Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Beyond the gym

Lebanese de-stress with yoga and meditation, as showcased in the Beirut Yoga Festival

Yoga was introduced to Lebanon in the 1950s. Since then a rapidly growing number of Lebanese practise yoga. Image courtesy of George Abdelnour

“To see the benefits of yoga is the most pleasurable thing. I remember this student who walked in with a hunched back, shoulders down. She now has an open chest and straight posture, is generally a happier person with a good energy,” Dalal Harb told me. Dalal has been teaching Bikram Yoga in Beirut for the past four years and is the founder of the first Beirut Yoga Festival, which commences Saturday, September 20, at Pleine Nature in Mansourieh.


The practice of yoga goes back around 5,000 years to Indian antiquity. Over the past 50 years it has found many adherents in the West. Operating on the mental, physical and spiritual level, yoga seeks to transform both the mind and the body.


Since setting herself up in Beirut four years ago, Harb has observed overweight students who have shed extra kilos by practicing yoga. “Their bodies changed, they also came to change their diet; they felt more energetic and also more desirable.” Students with severe back pain have over time been able to stop medication and live pain-free lives, she says.


In stressful environments like Lebanon, yoga and meditation improve general well-being and quality of life. (Image courtesy of George Abdelnour) 


The benefits of yoga are impressive. Claire Nohra, a Van Lysebeth practitioner since 1976, says yoga’s benefits can be seen working on the joints, bones, muscles, digestive tube, brain, liver, heart, and glands. She also lists, increased emotional wellbeing, better balance, posture, concentration and clearer thinking as benefits of the practice.


Over the past 40 years, yoga has become hugely popular around the world, effectively shifting from an exotic to a mainstream practice. Introduced in Lebanon from the 1950s onwards and slowly gaining ground and adherents, notably in the Chouf – a legacy of Kamal Jumblatt – the number of practitioners and yoga studios has risen in the past five years. This is partly due to short-term training certificates being available abroad, but also as a result of greater demand and awareness.


With the political instability, insecurity, rising costs of living, lack of public spaces for children to play and adults to unwind, in addition to high noise and air pollution levels, Beirut has become a very stressful, challenging city to live in.


A study conducted on the Involuntary and Persistent Environment Noise Influences – Health and Hearing in Beirut, Lebanon, found that “in a nonspecific and unrecognized way, noise can generate an unsettling level of stress with profound influence on general health. Noise and uninvited sounds adversely influence physical and psychological health.” The study was aimed at raising awareness on how noise could affect hearing and, over time, influence daily behavior leading to systemic disease.


Air pollution levels, due to excessive car ownership and electricity generators have reached toxic levels. A study conducted in 2011 at AUB found that 93% of Beirutis are exposed to high levels of air pollution. According to a pulmonologist, the number of cases of asthma, rhino-sinusitis and interstitial lung disease in Lebanon has risen significantly over the past decade. The overall prevalence of asthma in Lebanon is at least 50% higher than that in Europe or the United States.


“I realized that it is a need, shared by my environment, to have a platform, an event, that would allow Lebanese people to calm down at least for one day,” Harb describes the genesis of the festival. “Daily life is stressful and people respond by being impatient and aggressive. That is why the motto for the festival is Khoud nafas – calm down, let’s talk. Incidentally, nafas, which means breath in Arabic – is key to yoga and mediation and is a call to everyone to experience yoga and meditation through the festival. Yoga is a practice that talks to inner balance, to our emotions, our well-being; to be clear in my mind, my body – this goes beyond just the gym experience.”


Kamal Jumblatt spent time in India practicing yoga and meditating with a guru. One of the many books the Druze leader wrote was Yoga and Indian Wisdom. Also little known in Lebanon is the local legacy of Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi, who popularized and modernized ancient Vedic meditation technique in the 1950s and 60s, called Transcendental Mediation (TM).


Maharishi Mehesh Yogi founded the Transcendental Meditation Movement in the 1950s (Image courtesy of the Beirut TM Center) 


A non-profit organization, Lebanon has six small TM centers, registered in 1973. There are around 20 active teachers, and over the years 14,000 people have learned TM here.


“It’s a simple technique, really, everyone can do it. Anyone who can think can do meditation,” said Salim Haddad, deputy national director of TM in Lebanon. “Within four days through private sessions and based on an application that will assess your mental category you will learn the technique that we then pursue every day for 20 minutes in the morning and evening.” The courses are set up in such a way that students soon become independent in their practice and pursue it at home rather than attending classes and remaining tied to a center and teacher, as is often the case with yoga.


“During meditation, we reduce our mental activity until we reach no activity of the mind – silence. Immediately, the body gains a quality of deep rest. Due to this deep rest on the level of physiology, our deepest stresses are released. Meditation is a technique that releases stress. Furthermore, our inner qualities get more accessible,” Haddad said.


This graph explains some of the dynamics of the practice of yogic flying. (Coutesy of Beirt TM Center)


Haddad came to practice TM after following a friend out of curiosity to an introductory event in 1986, in the middle of the civil war. “I had digestive problems at that time. After six months I started to feel that I didn’t need to take any medication. In 1987 and 1998 I took the Advanced TM Course and learned other advanced techniques and eventually became a teacher.”


Asked about the benefits of TM, Haddad, who had to dodge shelling during the war to reach his students, listed four categories; development of mental potential, health benefits, benefits to social behavior, and contribution to aggregate world peace.


“Transcendental meditation spurs the development of creativity, intelligence, better memory, and, in another aspect, improves learning abilities for students, leading to better performance at school or university, greater job satisfaction and productivity.”


TM teacher George Elia was drawn to TM after meeting Tony Nader during a visit to Lebanon. Meditating twice a day for 20 minutes helps him juggle a demanding day job. The first benefit he lists when asked what 14 years of TM had added to his life is comfort. “I have a list of benefits! I feel relaxed, my mind is clear, I feel growth in awareness and consciousness; I approach things and problems in a different way. If you meditate for many years you know why.”


To get a taste of 12 different types of yoga practice as well as mediation, healing therapies (including Shiatso, Cranic Healing, Reiki, Crystal Sound Therapy, and others), and yoga for kids offered by a broad range of teachers and healers, head to the first Beirut Yoga Festival at Pleine Nature in Mansourieh on Saturday, 20 September from 7am to 7pm.


Entrance is LL20,000 , with proceeds going to the Lebanese Red Cross.


Beirut, with few green or public spaces, boasts a growing number of yoga studios. (Image courtesy of George Abdelnour)

Yoga was introduced to Lebanon in the 1950s. Since then, a rapidly growing number of Lebanese are practising yoga. (Image courtesy of George Abdelnour)

During meditation, we reduce our mental activity until we reach no activity of the mind – silence. Immediately, the body gains a quality of deep rest. Due to this deep rest on the level of physiology, our deepest stresses are released."