BEIRUT: It’s Friday noon at the Tal Abbas refugee camp in Akkar, and around 30 children have gathered in one small room for one purpose: to participate in the yoga session of their teacher and yogaist Sandy Boutros.
Boutros starts the class with physical exercises that help the children get rid of their excess energy and tension, before moving on to breathing exercises that help them calm down. She then proceeds to “work on the mind,” where she gives them visualization exercises through sensory experiences.
“I let them visualize a story that takes place in a forest for example, and they have to feel their surroundings. This brings awareness to the mind,” Boutros tells Annahar. “I started this class in August 2018 and we’re still going strong,” she added.
In fact, it was this weekly class that was the driving motivation behind the founding of Koun NGO, which means to “just be” in Arabic. Koun aims to provide yoga and meditation classes to anyone who's in need of them, including women, children and youth living in underprivileged conditions.
“It all started when I began volunteering to give yoga classes to underprivileged communities and NGOs, such as the Migrant Community Center (MCC) in Jounieh and the Saadnayel community in Bekaa,” Boutros said. Spurred on by friend Tony Collins, who is the founder and director of MishwarAmal, Boutros agreed to start giving classes in Akkar in Tal Abbas refugee camp.
“It was the first time that I teach yoga to children,” Boutros, who is a 2015 graduate from the Bihar School of Yoga in India, told Annahar. “It was also the first time the children hear about yoga. The first few classes were challenging because of the undisciplined lives they lead, especially the ones who don’t go to school. But after we did the yoga exercises they were in a much calmer state.”
Boutros hasn't stopped going to Akkar ever since, and she goes there every Friday to conduct three consecutive classes after the Islamic prayers are over, and the children love going to her class. “They start to gather themselves in groups whenever they see me, which means they have come to understand the significance of the exercises we do,” Boutros said.
The greatest “gift” for her is when the children volunteer to teach yoga to their own siblings, an indication of their profound appreciation of her work. Boutros was fine juggling classes between the Migrant Community Center, Bekaa and Akkar camps, until Shatila Studio, a social enterprise from Shatila camp, asked her to give classes to its members.
“It was then that I felt that there was a real need for yoga and meditation classes for residents of refugee camps and other disadvantaged communities,” Boutros said, adding: “When I saw how yoga can be beneficial to children and teenagers by providing them with an escape from their harsh life, even if for a brief period of time, I decided to create Koun,” she told Annahar.
Boutros accepted Shatila Studio’s request, and began giving yoga lessons to a class of nine Syrian and Palestinian women who do needlework for a living.
Just like their predecessors, Boutros’ new students felt the calming effect of yoga on their lives. “I would hear feedback of how much more productive the women were during the days that they practiced yoga,” Boutros said. “We became like a tight-knit family.”
It should be noted that Boutros has her old friend and yoga colleague Minna Jarvenpaa giving eight classes a week in various areas in the Bekaa valley, from Bar Elias to Saadnayel.
Jarvenpaa, who is Finnish, currently resides in Taanayel area and conducts the classes for free. “Minna loved the idea from the start and has been giving classes in Bekaa since 2017 before Koun was established. She has her own NGO called 'Tools for inner peace' in Britain, and we work together on common projects,” Boutros said.
The next step for Boutros was to create a Facebook page for Koun to market her skills as a yoga practitioner. Soon enough, NGOs were knocking Boutros’ door and asking for help for their beneficiaries.
“We’ve received offers from several NGOs and have already collaborated with quite a few,” Boutros said. “It all came from Facebook.”
Boutros’ plans for 2019 are to continue expanding to more underprivileged communities where she can form a “cocoon” in every community, which is a safe and accessible space for the community members to practice yoga.
She also plans to expand her team and have received numerous offers of support from a number of yoga teachers.
“I’ve submitted my papers to the Ministry of Interior to establish Koun as an NGO. Once we're legal, we will start applying for funds and grants, and we will have a fundraising party soon for the exposure. We’re also running a crowdfunding campaign on Zoomaal,” Boutros told Annahar.
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