In an autobiographical essay on yoga and meditation, Silvia Boorstein looks back on her decades-long work as an activist and yoga practitioner, saying, “I am more zealous than ever about social activism.
I see my activism as an aspect of spiritual practice, the natural result of being less frightened, as well as a sign of liberated energy available for purposes other than just keeping myself going.” 1
This is the insight I keep coming back to since returning two days ago from Lesvos, Greece, a small island ten kilometers off the coast of Turkey that is finding itself smack in the middle of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Each day, hundreds of people escaping violence from Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Yemen, Palestine, and Pakistan are risking their lives on rickety rafts to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece. The morning I arrived on the island in mid-April to work on a project with the elder yogini, Angela Farmer, I was met by life jackets strewn across the beach in front of the guest house where two close friends and I were staying.
Two artist locals who I knew from a previous visit were putting forty life jackets in neat piles with two pint-size versions on top—the size of quarts of milk—as they explained to me that whole families were taking these rafts, paying 1000 euros each to make this dangerous passage.
Then the refugees walk an hour’s arduous climb to the closest coastal town, Molyvos, in search of the “policia,” the first of many steps in making their way to Athens, where they may receive a six-month temporary stay. As we talked, I looked over the horizon to see a whole group of men walking, a welcome and hugs all I had to offer, as they told me they had nearly died on their capsized raft, their clothes soaking wet, their tiny backpacks drenched as well.
For three weeks the friends I had come with and I climbed a steep learning curve, guided by the courage of the people wading from their rafts to shore–relatives lifting children above their heads to protect them from the water; friends carrying a young Syrian man who had been paralyzed by a sniper from the raft to a wheel chair they had pulled behind the raft; people cheering in jubilation as the raft hit the shore, knowing they had survived, even though they had left loved ones behind, even though some had crawled on their hands and knees in the dark to cross the border into Turkey. For the moment they were safe.
In those weeks, we walked with families from the shore to Molyvos, as dignity reigned…their willingness to share their stories even as they were in shock—a Syrian engineer in perfect English telling me he left his one backpack behind, it was either his backpack or one more person on the raft; a mother asking her nine-year-old to pull his pant leg up, exposing a huge swatch of scars from a military man’s machete; iphone photos of people’s businesses, schools, and homes destroyed by bombs; a twenty-three-year-old Syrian, the only woman on a raft of 40 people, her hands calloused from working for three years in Istanbul to save enough money to pay the smugglers for the crossing.
Risk-taking and tenderness laced themselves through our days—the coast guard official, the only woman, tells us about pulling four men out of the frigid water by herself, saving them from hypothermia; a shopkeeper sneaking us water and baby formula to give to this generation’s refugees, whispering to me later that his mother was a refugee who lost 14 out of 17 of her family members to an earlier exodus to Lesvos; a devout Muslim woman shielding her eyes from us all day until at the last, before boarding a bus, pulling down her scarf that covered her face to reveal her radiant smile; a four-year-old on her father’s back, sleeping to the rhythm of our steps as we made our way to town; a group of Syrian students trying to teach me, “I am fine,” “I am happy,” “I am sad” in Arabic, laughing as my mouth sounded like marbles, their many languages delighting the air around us.
By the time the international group of yogis arrived for the two week workshop, we had figured out a couple of things—if you wave a raft in, that may help if they are zig zagging, the smuggler having jumped off the raft soon after pushing off from Turkey, leaving the engine steering usually in novice hands. We had started to distinguish between the sound of an approaching raft and the sound of a fishing boat.
But I had no idea how the yogis arriving might respond to this crisis. Might the yogis be coming exhausted from their own lives, needing a retreat from that life and the crisis unfolding? Might it be too much to switch gears from the wise, quiet contemplation inspired by Angela’s and Victor’s teaching to witnessing babies sleeping on concrete under docked boats and elderly men with insect bites from sleeping on infested hay?
Instead, what I witnessed was an astounding coming together of yogis, each reaching into her/his own skills to organize and channel lessons from their own experiences to stand alongside the refugees.
In those weeks we learned to stockpile bread, cheese, tuna, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, baby bottles, bandages, hydrogen peroxide, water, sanitary napkins, diapers, and yogurt with chocolate sprinkles (for the kids) and then run to the shore as we watched tiny dots on the horizon become rafts overloaded with people. We connected with locals—many scared out of their wits that they might be arrested, lose their taxis, homes, and businesses if they were caught helping—as they provided meals, supplies and support. We learned that, as tourists, we could get away with all kind of things that the locals could not.
I got to see, in action, a 30-year-old German yogi drummer and chef gathering tin pots and spoons from a restaurant to fashion drums, listening for beats of young people from Afghanistan, taking the lead from them to make rhythms that drew people into song and dance. I got to hear from a prenatal care yogi, “I posted a note on my facebook, about the crisis. I raised 900 euro last night—let’s go buy toothbrushes. “ And another, “I took Keili’s lead, wrote my friends, and raised $1,200. I will rent a scooter so we can carry more. “ I witnessed a yogi from the Philippines singlehandedly treat several children’s minor wounds while dancing them into smiles.
I witnessed Angela and Victor showing up at the market to buy food, insisting, even as the shopkeeper pointed out the cheaper versions of tuna and cheese, that they wanted to purchase the finest marmalade, Brie not American cheese, goat’s milk not powdered. I witnessed an Italian yogi rent a mountain bike so she could ride up and down the predawn hills to see which direction the rafts were coming in, running along side my bike (faster than I could pedal) so we could get to a remote section of a beach to meet a raft.
I watched a university professor yogi choosing dozens of shoes for babies and tee shirts for toddlers imprinted with the words “freedom” and “welcome to Lesvos” on them. I heard about the birth educator yogini who talked a pregnant woman through her early labor contractions, convincing a coast guard official that yes, this woman needed an ambulance, and yes, she needed a caesarian section, whispering to the soon-to-be-mother, “breathe, breathe” as she and her terrified young husband did breathe together.
In some moments we would look at each other, what we were doing is not even a band-aid in the enormity of this crisis, asking each other, mostly with our eyes, how such tiny interventions matter? Lesvos and the other small islands are completely outflanked by this crisis. Upwards of 200 people are arriving in a single day, whole families drenched, scared, courageous beyond words. 100,000 refugees will come to Lesvos just this year—three times the number of permanent residents who live in its capital, Mytilini.
Greece is trying—without international funding—to pick up pieces that larger countries (including the US and Russia) and weapon suppliers are creating. The refugee journey to Lesvos and then Athens is only one step. After getting temporary stay papers in Athens, the people will need to move on, traveling underground through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria to, if they can, make it to Germany or maybe as far north as Sweden (where they have heard there are resources for education, healthcare, and starting over).
In the face of this we tried to get the word out, to international press outlets; we found our way to listening ears of UN refugee officials; we made a face book page and YouTube videos; we sent out photos; raised a bunch of money. But mostly we found ourselves repeating a mantra, “All we have is this moment. All we have is this moment”—this baby bottle, this hand to meet a grandmother’s outstretched fingers, this blanket to protect against spiders at night.
Through this experience I know better than ever that Silvia Boorstein is right—long term yoga can make you more, not less zealous about social justice. And it is true that survivors of trauma are on the forefront of liberation struggles, including this one.
In our group of yogis are many who have “liberated energy” in the process of healing from traumas—making themselves whole after facing cancer, alcoholic families, severe asthma, sexual abuse, and other injuries. What makes trauma survivors special—we side with the underdog; we intuit what deep healing requires; we specialize in determination and ingenuity; we know that our long term work as healers absolutely depends upon taking care of ourselves; we find each other, we find each other. And who counts as “each other,” gets bigger and bigger in the process. Multiplying prana, on and off the mat.
As yogis in this century, we are witnessing big schisms as yoga imperialism is showing up in fancy spas in resort towns in Mexico, Costa Rica, Bali, and France, where practitioners are kept away from the locals, (except as the servants), where healing gets translated into exorbitant menus, lululemon clothes, and privatized beaches off limits to the local people except those who clean them for the tourists. Meanwhile grass roots yoga, yoga based in “the things of this world,” continues, in the basements of community centers, in prisons, in storefronts in East LA, and in refugee camps.
What excites me about yoga in this century is how the practice can fuel social justice—and visa versa. This is survivor yoga. This is the yoga handed down to us by Native elders in Colorado and South Asian yogis tucked away from glitz and hype.
This is the yoga that chants with the sea. This is the yoga that makes me thankful to be alive.