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Practicing Yoga on the Mountain of God

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The name of Ramallah means Mountain of God, and it seems true: God always wants a mountain. Isaac was supposed to be sacrificed from one, Noah came to rest on top of one, Jesus was tempted on one, Moses listened to the voice of God on one.

Though I'm madly in love with the cool mountain air blowing in through the valley to Ramallah, which had made it the vacation destination of choice for people all through the region in days before checkpoints and security barriers, I more often have spiritual power in the wide open spaces of water -- lakes, oceans, rivers and streams.

The body while fasting is like an ocean, with tides that swell and recede. Removed from external consumption of food and water, the body depends on its own resources, but also upon breath.

Human breath may in fact be the same as the divine energy of the universe, called in the yoga texts shakti, called by some Christians "the Holy Ghost" and called by Jews Shekhina. In any case, no matter what the word is, the essence is the same: a divine presence in the earthly world.

And in the earthly word.

At the end of a fasting day in a predominantly Muslim country, the muezzin in the mosque recites a blessing just before he recites the call to prayer for maghrib or "western" prayers, recited at sunset. These words drift in the air. Unlike the bells of Christianity and Hinduism, the shofar of Judaism, or the gongs and percussion of Buddhism, the sound of Islam is the human voice.

The human voice is used as a channeling device in many yoga practices. Nada yoga, or the yoga of sound, uses the principle that chanting creates certain vibrations and energies in the human body that can be healing. During fasting, since the body is not busy with gastric processes and since the body is literally emptier, hollower, I believe the nada practices can be even more effective.

Down the street and around the corner from where I am staying in Ramallah, there is a nondescript green metal door. Up two flights of stairs from the street you will find the new and beautiful studio of Farashe Yoga. This studio was founded by several yoga teachers in Ramallah. The space and facilities and teaching are all donated. Classes are offered for a suggested donated fee of 20 shekels.

"Farashe" means butterfly, and those are the creatures that come to land here. People from all faiths and backgrounds who are drawn to a practice more ancient than any religion, and so more ancient than any conflict stemmed or fed by religion. In yoga, as in fasting, you are led by your own body and your own body's experiences of existing in the world.

To be alive, to breathe, to move in joy, to be able to think and love -- these are the most fundamental and essential of rights humans possess, unbridgeable, to be superceded by no law, whether claimed to be divine or human. This is what is offered and taught at Farashe. Without scripture, without agenda, the teachers and students of yoga are forging a new dynamic way of thinking and feeling.

If yoga is the expression of the body, then I think (of course!) that writing is the expression of the mind and, if one is lucky, the spirit (Shekhina) as well. Sophie DeWitt is an American who has been living in Ramallah for more than seven years. She has founded an organization called Palestine Writing Workshop devoted to supporting the efforts of young and emerging Palestinian writers by providing them with opportunities to work with established local and visiting writers, and to share and perform their work. One recent visitor was Arab-American poet and memoirist Elmaz Abinader.

PWW has a building, again donated space, in the village of Bir Zeit just outside Ramallah. It is rough and unfinished, but Sophie envisions a fully stocked reading room, class space, space for writing consultations, a performance space and maybe a room with a smart board to enable teleconferencing writing classes and workshops with students in Gaza. The aspiring poets and storytellers and memoirists of Palestine have a home; it is growing in the hills outside Ramallah and in the mind and imagination of Sophie De Witt.

And it is imagination, I believe, of the heart and mind and body, that all humans use to feed their capacity for empathy, compassion and love for one another. It is an essential capacity of civilization: to recite poetry, to paint, to dance, to sing and play music. Sophie reflected sadly on how the wall -- the security barrier built around the West Bank, sometimes 30 feet high -- has come to loom large in the imagination of even the smallest schoolchildren (the wall is occasionally built flush up against villages, sometimes school playgrounds abut it). "How will we grow as a people if all our children can dream about is this wall?"

It's a tough question. The wall may have been built with a certain purpose in mind but now, having been built, what reality is it engendering in the young, the future generations?

Countless worshipers come to the last remnant of the old temple, the Western Wall, only partially because of a nostalgia for the lost structure. The other reason -- probably the real reason -- is that the Shekhina, it is said, never abandoned that portion of the wall. The living presence of God is still inside it.

I have felt divine presence many times on this journey. Under my palms on the Western Wall, in the Well of Souls under the Dome of the Rock, on the rock marked by an eight-pointed star in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem -- many places held sacred by millions.

But in other places too: in the warm sea of Galilee, windsurfers everywhere, and at Farashe Yoga, on the rubber mat beneath my palms. Divine presence in my own body, in the breath that enters and leaves it.

And in writing: in the actualization of individual human need and want and love into language. Perhaps no temple need be restored, perhaps one does not need a rock to launch up into heaven. Rather than the "mountain," a fixed place that can be fought over and won and claimed, maybe the metaphor for God we need right now is the ocean. The ocean will wash over you; no one can claim it.

The ocean of your own breath is the mosque or temple you dream of. Your tongue in your mouth is the rock from which you could launch yourself into heaven.

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