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About 50 people cramp into the medium-sized room. Bare footed, they lift their arms high above their heads, bending them behind their backs, stretching their limbs in various forms to ease whatever pain they are suffering from - physical or mental.
"Yoga provides an answer to needs that arise from the demands of modern city life. It gives a profound resolution to the sufferings of the soul, via the use of various positions," explains yoga instructor Tal Sekely, 33, who has been working for the past decade at various yoga centers around the country. Currently, he gives private sessions and teaches at the Great Shape and Holmes Place gyms in Rehovot and Beersheba, and the Samkalpa yoga center in Modi'in.
As the session reaches its conclusion, the participants lie on blue mattresses on the hard-wood floor. With their eyes closed, they listen to their inner quiet, reached via the various stretches performed for the past hour. Once the lights are turned back on, the participants slowly rise. As they gather the mattresses and pile them at a corner of the room, one cannot miss the sparkle in their eyes, the smiles on their faces and the general calm and sense of happiness.
"Yoga provides a space for people to meet in their minds and their bodies - first themselves, and later each other," says long-time therapeutic yoga healer Tzipi Weiner, who runs her own center, Yoga Now, in downtown Tel Aviv. "I used to teach yoga to imprisoned convicts at the Ayalon prison," she recounts, "then one day even life-sentenced prisoners started writing poetry as a result of their yoga training. You should have seen the changes in them - suddenly they started treating each other differently. I'm telling you, from beasts they turned into noble spirits."
Each session in Yoga Now starts with the traditional yoga position in which the practitioner sits with his legs folded and arms in Buddha style. Once participants rise from this position, they fetch each other the mattresses, rubber bands, bricks and other equipment they will use during the class.
"Strangers helping each other is one of the things that can only happen in a yoga class," says Weiner. "There's something bonding in this experience. It's hard to give when you are closed in yourself. Yoga takes us out of our shells; once someone knows and loves himself, it's easy for him or her to open up."
Sekely believes that the complex yoga postures, or asanas, bring out emotions that cause all barriers to fade away. Moreover, in his line of work, he says he is often required to talk to his trainees to really get to know them. "I'm partly a psychologist," he says, and tells of a young lady trainee who realized through the work that she was involved in an unhealthy relationship, and therefore broke it off.
"Yoga is a wonderful way to meet spouses, whether from the opposite gender or the same," says Weiner. "I know about 150 people who met in my classes - well, I have been teaching for about two decades."
Indeed, the fact that participants in a yoga class are required to move around in a designated space melts the natural "distance" between them. Stretching one's arms to the person next to you, feet nearly touching in the process, automatically creates some effect of physical closeness. "Because of the open, accepting atmosphere, and because of the people who are located there, it is a place of togetherness," says Sekely. "The yoga practice creates legitimacy to really experience and express feelings."
He adds heart-wrenching descriptions of trainees who broke into tears in the middle of practice, and saw their fellow trainees become comrades in their battle with life's frustrations. "The training enables feelings to flow and come out, particularly the suppressed feelings that are not expressed legitimately in everyday life."
In the classroom, at various stages of the practice, the participants are required to lie down and feel their "tail bone" or their "inner self." An observer could easily differentiate between newcomers and veterans: The first group spends its time checking out the motions performed by the second. Also, there is a look of calm on the faces of the veterans, as if they have already experienced the journey the instructor is about to take them through.
The instructors at Yoga Now usually speak English, the unofficial language of yoga, and they treat their job as an opportunity to heal. "Godly things happen there. The very thought of what I have experienced with my trainees brings tears to my eyes. I had a man who could not walk in one of my sessions. I have had people in wheelchairs come in. The physical and emotional aspects of yoga have helped injured people heal so that they could cancel scheduled operations. They come out of a session with a smile on their faces. You have no idea how that makes me feel," Weiner says.
Weiner works with the Iyengar Yoga method, a physically therapeutic type of yoga intended for people with physical disabilities. She was trained by the Iyengar himself, a yoga guru from India. Every few months, she travels to India to study with him. "I have already been there 14 times, in Pune," she says. "The Iyengar is the one who told me I should turn to healing-yoga. He was the first one to spot my ability to notice people's health problems." She claims to perceive people's problems by merely looking at them. One of her trainees, a young woman, came in to deal with some back problems, but Weiner correctly suspected that she was suffering from kidney issues.
She says that she has reached the point where she looks at a person and understands his soul. "Giving so much can be very exhausting," says Weiner.
Watching her in the classroom makes one more clearly understand that statement. She walks around, touches her trainees with true compassion, corrects their positions, whispering words of encouragement in their ears, spreading her wings of humility and love over them.
"The teacher is there for the student 150 percent," says Sekely, who treats people with mental disorders such as manic-depression and chronic depression. "The work involves psychological conditioning - through the positions, you help people open up. Yoga is all about the combination of mind, spirit and body and the way these elements manifest themselves through the energetic centers of the body, the chakras," he explains.
During the session, says Sekely, one touches on all the available chakras and tries to reach them through walls of fear and alienation. The very movement causes the soul to open up to its darkest fears and release them.
Perhaps that is the reason Weiner has been to numerous weddings of her students, and Sekely himself recently married a fellow yoga instructor.
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