Stressed Gazans turn to meditation after war

A woman in a black robe and face veil walked up to Dr. James Gordon and asked if he could work on her.

March 12, 2009 10:35
3 minute read.
Stressed Gazans turn to meditation after war

gazans doing yoga 248.88. (photo credit: )


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Deeply conservative Gaza isn't exactly fertile ground for New Age practices. But women in head scarves and men in suits flapped their arms with gusto while breathing in rhythm in what looked like a yogic chicken dance. The recent scene in a hotel ballroom broke several cultural taboos, such as not letting loose in public, particularly in mixed company. But the dozens of counselors and social workers, stressed and overworked since the recent Gaza war, eagerly cast convention aside to learn about relaxation techniques. "We are teaching very simple tools of self-care," said Dr. James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist who runs The Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and offers a parallel trauma program in Israel. Since 2005, he's taught 90 Gaza health professionals who have reached thousands of patients with meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback and support groups in which participants express their feelings in words, drawings and dance. "My house became like an asylum after the war," said Naima Rawagh, who works with abused women and said she was flooded with requests for help after the Israeli offensive. She and other counselors are finding ways to connect with the conservative Muslim society. Ibrahim Younis said he uses passages from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, to illustrate key points such as the need for exercise and proper eating. Rawagh said she switches to tapes of chirping birds if patients complain that moving to music is "haram," or forbidden by Islam. But mostly, Gazans appear open to what may seem like strange ideas. Many are eager to gain a sense of control after 21 months of border closures after Hamas seized Gaza and after Israel's three-week offensive that ended in January. "We are here now because the demand has increased exponentially ever since the blockade on Gaza," said Gordon, who has run similar workshops in postwar Kosovo and for homeless teens in the United States. Some 140 counselors and health workers participated in this week's sessions in Gaza City. In a second round, several months from now, they'll learn yoga and other techniques. On Monday, they heard a lecture about deep breathing, with women sitting on the left side of the ballroom and men on the right. They were asked to close their eyes and take deep breaths for guided meditation. Some just folded their arms. Then the Gaza chief of the program, Jamil Abdel Atti, asked them to stand and flap their arms while breathing vigorously, with eyes closed. Some giggled, made halfhearted attempts or even sneaked out, but most made a serious effort. Fatima Suboh, a 48-year-old university teacher, beamed afterward. "I feel high energy, I feel that my blood is working," she said, acknowledging she felt a little self-conscious at first. Social worker Ghada Assad, 33, said she'll take home what she is learning and use it with her children and clients "so we can laugh and we can have some relaxation for our muscles and some energy for our bodies." Throughout the workshop, participants shared war stories. Participants in one group, led by a woman in her 20s with a beaming smile, sat in a circle on the carpet. They started by "checking in," or telling the group how they felt - breaking another cultural taboo against being too forthcoming with strangers. Younis and Rawagh say it's an effective way of easing trauma in a short time. After the war, Younis paid visits to victims' homes and started arranging support groups by category, such as new widows. "The demand is huge," said Gordon, who during breaks gave acupuncture treatments to those who ask. In a remarkable scene for Gaza, a woman in a black robe and face veil walked up to him in the lobby and asked if he could work on her.

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