Say ‘om’ in the desert
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Say ‘om’ in the desert

Yoga Arava offers peace, tranquility and chance to experience another side of Israel's south

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Peering through red hearts at the fields beyond the yoga/meditation space at Ashram in the Desert, one of the yoga sites for the weekend. (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Peering through red hearts at the fields beyond the yoga/meditation space at Ashram in the Desert, one of the yoga sites for the weekend. (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Yoga is one of those workouts that draws a mixed crowd.

Hippies, middle-aged mothers, meditative men, even some gangly teenagers, they all answer the call of the sun salutation, the om, the Shavasana.

And for one long weekend in early November, some 500 yoga practitioners will gather in the sandy reaches of Israel’s desert region to learn yoga techniques from the masters at Yoga Arava.

“We get everyone,” said Yair Lederman, a Yoga Arava organizer. “They come in their Audis and BMWs, they hitchhike, they stay in their simple tents or in luxury tzimmers [rented accommodation], because there’s nothing else like this.”

“This” is the 200 kilometers of Arava desert, the key to all this magical om-ness. It offers the kind of peace brought about by kilometers of endless flat sands, blazing sun and hot breezes.

In fact, this tranquility is created by a fierce organizational effort.

Managed by a triumvirate of an Arava ashram manager, a desert-tourism entrepreneur and a yoga instructor, Yoga Arava combines the laid-back, Shanti character Israelis have adopted from India, with the intense management style learned in the army.

You need that kind of organizational ability when managing 35 different workshops in more than a dozen locations over a 70-kilometer (40-mile) stretch.

In fact, when the heads of the two regional councils in the area, Hevel Eilot  and Central Arava, first thought of capitalizing on the desert’s magic and creating an event that would draw hundreds of Israelis — and, hopefully, tourists — to the Arava, they turned to “Shradha” Daniel Netzer, a local entrepreneur with more than a little experience drawing the alternative hordes to the area: Netzer, a former high-techie, runs Ashram in the Desert.

The ashram, established at a former kibbutz, runs meditation retreats, yoga and healing workshops and raves, days-long parties such as the Zorba Festival, nudist parties and tantra weekends, where hundreds of partygoers meditate, dance and commune to the mesmerizing beat of trance music. They had a silent meditation weekend over Yom Kippur.

“We love to have a balagan,” referring to a disorderly, chaotic situation, said Netzer, a curly-haired, earringed man who gives people brief hugs upon meeting them for the first time.

But despite the alternative nature of the ashram, it’s run like a well-oiled start-up or army base, with an efficient kitchen rotation serving tasteful vegetarian food and former kibbutz houses redone for ashram attendees. It was that attention to detail that first brought the regional councils to Netzer to brainstorm yoga festivals.

He brought in Yair Lederman, his neighbor from Tzukim — one of the new Arava communities, founded as a base for desert tourism — who moved from Jerusalem nine years ago, as well as Roni Friedman, a former Tel Aviv yoga-studio owner who now lives up north, and teaches yoga all over the country.

The three alternative entrepreneurs came up with Yoga Arava.

The first Yoga Arava was five years ago, with a few dozen participants attending. Now there are usually more than 500 attendees staying at more than 16 tzimmers and campgrounds, ranging from high-end ecological cabins — at about NIS 3,000 for the weekend — to pitch-your-own-tent by the side of the Timna lake, for around NIS 870. All packages include meals, with vegetarian and vegan options at each site.

Registration for the weekend includes choosing one yoga instructor and one type of instruction, because all yoga participants remain with the same teacher and fellow students for the duration of the entire weekend.

That stipulation can be frustrating for participants, acknowledged Friedman, but there’s wisdom in the decision to run the retreat that way.

“People are used to markets where they can choose whatever they want,” she said. “But this is a different way; you get more from that teacher.”

Friedman, an experienced yogi with a warm, welcoming manner, wants participants to experience yoga as a practice with many perspectives.

“There’s no right yoga and no wrong yoga,” she said.

And so, some will do Acroyoga at Ashram in the Desert or Trust Yoga with Shanee Habari, who brings her collection of Tibetan metal bowls for a musical yoga, along with her latest disciple, Ohad Rein, an Israeli-Australian singer who recently competed in the reality show “The Voice.”

Others will spend their sessions in the warm, comforting waters of Kibbutz Lotan’s Watsu pool, where Doria Naveh, a dancer and yoga teacher, teaches trust, getting participants to join a tight, water-clad circle, before having each person place their legs up on the shoulders of the person across from them.

There are yoga masters from abroad as well as local teachers, many of whom are “a little like rock stars,” said Friedman, because they travel all over the world, and have to be booked months in advance.

Certain sites fill up quickly. Neot Smadar, an Arava kibbutz of former Jerusalemites, is already booked. It’s always popular, because the yoga sessions are held in the community’s Artists’ House, a fantastical structure that looks like a Middle Eastern palace and was built by the kibbutz residents over the course of 13 years, in order to understand what happens when people work together on something.

“The sessions are very intimate, because you’re spending three days with a relatively small number of people,” continued Friedman.

Until the Friday, when all the Yoga Arava participants and teachers gather at Timna — the ancient park of copper mines — dressed in white, taking to their yoga mats for a massive yoga session that operates as its own kind of Kabbalat Shabbat. (The Timna location is also geared for Shabbat-observant yogis, so Sabbath observers can attend the massive Friday-evening yoga exercise.)

“You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen 500 yogis gathered here, in white, doing yoga under the massive stones,” enthused Friedman. “It’s like a yoga wedding.”

But no matter where Yoga Arava participants stay and practice yoga, they have the opportunity of doing so while gazing out on the vistas of the Arava desert, where peace and quiet await.

The Arava, which stretches from Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba to the Dead Sea, is the far side of Israel’s desert frontier. It has its own vibe, and rules, an hour and a half away from the nearest city.

But it’s also harder to bring people to this deserted stretch of land. Netzer, Lederman and Friedman are hoping Yoga Arava can become part of the global yoga tourism trend, bringing tourists to Israel for yoga and then getting them to stick around for a while.

“It’s far; it’s the most peripheral area in Israel,” said Lederman.

They’ve been working hard at it, targeting the European market in particular. It seemed as if foreign tourists were ready to commit to yoga in the Arava, but the events of the summer made visitors more resistant to trips to Israel.

Lederman’s not worried, though. He’s planning low-cost packages for next year, with three-day trips or week-long visits and a discount card offering reduced entry fees to local sites.

There’s Timna Park, 60,000 dunam (about 23 square miles) of land outside Eilat with bike trails, archery and hiking, and a selection of campgrounds, including the Villa Camp — 10 caravans with comfortable double beds.

The Vidor agricultural center is a relatively short drive away, where visitors can learn how curly gourds, light purple eggplants and Japanese melons are grown in the desert, and spend time at the center’s engaging new museum, learning about the history and nature of the desert region.

For those who would rather take it easy, there’s the option of hanging out at Tzukim, drinking pale ale or amber beer from the Arava Brewery at Ursula, the community’s newly opened cafe that serves a mostly German-inspired menu, with apple strudel, sausages and a vegan potato salad (not kosher, open on Shabbat).

Success in the Arava requires residents to be a little bit of a hippie and a little bit of an entrepreneur, said Lederman. Think smart, but on a different scope.

“And a little of a Zionist, too,” he added.

Yoga, it seems, may be the glue that binds it all together. It’s the alternative exercise that appeals to a wide range of people.

“People say Israeli yoga is aggressive and intense,” said Friedman. “I think it’s just like Israelis; it’s a test tube of reality. Life here is demanding, and people are looking for answers.

“It’s exciting,” she added. “Every time Yoga Arava happens, we say, ‘It’s a miracle.’”

Yoga Arava, November 6-8; Call 052-366-5935, email yogaarava@gmail.com, or go to yogaarava.co.il or the Yoga Arava Facebook page.

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