I’m going to diverge a bit from the normal yoga blog and write about my recent trip to Iran. I did attend a yoga class in Iran which was described by my Aunt as “The Spiritual Yoga Class.” Unfortunately, most of this got lost in translation for me as I couldn’t understand a lot of the spiritual dialogue in the class. After the class, I discovered that we were seeds, growing, moving with the wind and changing with the seasons. I simply followed the movements which had aspects of traditional asana but with the flowing movements and hand gestures of Persian dance. I lay in silence listening to this spiritual women speaking during the final meditation. And left feeling a little sad. Later, my Aunt told me that this happens a lot; as this teacher speaks her voice brings up and clears old wounds and hurts from the body, expelling them with sadness or tears, ready to be replaced with new insight and light.
Yoga has in fact also taken off in Iran, and like in the west it has been embraced by women. Driving around you see the occasional Yoga studio sign and adverts in places like the museum in Tehran advertising Yoga classes for female employees. And with a country where at least 60% of people suffer from stress, yoga is needed to give people a moment of calm. It is, however, a shame that the men are missing out on this. When you spend some time in Iran you can understand just how high these stress levels are.
Forget what you hear in the news about Iran being anti-West, don't get confused with the events happening in the middle east - suicide bombers and crazy extremists, Iran is not currently at war and the whole of the Middle East shouldn’t be put into the same bag! Some Iranians are more like Hollywood stars, just hidden under a black cloth. They wear expensive fashionable clothes and shoes, trendy dark glasses and blingy gold purses. All under a black cloth. Of course there are people who are religious and want the country to remain an Islamic state, but there are also many others who are not and they want the freedom to express themselves. This is why there is a constant battle with women’s clothing in Iran, with monteauxs getting shorter and shorter, arms starting to appear and head scarves inching further and further back, sometimes falling off for a brief moment. In addition, nose jobs are becoming almost an essential activity, with boys and girls sporting new “cuter” noses. On the other side of the battleground, the religious morality (fashion) police stalk the streets pointing out these indecencies in clothes, sometimes arresting young couples.
The Lonely Planet guide tells you that Iranians are some of the friendliest people that you will meet; they will offer you their homes and their hospitality. Friends who have visited Iran have said the same. As a half Iranian I see this hospitality in a slightly different way, sure we are invited to various relatives homes, for dinner, for ice cream, to be taken on a tour of the city, but this causes a great deal of debate amongst our immediate Iranian family. Mothers are phoned, grandmothers consulted...what is the right response, is this Taarof? (this is a form of Iranian civility, it covers a range of social behaviours, including hospitality. Here the host is obliged to offer the guest anything they may want, the guest is obliged to refuse the offer, this goes on several times before they each decide whether the offer or refusal are genuine.) It’s always hard to determine what is the right response - do they really want you to go to their house for dinner? Would they be offended if you didn't or would they be put out if you did? This cultural aspect takes a lot of navigating with the help of the immediate family.
The drivers in Iran are some of the craziest I have seen in the world. There are no rules – whoever dares, wins. This includes crossing the road, which is like playing chicken with the cars. Red lights mean nothing - there are hardly any anyway, and there are not many road markings at all. Driving on a roundabout, for example, takes skill as no one seems to have the right of way. On one occasion we saw a driver driving with a baby on his lap, on another we were driven home in a “disco” taxi with blaring western music, speeding around cars. We saw cars reversing down the motorway, driving in the wrong direction (especially motorbikes), wedding cars with friends driving alongside literally hanging out of the window to film the bride and groom. We had a taxi driver pouring tea and offering us a cup whilst driving, we were offered Shiraz wine and Arak (firewater) whilst being driven around by family friends - "we party in our car, it is the only place apart from our homes where we can be free" they said, and then "many times we have had to escape the police driving very fast to get away." The penalty for being caught with alcohol is severe, so no one seems to stop if the police lights flash behind them.
This may all sound negative, but some of the problems are a result of the underlying tension caused by the politics of Iran. People are genuinely nice. Family is vital, revered. Everyone takes time to be with their family, helping each other, when someone is ill everyone joins together, people live in close family communities to enable this. Although women are hidden behind their scarves they still work, drive, manage, study. Food is another fantastic part of Iran, the food is truly delicious – fresh, using lots of herbs, garlic, yogurt, turmeric, saffron and made with love. These can be seen in the everyday phrases that are used. For example, the response to telling someone that the food is lovely is “thank you, I hope this food energises your life-force”. Iranians are proud of their culture, their rich history, poetry (poets are revered in Iran, poets like Rumi and Hafez underpin Iranian culture).
All of this serves to illustrate how there are so many wonderfully different cultures in the world. It also serves to remind us of many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives. Things we do not appreciate until we are faced with a culture where such things are not commonplace: freedom to wear what we want, to drink what we want, to speak to whoever we want to whenever we want to. Freedom to surf the internet and shop on ebay. Freedom to order and read books from Amazon. Freedom to say what we think, to live in a country without economic sanctions. And just as it is easy not to appreciate these things, it is also easy to get wound up in our daily problems, making mountains out of mole hills when our broadband connection is down or we are stuck in traffic. It is easy to get lost in the daily routine and pointlessly lose our centre.
Take a moment to think of all the things you are thankful for, all the little things that have annoyed you today – could you have dealt with things differently? Acknowledge this, learn the lesson and then forgive yourself and anyone else, let it go. When you start to feel yourself being pulled from your centre, take a moment to pause, become aware of your breath, notice: is it shallow? Take a deeper breath, this will help to calm you, and perhaps in this moment of pause, perhaps, you will have a new perspective on the current moment and instead of simply reacting, you will be able to act out of kindness.