Yoga

Women empowerment and yoga in rural Morocco and in your life


Before reading this, I challenge you to pause and ask your body the question: How do you like the thoughts I think of you?

When we make the active choice to listen to ourselves, we access the power of introspection. But as you probably understood from the first sentence of this article, it’s often uncomfortable. It is almost taboo to honestly ask yourself how you are doing, and even rarer to have the skills to be able to listen to the answer.

These skills are exactly what the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) seeks to develop as part of its IMAGINE empowerment workshops. The scene ranges from rural villages to bustling towns, but the content and focus remain constant. HAF leaders guide groups of 25 Moroccan women through a 32-hour transformative experience. Ecstatic joy saturates a room where these women connect with themselves, perhaps for the first time. Turning freely through the guided dance helps women create “turnarounds,” the term for newly expanded beliefs that replace often deeply rooted and harmful beliefs. Overcoming the discomfort of releasing old patterns of thought and behavior gives women the confidence to recognize their true potential.

HAF guides participants in goal setting and positive visualizations around seven key areas, including work, relationships and sexuality. These powerful techniques are combined with practical education in Moroccan family law and placed in a spiritual context with passages from the Quran, enabling women to understand their legal protections, seek justice and be empowered by their spirituality.

This act of slowing down and listening is the main driving force behind yoga, as well as HAF’s empowerment mission. It forces us to go from thinking to feeling. The conscious effort required to turn off our critical thinking brain and enter a more deeply present state is not small and takes practice. However, there is incredible potential in the ramifications of this decision; in a study of 24 young women who identified themselves as suffering from chronic stress, an intervention of three months of yoga classes every two weeks resulted in statistically significant reductions in stress and anxiety, as well as improvement overall physical health. Saliva samples before and after a 90-minute yoga class have shown a concrete and significant decrease in the levels of cortisol, our body’s main stress hormone.

How does yoga achieve this? On the one hand, yoga is not just a sequence of strengthening acrobatic movements. The Sanskrit word “yoga” literally translates to “yoke” or “join”. It is an ancient Vedic philosophy that both recognizes and encourages a connection with the inherent interdependence of ourselves with everything in the universe. We are not separate from nature, but rather integrated into it. This idea is also not as far-fetched or spiritually elevated as one might assume: the widely accepted Big Bang theory postulates that everything, from here to the far edges of the universe, originates from just one point. You were once literally one with everything around you. Plus, stretching, strengthening, breathing and meditation techniques come together in one comprehensive practice to unite your mind, body, and spirit. Yoga philosophy and teachings emerge from this idea, with scriptures emphasizing the importance of ahimsa, or non-violence.

Here enters the original question: how do you like the thoughts you think of yourself? Chances are, you haven’t been conditioned to hold yourself in the highest regard, like many women in IMAGINE workshops. According to Ahimsa, this harm caused to ourselves by negative thoughts contributes to the prevalence of harm everywhere. In order to strive for the better, you must first believe that you deserve it. Movement in yoga is a constant push and pull driven by the breath, constantly encouraging us to expand beyond our limits and find contentment where we are landing right now.

The niyama or personal principle of svadhyaya encourages the importance of self-learning. Styles of yoga such as Yin encourage practitioners to find their limit of discomfort by maintaining deep stretching of the tissues for longer periods of time. This increases circulation and joint flexibility while opening up energy channels. Through guided breathing work, students are able to release tension and practice mental strength. When a negative thought or sensation interrupts the flow, yoga allows us to recognize it as a disconnection from our true presence and choose to let it go.

By empowering women to break free from self-restraining thought patterns, HAF promotes both personal and community growth. IMAGINE provides participants with tangible tools and support to lead sustainable and meaningful development from a place of personal integrity. To date, nine women’s groups have created carefully designed income-generating cooperatives to foster the development of their specific community. HAF continually supports these women by providing them with requested training related to these goals, and the groups formed by IMAGINE subsequently meet monthly to discuss current goals and progress.

As we come to the end of the article, I encourage you to take a moment for yourself to notice the ebb and flow of your breath. Go back to the original question, even close your eyes if you feel comfortable, and listen. The principles of HAF’s IMAGINE Yoga and Workshops are centered on this truth that recognizing where you are is the first step in creating the life you desire the most.


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