Olive Tree Yoga Foundation Reaches out to a War Torn Holy Land

Ruthie Goldman Van Wijk, director of OTYF, at Aida Camp in Bethlehem

The mission of Olive Tree Yoga Foundation is "to create a powerful community of transformative leaders through the practice of yoga.  OTYF is dedicated to creating yoga classes and teacher trainings accessible to all people in the Middle East, and supporting the creation of jobs for yoga teachers throughout the Middle East."

Six American yoga teachers have made base camp at a Bethlehem apartment. Daily they hatch plans, traverse checkpoints between Tel Aviv and East Jerusalem and teach yoga.

In a single week, they taught seven youth classes at Aida refugee camp, three workshops at Wings of Hope for Trauma, four classes at Jerusalem Flow Power, a workshop at Yogama in Even Yehuda, a workshop at Zman Yoga in Jerusalem, a class at the Wellness center in Bethlehem, and an Acro Yoga workshop at the Bethlehem Wellness center.

Ready to teach in the Mid East

YOGANONYMOUS caught up with OTYF teachers Ruthie Goldman Van Wijk and Amber Thompson via Skype between borders and sun salutations.

Hally Marlino: Ruthie, why did you start OTYF?

Ruthie Goldman: I had an idea...create a joint Israeli-Palestinian teacher training program and then create a program to sponsor teachers so they could teach to all sorts of populations without concern for the ability of the students to pay very much. I describe those kind of moments as the double F moments. We have a really big variety of people we teach to. I want to provide an opportunity that might not otherwise be there.


HM: Did you anticipate where you'd be today when you first began this journey?

RGV: No. I didn't know what it would turn into. People have asked us to come teach and here we are.  You just go, 'I'm doing it!' You can't plan anything too tightly in the Middle East. You've got to be willing to show up and go with what's available. If somebody throws you a ball you catch it. So I said, I'll teach yoga here, I'll teach yoga there. I'll do anything. We've created relationships. We are growing.

HM: Tell me about working with kids at Aida Refugee Camp.

Children practice yoga at Wings of Hope.

RGV: I love them, my gosh.

Amber Thompson: The kids, they have such a collaborative spirit, there's a sense of community within them. Let's say kids were in line waiting to do a handstand. There's no helicopter parenting. They figure it out- if the little ones are getting shoved out, they watch out for each other, making sure each kid gets a turn, each kid gets the ball passed to them. They're self-regulated. They have to be.

HM: How did you find Aida and set up the gig?

RGV: The whole entire project started with my connection with Layla Kaiksow. She hooked me up with the director of the community center of Aida. She lives here and has done a lot of work with area orphanages. We met, had this mutual understanding and off we went.

HM: What is it like to teach yoga to kids in a refugee camp?

AT: For me going and teaching was one thing. Sorry, I'm gonna cry...(she pauses.) It became so much more. The second day the kids ran up to me, showing me the yoga poses and the games that we taught them. You see it's become something they want to continue. One of the camp leaders said to me, "I don't want this yoga to go away." She asked me to teach her how to teach the kids yoga. It means a lot.  

Language of laughter

 HM: Ruthie, what do you tell your kids about your Mid-East experiences? They must know there's some risk involved. How do you share your work with them?

RGV: We're Jewish. They're aware that sometimes fighting breaks out. Anybody could be scared. I tell them it's highly unlikely anything will happen, what a beautiful place Palestine is and how cool it is to visit Israel. They know about the good stuff. If you saw the house we're in with the garden and this loving family...the people here are amazing, kind, generous. I tell my kids I'm working to give some people more options, added possibility through yoga and teaching.

HM: What's in the near future for OTYF?

RGV: We're going to spread the word and make connections to start an OTYF Teacher Training Program in the coming year. My next goal is to work with Yoga Alliance to establish us as an official Registered Yoga School. I want these women- even if they never leave Palestine- to have that credential that is transferable. Being certified to teach yoga is a passport. We're going to do this right.

The straight dope from OTYF:

Please note, OTYF does not propose or endorse any specific resolution to the conflict. We support and endorse social, economic, and political justice for all peoples, and our work is geared toward offering possibility of employment, deeper health, and equality to Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.   We see ourself as part of the trajectory of the solidarity movement in Palestine and Israel, and we know that yoga can bring an inner peace to those who practice.  OTYF trusts that this will contribute toward a path to peace and justice.  

Tagged under: inspirational
Hally marlino

Hally Marlino is a blue collar yoga teacher and writer from Madison, WI. She's a spirituality skeptic with a BA in Theatre Performance from UW-La Crosse. Years ago, she held a low rank in the U.S. Army. When she’s not teaching freestyle vinyasa around the isthmus, you’ll find her bike-riding and beer-appreciating with her family. Hally is exactly half ballerina, half professional wrestler. C...READ MORE