July 14, 2014

Yoga as Compassionate Action in the Thick of Violence. ~ Lily Merhav



Disclaimer: The below represents the personal opinion, view or experience, of the author, and can not reflect elephant journal as a whole.

My name is Lily. I am a yoga student and and yoga teacher trainee in Jerusalem, Israel.

I am Israeli, born and raised.

I read the elephant blogs every week, enjoying the tips on physical practice, self-development, and personal issues, feminism and spiritual practices. They are lovely and sweet.

But whenever things start to heat up here in my country I feel sad disconnected from the discussions I read.

When I was younger, yoga was a just a great way to exercise and relax. When I started to practice more intensely, things began to change, especially in the way I perceived and experienced violence.

On the one hand, I became more sensitive and vulnerable, but on the other, I found myself becoming less afraid to reach out. I felt more compassion to people who are different than me, who are ultimately strangers.

That’s easy during peacetime, but the last two weeks have tested both my nerves and my beliefs. They made me question what means to practice yoga in times of violence. My practice for me is not just the asanas any longer—it is a sanctuary for the mind that is easily lost when in pain and fear.

Two weeks ago, three young Jewish boys were kidnapped and killed, and last week it was another young Arab boy. Riots are being started from both extreme sides of the conflict while a tired terrified silent majority of Israelis and Palestinians are trying to keep their sanity and their lives together.

It’s really hard to describe how insecure and helpless I feel at this very moment, overwhelmed by every possible feeling a human being can feel when they have no control over the reality around them.

As a yoga practitioner and future teacher I believe in non-violence, and in peace as a reality of this life and not the next one. I try to share that belief with my fellow friends and students every day.

I want to use the tools I have as a yoga instructor not just to give people a healthy lifestyle but peace of mind and hope, that may be through the practice of yoga we can educate ourselves to be self-controlled. non-judgemental, generous—and most importantly, free of fear.

Then there is an attack, and riots, and bombs and the media laps it all up, smacking it’s lips, pumping out more awful images and words. Surrounded just by this, to fall into despair, anger and hate seems the legitimate response.

I know because sometimes I am full of hate and anger. Frequently my thoughts turn to blame, following a sequence like this:

I start by blaming the Israeli settlers and right-wing government and parties, then I move on to the extremists on the other side—the hamas and hezbollah. Then I move on to just regular folk who voted for the right-wing government.

Then I start hating the spoiled and rich people who live in Tel Aviv who sit in their pink safe bubble because of their indifference and lack of involvement.

Then I start hating the extreme left-wing which seems to ignore the suffering of Israeli citizens in favor of Arab citizens, and after that I swing back to hating the right-wing media which portrays all Arabs as terrorists which is also untrue.

That’s how it goes all day every day here, like a crazy broken down record that just repeats itself and tortures my heart, soul and mind.

Till I stopped and realized how crazy my thoughts are and how cruel, destructive and terrible my thoughts can become as a result of all the terror around me.

That’s what terror does: it depletes you of your humanity.

So I am indebted to yoga and the tools I have been luckily given, tools you can’t find on the media or at schools— meditation, non-violence, truth, patience, tolerance, compassion,self-inquiry, and non-judgment.

In the midst of freaking out something snapped me back into myself and refocused my attention on the good instead of the bad. I focused on what I really felt and thought of the victims of violence and their families on both sides, without the distractions of the media and news. I focused on helping others get through these scary days instead of adding more fear and pain into this melting pot of terror.

I focused on the fact that there are lots of people like me, that don’t really hate anybody.

In fact, most of my friends and family are people dedicated to making Israel, Palestine and the world a better place. 

And I am sure we are not alone, and that we are the majority. I can’t hate myself for being Israeli because my nationality does not define me.  I also don’t want to, for there is no point to hatred—especially self-hatred.

And I could not expect a Palestinian to hate himself either.

Instead, in the hopes I don’t sound like silly carebear character from a disney movie, I wish we could teach each other how to love ourselves more, as well as our neighbors.

Are daily manipulated into fear and exhaustion till our souls have nothing left for our original goals. I am sure that statement is true for anywhere in the world but here in Israel it is so acute that it can’t be ignored—especially if I want to become a yoga teacher for reasons that go beyond relaxation or a good workout.

I am not saying yoga will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like I won’t say it will bring world peace. But I do hope to create a safe place of practice and nurturing which embodies that hope for all of us. I hope that there are teachers in the Palestinian nation who share my belief.

If any of you reading this believe a word I say, your advice and suggestions are more than welcome.

Shalom and Namaste. 


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Editor: Renée Picard

Images: courtesy of the author

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Richard Jul 16, 2014 7:43am

Hi Lilly

Thanks for posting this.

I practice yoga and meditation in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Belfast is relatively peaceful compared to how it was 20 or 30 years ago but I’m old enough to have experienced the fear and hatred you describe.

It’s tempting to view our personal practice relative to big social problems and then get disheartened. It’s also tempting to think that we can only effect change with programs or efforts that exist on the same large scale as these problems.
From my perspective yoga and Buddhism are essentially anarchic. By that I don’t mean they are about nihilism or disorder, I mean that they don’t offer fixed answers. That might sound like a deficiency when faced with riots and terrorism but I think the strength of our practice. If political slogans and policies were the answer we wouldn’t be having these wars any more.

Politics can never be the whole answer as it’s always trying to solve the problem that someone saw when they wrote the policy not the problem that exists right now. It seems to me that until we add a spiritual element we are always going to be faced with political problems.

I wish I could send you the answers but all I have to offer is hope. When my country was tearing itself to pieces I didn’t believe I would see peace here in my life time. My “practice” in my teens and twenties included BMX bikes, skateboarding, photography, punk gigs and art. My friends and I felt that the best way to fight the violence was to turn our backs on it and build something new on our own on our own terms. I never thought about interdependence at that stage but it retrospect I can see that we contributed something small but important that helped to defuse the problems not add to them.

It seems to me that all you can do is your practice and your artwork and that is good enough…to be part of the solution not the problem.


Carin Jul 14, 2014 4:47pm

I am saddened and angry at the situation, even though I am very far away in California. Thank you for your great article. It is so nice to hear a more sane voice instead of the regular media. You will have an impact if you continue to practice and teach to spread that to anyone who will listen.

Olivia Jul 14, 2014 12:38pm

Hello Lily in Jerusalem…. so good to read your post.

I am also a yoga teacher and I used to be a human rights activist in a major campaigning organisation. I spent years and years visiting torture victims, writing reports telling governments what to do, what peace plans to put in place, etc. But these days, I feel I am coming from a different perspective. I don't believe peace in Israel/Palestine is going to come from politicians, IGOs and peace plans.

It is going to come from people like you, doing the hard hard work of working with themselves, learning to love themselves unconditionally in all of their imperfect wholeness, owning the violence that we all have in ourselves, whether just in thought or in deed, in order to love the other. We can not love the other if we have not learnt to love ourselves and for me that means going to a heart level, below or beyond the level of mind.

I used to play with words all day long; finding the perfect recommendations for this prison governor or that head of military. But I feel, like you I think, that peace comes from a place beyond those words. It comes from feeling and sensing our fear and our trauma and seeing how it shows up in the body and allowing the body to hear and to heal.

Perhaps this is a load of Western privileged mumbo jumbo; I have lived in many places but currently live somewhere very peaceful so for sure, this is just my perspective. But for me, if Israel were filled with more people like you, things would be looking very different.

I can imagine it must be hard not to get overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation and the enormity of the terror and fear and suffering. Even this morning, from miles away, I found it hard to focus my mind in my morning meditation thinking about it. But surely that is all the more reason to work with our bodies and minds; a clear mind will lead to compassionate thought and action, beyond 'right and wrong' thinking, as Rumi said.

Yesterday I was looking at a video of an Israeli kindergarten teacher using somatic techniques with her 4 and 5 year olds to help them with their fear. And I too thought; I hope the same can happen in Palestine. I first thought, when I finished training as a dance movement therapist I want to go to both places and do projects.

But neither Palestine nor Israel need outsiders like me coming in, who do not fully understand the areas' histories and culture. They need people like you. I send you my love and blessings and hope you know that there is a worldwide Sangha out there. All my support from afar; keep doing this 'work', the world needs more people like you.

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Lily Merhav

I am a 31 year old student of life, art, and movement. I have been working as a Pilates instructor for the last eight years, and am broadening my horizons as a teacher and student in the methods of Pilates, Yoga and and now, wonderfully, as a Gyrotonic instruction trainee. I am also a painter, who during my first years as a Pilates instructor also completed her degree in Fine Arts at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. I focused mainly on drawing and painting and the more I taught movement and studied art, the more felt I couldn’t ever give up on neither. The spirit that embodies the art I enjoy as a spectator and creator is the same I find in a class I teach or take. Its a spirit of nature, understanding and inter-connection, which has endless beautiful variations to be explored and enjoyed.