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Yoga mom seeks namaste for the IDF

US immigrant Karen Zivan wants sun salutations for enlistees

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

From Karen Zivan's so-called Guns and Poses yoga class at a Petach Tikva army base (courtesy Masa L'Koach)
From Karen Zivan's so-called Guns and Poses yoga class at a Petach Tikva army base (courtesy Masa L'Koach)

Everyone’s getting their om on this Sunday for International Yoga Day, but yoga instructor Karen Zivan lives a good chunk of her life on the yoga mat, where she does the poses she says help keep her sane and steady.

The yogi and mother of five boys wants Israeli soldiers to do yoga, in addition to their daily regimen of push-ups and five-kilometer runs.

She started with trying to get her own sons — she has five — down on the mat, particularly during their military service. Now that two of them have done their army service and the third is about to finish this summer, she’s sure that yoga would have helped them stay calm and focused.

“The army is tough and yoga keeps you calm and centered,” she said. “But they never wanted to try it.”

That could have been because it was their own mother who was pushing it.

But Zivan — whose two youngest sons still face army service –remains convinced that yoga could help soldiers deal with the emotional and physical stresses of daily life in the army.

So Zivan, an immigrant from Rochester, New York, created Masa L’Koach, a program to bring yoga to the army, and began a search for the right contact in the army. She worked with a nonprofit organization that seeks out services for soldiers, hoping they could help her find someone. She visited the Wingate Institute, a sports training facility near Netanya that is also used for military training.

Karen Zivan, a yoga instructor and mother of five boys, has a deep desire to bring yoga and its calming techniques to the IDF (Courtesy Masa L'Koach)
Karen Zivan, a yoga instructor and mother of five boys, has a deep desire to bring yoga and its calming techniques to the IDF (Courtesy Masa L’Koach)

“I spoke with top officers, a lieutenant colonel,” said Zivan. “I didn’t get anywhere.”

She established several pilot programs where she could, working with young men and women in pre-army training programs, with lone soldiers during their leaves from the army and with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then she caught a break.

During a weekend yoga class held in her home in Hashmonaim, a West Bank settlement that is nearly all Orthodox and consists of about half English-speaking homes, a neighbor’s son currently serving in the army mentioned that other soldiers in his unit would benefit from the ancient Indian practice.

“I got right on it,” said Zivan. “I said, ‘Let me speak to your commanding officer, let’s get on your base.’”

It was a lesson in how the army works, said Zivan. The soldier’s officer spoke to Zivan and invited her to teach yoga to his unit, without it being an army-wide program.

Zivan contacted Frances Mburu, a yogi from Kenya who was spending time in Israel, thinking that his powerful, athletic body would impress the young soldiers.

“I knew they should see a very athletic guy giving the class, to see the power and athleticism that’s in yoga,” said Zivan. “It shouldn’t just be a mom of someone volunteering.”

Four months ago, Mburu and Zivan began holding a weekly evening class at an army base in Petah Tikva.

Back to back in Zivan's pilot yoga class for the army (Courtesy Masa L'Koach)
Back to back in Zivan’s pilot yoga class for the army (Courtesy Masa L’Koach)

“It’s a very, very sweaty class,” she said. “Sometimes the soldiers have been out all night and they still get into it. They’re amazingly happy afterwards, and they have all these questions for us.”

What works, said Zivan, is that she and Mburu work with the soldiers according to their levels of strength. As young men and women barely out of their teens, they require a steady physical pace but also crave the relaxed peacefulness offered by yoga. Now, she said, they want to know how to achieve that kind of quiet calm during the rest of the week.

“Now that they know the poses, they’re thinking about what poses do for them. We’re not there to give massages. There’s a lot of empowerment and flexibility,” she said. “Now they’re ready to talk about the emotional, healthy part of the yoga process.”

One soldier gets into warrior pose at the Masa L'Koach class (Courtesy Masa L'Koach)
One soldier gets into warrior pose at the Masa L’Koach class (Courtesy Masa L’Koach)

There are, of course, humorous aspects of teaching yoga to a group of 19- and 20-year-olds, said Zivan.

There’s the grocery cart that’s used to store the soldiers’ guns during class. There are Zivan and Frances’ army green yoga T-shirts printed with the message, “Namaste, my officer.”

There’s also the goofing around that happens during certain poses, such as when they do handstands against each other’s backs, grabbing one another’s ankles and bending forward for a “huge back opener,” said Zivan.

“They high-five and hug each other afterwards,” she said. “Of course, they’re close to begin with.”

For Zivan, these initial yoga sessions feel like a major accomplishment, but she has much bigger plans.

“You can tell me I got into the army, but I didn’t do that yet. I’m just teaching some soldiers yoga,” she said. “I want this to be so much bigger. I want the army to call this a requirement in training. As a mother of a soldier, I want soldiers to know that when they ask for things that make sense, people listen.”

For now, she’s training some of the soldiers to become yoga teachers themselves, preparing for the day when yoga becomes an army-wide program. Her initiative, Masa L’Koach, is partnered with an American yoga school in order to offer certification to the fledgling instructors.

She’s also feeling particularly satisfied with that Thursday evening yoga class.

“We’re on such a high after every class,” said Zivan. “We feel amazing, and then we feel that next Thursday, we’ll just give a better class.”

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