Yoga flourishes in Syria, with regime’s blessing

In regime-controlled areas of war-torn Syria, there are now 620 centers where people can practice yoga and meditate for free, reports Petra Ramsauer in the newspaper NZZ am Sonntag (August 6). The International Day of Yoga on June 21 is now officially promoted in Syria and provides the opportunity for public yoga events. While there were already yoga centers in Syria since the early 2000s, many more have opened since the beginning of the war in 2011. Ramsauer writes that this is part of a wider strategy by the Syrian leadership to support its claims of wanting to build a secular and religiously tolerant country. Himself a member of the Alawite community (which makes up around 10 percent of the population), President Bashar al-Assad is eager to be seen as a protector of religious minorities, especially Christians—even if the war has led many of them to leave the country—also hoping that this can create goodwill toward his regime in the West. “As well as encouraging yoga, he has let evangelical Christians open churches in houses where converted Muslims can worship,” reports The Economist (July 13). There is another dimension of international relations involved, with the Indian Embassy supporting the creation of yoga centers as a low-cost way to strengthen relations with Syria. The yoga practitioners are given much latitude. The Syrian Sports Federation has a yoga committee and advocates its practice also as a way of healing the trauma of war and of dealing with the economic crisis. Due to those circumstances, the interest expressed by Syrians in yoga (and in other spiritual paths) cannot merely be attributed to the regime’s initiatives. The Economist notes that similar trends can be observed among Syrian refugees.

International Yoga Day in Damascus, 2017 (source: Prokerala).