Spring (or tulip season, as we like to call it here) has arrived in the bright city, but some locals are not here to marvel at its glory. Sure, tourists are arriving in droves — so much so that I hesitate to head downtown on weekends. (TripAdvisor just named Istanbul the number one place to visit in the world, and while that is good news for the economy, I sometimes shudder at the sheer number of people coming to visit.) But this is not the reason why some of my friends have cleared out of the city at this time. No, the reason is that, for the first time ever in most Turkish people’s lives, they can easily travel outside their own borders, and they are taking advantage of the opportunity not just to go sight-seeing, but to dig a bit deeper into themselves. And interestingly, this is especially true for women.
Take my friend Aysu, for instance. Right now, she’s in Dharmasala, meeting the Dalai Lama. Or my girlfriend Deniz, who has become a follower of Amma and just got back from India to host some of Amma’s disciples here in Istanbul in June for a free event. Or my friend Serpil, who decided to go on a spiritual quest around the world, traveling to Central America and Europe. It seems like everywhere I go, I meet a Turkish woman on a spiritual quest.
“Is that typical for Turkish women,” my mother-in-law asked me the other night on the phone from Canada, “to go traveling in this way?”
I thought about it for a second before replying.
“Yes. Well, at least in Istanbul.”
Turkish women I keep meeting are taking a brave step out of their own comfort zone and exploring the world and themselves through yoga, prayer, dance, meditation, hiking, communal living (and even sense-enhancing drugs). I am always impressed (and sometimes surprised) by the Turkish women I encounter on a regular basis who can extol the virtues of Eckhart Tolle, Reiki, and Osho meditation to heal old wounds and get past spiritual blocks to a healthy future. Turkish women are discovering the outside world and all its different outlooks, but more importantly, they are also slowly discovering a different way to be in the world.
Take, for instance, my girlfriend Aysu. Beautiful and independent, but disheartened and exhausted, she was struggling in her film production career. She seemed caught up in an endless cycle of working at jobs where no one appreciated her no matter how hard she tried. Turkey is still a patriarchal country, and I had often heard her lament how frustrating it was to have to sit quietly with the knowledge that she would be constantly overlooked at work while her male counterparts were rewarded. The last time we met, she had just left another position and she burst into tears at a café, unable to control her dismay.
“It just hurts,” she said, tears streaming down her face.
Not sure what the next step was, she confided in me that she wanted to change her life.
“I can’t change everything in my country,” she said, “but I can at least change myself.”
With that intention in mind, Aysu headed to India with less than 1,000 dollars in her pocket last month to give herself a chance to unstick herself from her life. While I’m not sure if all things can be solved with a trip to India, when I saw a photo she posted of her holding the Dalai Lama’s hand a few days ago, I felt reassured. She had the courage to go to a different place, and whatever she discovers there I’m sure her perspective will always be bigger. The fact that she even got there is transformative in itself.
Then take my other friend Hariye, who, after her marriage fell apart, took the brave step of investing in herself for a summer of yoga and meditation at a retreat off the coast of Turkey. Societal pressure for women to be married with children is strong in Turkey, so it was a bit radical for her just to leave the country to go be by herself. I caught up to her at the end of her retreat, and she was nearly unrecognizable in her radiance. She was glowing, and seemed so deeply feminine and connected to her surroundings. Turkish women have style, don’t get me wrong, but to see my friend floating around in light, skin-baring frocks, her eyes decorated with sparkles, her hair falling loosely around her shoulders, I admit that I let out a gasp when I first saw her.
“So much love here, darling,” she beamed at me.
“You look amazing,” I stammered.
“Everyone here is beautiful,” she corrected me, looking around at the men and women. “You should come swimming with us tonight under the stars,” she added gaily, “after we have a little dancing, of course.”
And finally, there’s my friend Bahar, who gives cranio-sacral sessions in the summers in Istanbul, and lives in Chiang Mai every winter.
“I’m a bit of a nomad, I guess,” she said with a laugh the other day, “but I’m happy with who I am and what I’ve chosen to do with my life.”
Sure, these perspectives and approaches aren’t for everyone, and some of them can even seem a bit flaky — but I believe that they’re all undeniably paradigm-shifting, and what I’m witnessing is the beginning of a powerful change in this country. Because no matter what, Turkey is a very male-dominated country, and these are gorgeous, mature, and courageous Turkish women who are not only seeking their own path — they’re finding it. I’m curious to find out who they’ll have grown into being when they get back, what tools they bring with them — and what they decide to build.
Whatever questions I have about the outcomes of all this movement, I am inspired to move with more intention in my own travels. And that doesn’t just mean doing a meditation retreat or squeezing in a massage or a yoga session (although there’s no harm in that) — it means traveling with the intentionality to reach yourself. To feel your sexual self, your untamed self, your raw nature rise to the surface and to allow yourself to nurture that. I hope that all of us can remember to do that when we travel outside our own borders. You may even wish to start with a trip to Istanbul.
Meghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and Kundalini pre-natal yoga instructor who lives in Istanbul. She has had a love affair with the city for nearly 14 years, and she is deeply excited about the opportunity to finally write about it in a spiritual way. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, she can be found exploring the city and contemplating life’s little intricacies. Her other work has been published in The National Post, CBC, RNW and ROOM magazine, amongst others.
All photos by Meghan MacIver.