At dusk on the edge of bustling Marrakech, my Tree Pose wavers among towering date palms and minarets. As we practice evening yoga in a candlelit garden, our group casts stately silhouettes against Morocco's starry blue-black sky. Muslim prayer calls float through the air, and I inhale deeply, absorbing the scents of orange blossom, rosemary, and verbena. Exhaling, I let go of any apprehensions I held about whether a yoga trip would feel comfortable in the midst of a devout Muslim society.
At a time of much cultural misunderstanding between the Muslim world and the West, I went to Morocco hoping to learn more about its culture and cuisine, and to find points of connection. I had traveled years ago in Islamic countries, and my pleasant memories of that time were not jibing with recent portraits painted by the American news media. Taking a trip with yoga as its centerpiece, I hoped, would help me reckon with the disparity.
Our guide was Peggy Markel, a yogi with deep roots in the slow food movement who was traveling in Morocco on September 11, 2001. Overcome by the kindness and sympathy shown to her at the time by Muslim strangers, Markel made a commitment to showcase the country's complex blend of Berber, Arab, and Muslim cultures. Morocco's food, combining exotic spices and traditional local ingredients, would be her great communicator. Yoga would be a grounding force to help participants absorb their experiences more deeply.
On our first morning, we gathered early on a rooftop overlooking the garden, with yoga instructor Jeanie Manchester from Om Time in Boulder, Colorado. "This week we're going to taste our breath," Manchester said. "We're going to taste Morocco and the full mandala of its flavors." As we moved through the familiar asanas, I took note that the light dust that gathered on our bare feet was the same red dirt that nourished the fresh food we would cook and eat all week.
Most days began with early-morning yoga, followed by an excursion that brought us into contact with local Moroccans and introduced us to their culinary traditions. At midday, we often moved to a local kitchen for cooking classes. Each day, we learned to create different dishes, first filling terra cotta cooking pots, or tagines, with a delicate balance of herbs and vegetables plucked from the garden. Next, we created a sweet dish of chicken, pear, and caramelized orange, then a savory one with olive and preserved lemons. It was truly slow food, simmered to perfection.
Joining us one afternoon was Mohamed El Haouzi, director of projects for the Global Diversity Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture and education for Berber girls. El Haouzi's pet project is preserving Moroccan traditional herbs, along with the centuries of accumulated knowledge of how to use them for cooking and healing. On our visit to his school, with snowy mountains in the background, a teacher dressed in bright lavender and a black head scarf, offered us honey-soaked cookies and a pleasant bitter tea made from eight fresh herbs. In broken English and sign language, she explained that the tea was brewed to promote warmth and good digestion.
As the days progressed, we began to appreciate aspects of Moroccan life that jarred our sensibilities at first: the resonant beauty of the prayer calls, the head coverings that were a part of women's dress. What emerged was an intense feeling of grace. In this land of Islam, yoga gave me space to connect familiar and foreign ideas. Each day, I appreciated more deeply the reminders of spirituality that permeate daily life there.
Initially, I had hoped to encounter local yogis, imagining them practicing on thick Berber carpets. While I did not find them—people do practice but tend to do so at home—I met Moroccans who seemed to understand yoga's attraction.
"Our yoga is the hammam," confided Fathallah Ben Amghar, a young Moroccan speaking of the traditional bathing rituals. In Morocco, visits several times a week to the steamy communal baths are a quiet time for cleansing, purifying, and meditating. Tucked away from the bustling markets, or souks, this is a grounding place where Moroccans not only pursue physical health with a vigorous scrubbing but also set aside time to connect with each other. Moroccans do not have an easy life, and hammam time is a time to let minds be open and free, Ben Amghar said.
It was hard to dispute the merits of his argument after a relaxing visit to the baths, with their buckets of luxuriant hot water pouring over my head, thick olive soaps, and locally made shampoos. Sitting naked in the steam, I felt an extraordinary sense of kinship with the women—both Western and Moroccan—who had gathered there. The world suddenly felt a little smaller. And I sensed peace and hope in this connection, not unlike the feeling of calm I get from my yoga practice.
I remembered something El Haouzi had said to me earlier in the week: "You never respect things when you don't understand." I was grateful to have the chance to do both.
Jennie Lay is a freelance writer based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.