Spiritually Oriented Yoga Schools Hope to Bring Peace to Lebanon: Shakti Saja

Spiritually Oriented Yoga Schools Hope to Bring Peace to Lebanon: Shakti Saja

Saja is a Yoga practioner and trainer in Lebanon, where she along with other studios is trying to bring peace to an ancient land. Always interested in spirituality and the pull of religion, she recalls a childhood memory of closing the door of her room as a young child, lighting a candle and closing her eyes for meditation.

In France 2013, a friend of hers from India gave her the name “Sri Durga Madurai”. She didn't give it a thought till a few years later she ended up doing her Teacher Training Course at Madurai in Tamil Nadu where the swami of the ashram gave her the name Shakti. "I found it powerful, suitable to my personality and I liked it!" says Saja in her interview with CSP. Her practice in Lebanon is called Shakti Wellness Center.

How did you get interested in Yoga and Ayurveda

In my early teenage years, I was into fitness and sports and used to work out regularly in a gym. One day in 2009, I attended a Yoga class with a very special teacher and since that day I fell in love with it and started to practice twice a week. Meanwhile, I started to read about Yoga and I directly switched my diet into a vegetarian one knowing that I always used to find it difficult consuming non-veg food. I became more and more aware of my health and how to feed my temple the healthiest possible way, started to buy from organic shops and added new herbs to my diet. I first heard about Ayurveda in 2015 during my first trip to India where I started to understand the depth of Yoga and its connexion with the quality of life (food, habits... )

Were there moments in your first trip to India that were life-changing?

At the beginning of my journey in India, I stayed in Rishikesh for one month exploring the area and the different yoga schools and ashrams. I became friends with the Nepalese staff of the guest house I used to stay in. Once he insisted on paying Rs 100 for my entrance to the Beatles Ashram even though his salary was not more than 4000 rupees a month. “You are a guest”, he said, refusing to take back the Rs 100 and that moment was a big eye-opener to me.

I used to go to one of the ashrams in Rishikesh for daily Satsang, listening to the explanation of some excerpts of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads and used to feel very captivated by the swami's words and his state of being. In one of the satsangs, I saw a halo around the head of the swami and that moment was life-changing. I realised that God exists within every individual but it’s all about what you do in life to amplify this light.

How would you describe your journey to becoming a yoga practitioner and instructor? Did you have to get into a different way of living than before?

Yoga is a personal journey and what resonates most with you depends on your own unique personality, experience, and growth. I am an empath by nature, I feel people's pain and joy and live through the feelings as if it were my own. I feel that empathy is a powerful gift from God, but can also be heavy and overwhelming at times. In my journey, I am learning how to accept everything around me the way it is and how to cherish the beauty in every person regardless of the differences between us because after all we are all playing different roles in this same drama yet we are one.

In my Hatha Yoga practice, every day my body responds differently to the asanas and I learn daily how to listen carefully to it and understand the why behind my body's reactions. “Saja, what did you eat? How did you sleep? Are you emotionally repressed? Are you telling the truth to yourself? ...” These are some of the regular questions I ask myself.

I can say that I finally found my path when I found yoga. Becoming a Yoga teacher has changed my lifestyle and added more harmony to my days. It helped me to say a big NO to a useless party and a big YES to wake up during Brahma Muhurta and starting a new day fresh full of energy.

Who was your guru and what school of yoga do you follow? What are its main teaching?

Dr Hisham Nasr is the first teacher who introduced me to yoga in 2009 and he is the most special of all the teachers I’ve met. After several years of medical school, Dr. Hisham decided to quit the medical world for the love of Yoga and Vedanta and he became a wonderful Yoga teacher. He is an Advaita Vedanta student and inspired by many spiritual masters from India like Swami Sivananda and Ramana Maharishi. Dr. Hisham is the one who unveiled the path of truth in front of me which is why I consider him a great teacher and guru. Personally, I‘ve done my TTC (Teacher Training Course) in Sivananda Ashram (Madurai), an authentic Yoga school that teaches yoga asanas, pranayama, meditation and scriptures through Bhagavad Gita and Yoga philosophy.

Are there many takers for yoga in Lebanon? What is the main draw - the asanas or the spiritual component?

Yoga in Lebanon is very trendy and there are many yoga centers but not all of them are spiritually oriented. Unfortunately, many students start Yoga with so many “asana goals” in their mind and nowadays it’s hard not to envy the yogis of Instagram!

The spiritually oriented yoga schools or studios in Lebanon are few but they do exist with hope to spread more awareness and peace in the country.

In your site you mention that you were an avid traveller. In your opinion should one travel to India to truly discover the core of yoga. What are the places you recommend?

I always ask myself if my understanding of yoga would have been different if I hadn't travelled all these years to India and lived in different ashrams. I really believe that my travels helped me to have a deeper understanding of Yoga philosophy and Vedanta. It would definitely not be the same without leaving my comfort zone. At home, you are surrounded by your family and friends and influenced by the “the rituals” you are used to from childhood so if you wish to open your horizons you definitely need to go out of your comfort zone and see the world from outside your little bubble! Once you find yourself and your path, you don’t need a special place or atmosphere to practice yoga anymore. Traveling to India nourished my heart and soul and helped me find my way but after all Yoga is everywhere.

I recommend:

1- Ajatananda Ashram, an authentic interreligious monastic ashram in the Indian Himalayas of Rishikesh dedicated to the Oneness of Truth and the teachings of Non- Duality (Advaita)

2- Sivananda Ashram in Madurai for TTC

3- Himachal Pradesh for hiking and exploring the Himalayas ( in love with Manali and the old villages around it)

4- Goa to catch some vitamin sea!

5- Trivandrum to learn some Kalaripayattu

6- Tiruvannamalai to visit Ramana Maharshi Ashram and meditate in the beautiful eco-friendly Vipassana center : Dhamma Arunachala

7- Chennai to enjoy its charm and do some surfing in its Kovalam beach

8- Pondicherry to go Frenchy in an Indian city

9- Auroville to visit the outstanding Matrimandir and buy some organic super herbs and eco-friendly and good quality clothes.

Newly married Saja with her husband Arjun Arora

What constitutes your daily practice?

I do my best to wake up early before sunrise to start my day fresh and do my ritual cleansing (bath and nasal cleansing with the neti pot). After that, I meditate for 20 min (and do few rounds of pranayama if the time allows me to do so) and then I give my yoga classes at “Shakti Wellness Center” and if no class is happening I do my daily practice for myself. I meditate again for 20 min around the sunset time and give another yoga class. In the city, it’s not easy to maintain a very strict schedule because of the fast pace of life but I do my best to slow down the rhythm of my days and keep it harmonious with Yoga, healthy food, happiness and love.

Is Ayurveda a complimentary practice? Do you believe in a sattvic diet? Is that mandatory to realise the benefits of yoga?

Ayurveda is a sister philosophy to yoga and It’s very important for a yoga practitioner to be aware of the quality and quantity of food he or she eats. While eating, we should be aware of nourishing our body and soul. Food is made as a source of nourishment and energy for the human being so the quality should be really good, healthy and fresh in order to create the right energy needed for a healthy lifestyle. Sattvic diet balances the body, mind, and soul, thereby resulting in longevity of life in an individual. Yoga is a discipline designed to create self-awareness and purity and a sattvic diet definitely helps in this process.

Are there many yoga schools in Lebanon? How did yoga become popular there?

In Lebanon, there are more than 30 Yoga studios and thousands of gyms and in almost every gym you have yoga classes so yes, Yoga is quite popular in this small country (10,452 km² in area with roughly 6 million inhabitants). Many Lebanese are into fitness and they do take care of their outside looks and that’s one of the reasons why the number of gyms and spas in Lebanon are so high. Yoga started here with some qualified yoga teachers who started giving classes in gyms and wellness centers. At the beginning, I remember not seeing many people joining these classes but slowly over time the classes started becoming more popular with the rise of the so-called Yogi influencers on social media. Today, you can find some authentic Yoga schools following the traditions of their masters and some others following the trends of Yoga.