Bethany is one of those people that you meet, and the sparkle in her eye is contagious. Her passion for her craft radiates from her, quick to smile and even faster to hug, Bethany is someone that you just can’t help but want to know and be around. One of the things that we at Gather love is teachers who really walk the walk beyond the mat. We sat down with her to get a glimpse into the cause that she holds close to her heart, The Olive Tree Foundation. She is raising money for her next trip abroad, and we want to spread the word!
GY: Tell us a little bit about the Olive Tree Yoga Foundation. Where was it founded and by whom? Can you tell us about her and her intention behind its inception?
BB: OTYF was founded by Ruthie Goldman in Madison, WI. It now calls Ontario, Canada ‘home.’ In 2011, Ruthie was approached by a student, Layla Kaiksow, who asked if she would like to teach yoga in Bethlehem. Inspired by Africa Yoga Project, Ruthie took Layla’s took it a step further. She asked for help from Paul Van Wijk, and creatd the Olive Tree Yoga Foundation.
GY: Talk about your path to finding OTYF. What led you to be so passionate about this particular cause and what is it about this foundation that makes you stay committed to continuing to sharing and supporting their work?
BB: My journey to OTYF began during my year abroad in 2007 studying international economics in Paris. This was the time of the Islamic Headscarf controversy in France, and the issue of women’s rights was discussed in all major publications. My interest in the rights of Islamic women inspired me to take Islamic Civilization 101 with Professor Ishn Bagby upon returning to the University of Kentucky. I spent the next few years studying Arabic & Islamic studies and cultivated many friendship with my peers fromIslamic countries.
Fast forward to 2013 and Level 2 training with Baptiste Power Yoga Institute. During a morning practice I noticed a young blonde woman sporting the tradition Palestinian Keffiyah (headdress). Not being something one encounters everyday, I bee-lined toward her at lunch. During our conversation, I first learned about Olive Tree. Georgia, as I came to know her, had visited Israel and the West Bank previously and had extensive knowledge of and a passion for the foundation. Following lunch, she introduced me to Paul Van Wijk, a co-founder of OTYF. It became clear to me early on that I would be a life-ling supporter of the foundation.
GY: So, what is it exactly that you have done in the past with this foundation? Walk us a through a “day in the life” when you were in the West Bank. What were you doing, eating, saying, avoiding, loving, etc?
BB: Since that wonderful day during Level 2, I have attended trainings in Madison, WI, worked on various fundraisers and traveled to Israel and the West Bank. The highlight is the 2013 200-hour yoga teacher training I led with women from West Bank, Israel, and Jerusalem. The training provided an opportunity to live in the area for several months and truly get the know the amazing people and culture I had studied for years.
While I was in Bethlehem, I lived with an amazing woman who runs a studio space and her family. Every morning I would wake up just after the first call to prayer, meditate, and then meet up with the family in the kitchen. Breakfast always consisted of a spread of fresh figs, leybnah, olives, and cucumber. After breakfast was asana practice.
The teacher training consisted of 8-hour sessions on successive Saturdays. So Monday through Friday is an open landscape to explore and travel.
GY: What are some of the challenges of doing this kind of work? Did you ever feel afraid or threatened while leading the teacher training? Did your family worry?!
BB: The greatest challenge I faced was the lack of mobility. To gather yogis and teachers separated by a 20-foot concrete wall is a logistical nightmare. There were some weekends I could only work with the students in Jerusalem and others I could only work with those in West Bank. Mostly, this was to save them the hassle and time consumption of traveling between Israel and West Bank. It is so wild, all they wanted to do was learn Baptiste Yoga and hang out. The simplest tasks were a challenge.
I never felt afraid or threatened. Of course, I had those moments of “I have no idea what the hell I am doing,” but it always worked out.
My dad would share my posts on Facebook, bragging about his daughter. I teared up every single time. He worries, although he would rarely admit it. My step-mom took care of my dad, making sure there was guacamole every weekend. On the other hand, my mother is not one to hide her anxiety. She did not watch the news for months even though by now she expects this kind of risk-taking adventure from me. It is actually quite endearing how she murmurs about my unwavering need to save the world while peppering in accusatory mentions of grey hair. My step-dad is the polar opposite, a profoundly logical man. Regularly, he sent emails regarding world news, every article on Paris he stumbled across, and anything he thought may be of interest to me. The emails brought me comfort, and a sense that he knew I could handle any situation with ease.
So, yes, they all worried. But no matter how worried they were, the overarching emotion I felt from all of them was pride. They were all so proud of me and each told me in their own unique way. And not once, even when the situation developed in Syria, did one of them ask me to come home.
GY: How do your students there react to yoga philosophy? Is it easy for you to help them draw correlations between it and their own lives? Do you ever find resistance or do they embrace what you are sharing whole heartedly? Do they sometimes feel that they are betraying values in any way?
BB: The simple answer is no, never. As a teacher, my approach to yoga is practical. As a student, my approach to yoga is spiritual. For me, they are not mutually exclusive concepts. You will never hear me claim to be a guru or an ascetic. As a teacher and a student, I strive to be the best possible version of myself and live a life I can look back on and feel honor.
The universal principles of the yamas and niyamas defy the boundaries of culture. For example, everyone, regardless of affiliation, can practice saucha (cleanliness). For some this looks like keeping their car tidy, for others having a clean diet. Yoga is practical and exactly as spiritual as an individual decides it needs to be for them.
There was never any resistance from the girls enrolled in the training. However, one evening at a trainee’s house her best friend joined us for dinner and yoga peeked her curiosity. She wanted to know if yoga was a religion. I said, “if it is, it is the only religion in history to never cause a war.” This seemed to be satisfactory.
GY: When are you going back? What is the itinerary and what exactly will you be doing while you are there?
BB: The plane lifts off October 13, 2015! Samantha Griggs (OTYF’s newest member) and myself are collaborating to host the a 100-hour advanced teacher training in Bethlehem, West Bank. This training was requested by Eilda, a student from our first 200-hour training and someone I feel blessed to call a friend. On the fun side, I will be showing Samantha the ropes, introducing her to the crew, eating falafel, indulging in the occasional orange soda, hopefully riding around with my friend Jackie singing Taylor Swift at the top of our lungs, and visiting all my favorite spots. There may or may not be hookah involved at some point…remember when I said I would never claim to be a guru? ;) Oh, and it isn’t a trip without the obligatory coffee run to Stars & Bucks.
The tentative schedule for 2016 is another 200-hour RYT training and a Kids Yoga Training.
GY: I know that you promised to raise some funds before you go. Can you talk a little bit about that and why people should support this particular cause? It is such a sensitive hotbed of a topic, so how do you explain the issue without igniting fear here?
BB: This question has essentially two clear answers. The first answer concerns how OTYF contributes and the second establishes how easy it is for everyone else to contribute.
First, Olive Tree is non-violent and inclusive, thus in line with the integrity of yoga. So many people today with access to television, radio, or print media hold an opinion about Israel and Palestine without experiencing the culture first hand. Every member of the OTYF board has spent time there. We all share the desire to create positive change.
Here is the thing to keep in mind: People are not politics. If I were known solely for the political climate of this country no one would know me. OTYF does not claim any political affiliation. It does not suggest a resolution to the conflict in the Middle East. We work with Israeli solidarity activist and we work with BDS refuge camps. Our work depends on understanding and respect for the individuals we are collaborating with on any particular project. We train trusted and respected leaders of communities to be examples of peace while maintaining one simple principle: People over politics. I owe my personal beliefs to two great minds. Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. respectively. Be the change you wish to see. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
The second point is people in the West have it made when it comes to yoga. It is impossible to walk down any city street and not encounter someone with a yoga mat tucked under their arm. OTYF creates this opportunity on a broad reach.
Take Charleston, SC (the place I love and call home) for example. I can easily roll 20 different studios off the tip of my tongue in under a minute. Now, let’s say each studio offers 5 classes a day. I will low ball and say 15 studios at 5 classes per day creates 75 citywide classes per day or approximately 525 opportunities to practice a week. That is just in Charleston alone. Then let’s assume there are an average of 15 people per class. So that is 525 classes per week x 15 people per class which equals 7,875 yogis and yoginis in a yoga studio every week. Of course, some are repeat customers and I am basing this on hypotheticals not research. So I will cut it way down and say 3500 (instead of 7875) yoga students in the studios per week. If every single student contributed the cost of one average drop in, $15, that would generate $5200. That is an amazing amount of funding for a beautiful cause. And it creates an environment for every single yogi to practice off their mat and contribute to the spread of something we all love. Funding goes towards books, mats, props, hiring respected/knowledgable teachers, and hopefully building a state of the art yoga studio.
To support Bethany on her fundraising venture for The Olive Tree Yoga Foundation, visit her page here.