed. Heavy damask curtains kept nosy neighbors from peering into my second-floor room. Sitting on the prickly handmade carpet, I dropped down to Child's Pose and greeted the day.
I moved slowly into Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), then Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), grateful that my New York gym had offered yoga and that I'd taken enough classes to feel at home in the poses. In a country where security is a real concern, a casual jog in the park or a visit to the male-dominated gyms is unheard of for a woman. A jump rope, a few rusty dumbbells, and yoga were my only hope for exercise. Besides, time was at a premium, as I had two jobs—freelancing for the Christian Science Monitor and training Afghan journalists to dig deep and fearlessly report the truth.
In the United States, my yoga practice had been for stress relief and fitness, plain and simple. But when I lived in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005, my time on the mat offered a chance to connect with myself, after what was often a tense awakening—to the sound of rockets exploding nearby or to yet another day without electricity. As I folded into Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), humility set in: I thought of Khala, our cleaning lady, who had walked an hour and a half to arrive by 7:30 to serve us green tea, and who made but $3 for a 12-hour day. She was one of the many examples I found each day to remind me of how privileged I was.
Often, it was during those moments of relative peace in the morning that I would connect with this sense of gratitude: for the guesthouse, for one thing, a sanctuary where I was able to talk with my husband, who as a non-Afghan was under scrutiny every minute he spent in public. And for the new connection I felt with my mother and father, who had left Afghanistan 25 years ago and barely recognized the country I described in phone calls home: I finally had a reference for all the stories they had shared about the watan (homeland). Somehow, the parts of me that were Afghan and the parts that were American were beginning to meld. And in the quiet of my practice, I could feel the union solidifying.
An American in Kabul
After a long Balasana, Child's Pose, I donned a headscarf that wrapped around both my head and my torso and left for the office. Often I would walk the 10 minutes from my guesthouse to Kabul's busy Shar-e-Naw (New City) district, home to hundreds of traditional handicraft stores, Kabul's only mall—and Pajhwok Afghan News, the agency where I worked. Making my way through the pothole-ridden streets, I passed heckling shopkeepers, skipping schoolchildren, and groups of beggars. I was covered from head to toe, but still my presence attracted attention, mostly from men curious about "international women." Although I was born in Afghanistan, the 25 years I'd spent in the United States had created differences that most Afghans could recognize from a block away.
"Look how she meets our gaze when she walks by," said an antique-gun dealer, as he set up his window display. Though I'd become accustomed to the leering, name-calling, and even occasional groping, I wondered whether the boldness I exhibited—unafraid to meet a man's eye—might eventually help Afghan men view women as strong, confident human beings.
By the time I arrived at the office, my body had forgotten the asana, and I was already tense. As a newsroom trainer, I worked with more than 50 Afghan men and women—a multigenerational melange of journalists from the country's various ethnic groups—to build the first independent Afghan news agency. To teach them modern journalism concepts while doing my own job as a reporter required near—limitless energy and patience.
"Good morning, Ms. Halima, how was your evening? How has your morning been? I hope you have a blessed day," said Najibullah Bayan, the 42-year-old news director, in his ritual stream of greetings. Long employed by the government news service, Najibullah had remained in Kabul during some of the heaviest fighting. His worried eyes and soft voice signaled the complexity of his life and the resiliency of the Afghan people. Seeing him, I found myself wondering, as I so often did, how I would have withstood so much turmoil, violence, and suffering. Would I have shrunk in the face of war? The resilience of the Afghans humbled me.
Sitting at my desk, surrounded by the chatter of the younger female reporters greeting each other, I fell into deep thought. What must life have been like for people like Najibullah, who have watched bombs obliterate neighborhoods and seen people die on the street?
"Ms. Halima, Ms. Halima, it's time for the morning editorial meeting. Are you coming?" My daze was interrupted by a perky 19-year-old business reporter from my training group. And so the endless meetings began.
Pills or Poses
"Here is a tablet of Panasol," said my colleague Zarpana, her green eyes filled with worry. She didn't understand why I was contorting my body in strange ways.
"No, no, I don't take pain medication until I absolutely have to," I told her in Dari, the lingua franca of Afghanistan. "I'd rather do these yoga positions." Zarpana dropped the pills back into her purse and shrugged. She started to walk away but then quickly turned around and asked me, "What is this 'yooogaaa' you keep talking about? Is this some sort of medicine that we don't know about?"
"Yoga is a way to relax through stretching and meditation. It's exercise for the body and mind," I said hesitantly. I wanted to explain yoga as simply as possible but wasn't sure how to help her understand. I avoided giving much background—if the handful of women gathered around my desk knew that yoga's roots were linked to Hinduism, they would be offended.
"Most Afghans think that exercise is just for men. They don't see a need for women to exercise," said Forozan Danish, a young reporter who covered sports for the news agency. "Exercise is not just for fun but for good health too. If we tell the men that we can have healthier children if we exercise, maybe then they will agree to let us exercise," she said, half giggling and half confident that she had the answer.
Historically, the conservative Afghan culture has never encouraged women to participate in leisure activities like sports and exercise. In the 1960s and '70s, girls' schools introduced physical education, and girls began playing sports as part of their school activities. But this came to a halt in the early 1980s as the Soviet-Afghan war heated up and the Afghan government was destabilized. During the late 1990s, the ultraconservative Taliban regime outlawed most public outings for women, including going to school or even leaving the home without the company of a close male relative.
Zarpana and Nooria, another reporter, complained of back pain and stiffness. They reached for their purses and the painkillers that they were always offering me. I decided to offer them an alternative: "Instead of the pills, why don't we try to do a few stretches together?" I asked.
I then showed them a standing forward bend. When Nooria, 32, an education reporter and the mother of five, tried to imitate me, her headscarf nearly slipped off. She crouched by her desk and wrapped the pink chiffon scarf around her head and tied it tightly under her chin. In my eagerness to teach the women about yoga, I'd forgotten the difficulty of doing poses with a headscarf on.
I could tell the women were interested but were nervous about an impromptu lesson in the newsroom. "Why don't we go to the conference room for a few minutes so I can show you some of these yoga positions? Please come only if you feel comfortable," I said.
The Accidental Yoga Teacher
Continuing past a group of curious men, seven women followed me up the cracked marble steps and into the room we normally used for training workshops. Once inside, I removed my headscarf and rolled up my sleeves. Forozan, the young sports reporter, and a few others followed my lead, but Nooria and Zarpana just stood there. "I can't take my jacket off—I have a sleeveless tank on underneath. I'm a married woman. What if someone walks in and sees me?" said Nooria.
Determined to help them experience a bit of yoga, I closed all the curtains and locked both entrances. "Now you have nothing to worry about," I said. The women immediately took off their headscarves and jackets, revealing brightly colored tanks and T-shirts.
"Find a comfortable spot on the floor, but make sure you can see me," I said nervously. Since 2000, I had studied yoga sporadically while in graduate school in New York City, mostly as a way to manage neck pain associated with the stresses of my studies. However, I was usually in the back of the class, struggling to hold the basic poses. Never did I imagine I'd be leading a yoga class, much less one filled with Afghan women.
"Let's start with Hero Pose," I said. The women looked at my position and maneuvered gracefully into Virasana. "Now close your eyes and take some deep breaths through your nose and let it out through your mouth."
The women quietly did what I suggested and we continued for a few minutes. I could sense that they were relaxing, as their breathing grew longer and deeper with each passing minute. I loved these women like sisters—we had gone through tough months together organizing the news agency. And my interest was always in expanding their horizons, encouraging them to be less dependent on others and more capable of helping themselves. I had always hoped that I could help them professionally and intellectually. Like most returning Afghans, I had arrived with the express intention of transferring knowledge and giving back to a country that has been repeatedly robbed of its potential. But I never believed a transfer of knowledge like yoga was possible; certainly it hadn't been my intention.
"Now kneel, spread your knees just a bit, and bend down until your forehead touches the floor," I said encouragingly. "This is called Child's Pose."
Zainab and Forozan looked at each other and giggled. "Are we praying, or are we exercising?" asked Zainab, whose father was an imam (Islamic religious leader) at a local mosque.
Confused for a minute, I then realized that Hero Pose and Child's Pose are similar to the physical movements performed during Islamic prayer.
"Maybe God thought about our back pain when he designed the prayers," Zainab said.
I hadn't thought of the poses in that way before and wasn't sure what an imam or even a yogi would think of the idea, but I was happy that she had created a connection that seemed to please the other women. We continued through a few more poses and then returned to the newsroom before our co-workers became concerned about our absence.
During my six months at the news agency, we managed to meet a few more times and practice a few different yoga postures. I encouraged the women to practice at home as often as they could, knowing that it was practically impossible for those who were married and had kids.
Two years later, when I return to the news agency to teach an advanced course in business reporting, Zainab and Forozan tell me that they occasionally practice a few of the yoga poses I taught them. "What we remember more was that we had fun learning and that you cared about our well-being enough to teach us yooogaaa," Zainab said.
The funny thing is that it was the women at the agency—all the Afghans I met, really—who taught me to care enough about my own well-being to truly embrace yoga. I had always devoted myself to my studies, my professional life, the world of the mind and intellect. I put my physical and spiritual health on the back burner. But living in Afghanistan, I came to see that in order to share my intellectual interests and professional knowledge, and even just to survive the stresses of the place, I had to incorporate yoga more regularly into my life. Practicing on my own has naturally led to a greater appreciation for the quiet moments in my life, even when I'm in the States.
That this revelation would have occurred in Afghanistan still surprises me, but perhaps it shouldn't: Going back to your roots opens you up to aspects of yourself that you might not ever have known were there.
Halima Kazem is a freelance writer and a media consultant. She spends much of her time traveling in and reporting from the Middle East and South Asia.