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Hala Okeili is Yoga's ambassador in Beirut

The founder of Lebanon-based Sarvam Yoga also demonstrated some asanas

By As told to Ushnota Paul

  • Published 3.11.18, 7:52 PM
  • Updated 3.11.18, 7:52 PM
 Hala Okeili
Hala Okeili Image: Pabitra Das

Beirut-based Hala Okeili was a lawyer in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with a great job and a good life. But she didn’t feel fulfilled or happy, and a back pain added to her dissatisfaction. That’s when someone recommended yoga to her. Her first brush with it was in 2011, when, for want of a better option, she tried to learn through DVDs and videos on the Internet. Later she came to India where she trained under yoga masters, and went on to start her own yoga studio, Sarvam Yoga, in Beirut, Lebanon. t2oS caught up with the spunky practitioner who also demonstrated a few postures. Excerpts.

Foot-behind-the-head Pose (Ekapada Shirshasana) This is a posture from the intermediate series of ashtanga yoga. It works on opening the hips but you can only do it if you’re an advanced practitioner. It works on detoxifying the internal organs. Basically, the aim of doing more advanced postures is not acrobatics. It’s to challenge the mind. When you’re pushing your boundaries, you’re also pushing your mind’s boundaries.
Foot-behind-the-head Pose (Ekapada Shirshasana) This is a posture from the intermediate series of ashtanga yoga. It works on opening the hips but you can only do it if you’re an advanced practitioner. It works on detoxifying the internal organs. Basically, the aim of doing more advanced postures is not acrobatics. It’s to challenge the mind. When you’re pushing your boundaries, you’re also pushing your mind’s boundaries. Image: Pabitra Das

Incorporating yoga into one’s lifestyle

Yoga should be like brushing your teeth. It should be a thing that you do on a daily basis. It doesn’t need to be for long or be complicated. It can just be a 30-minute practice that includes a bit of pranayama, breathing, a bit of meditation and asanas.

Just doing that for 30 minutes a day can guarantee a life of health and happiness.

Crow pose (Bakasana) It’s a balancing posture and all balancing postures help bring focus to the mind. You have to be focused on only one point and that’s the breath. The moment you lose that, you lose the posture. A lot of time you’ll see people losing the posture and falling, it’s because it’s a strength issue or they lost their focus. This posture makes you challenge your mind. It also strengthens the upper body and core.
Crow pose (Bakasana) It’s a balancing posture and all balancing postures help bring focus to the mind. You have to be focused on only one point and that’s the breath. The moment you lose that, you lose the posture. A lot of time you’ll see people losing the posture and falling, it’s because it’s a strength issue or they lost their focus. This posture makes you challenge your mind. It also strengthens the upper body and core. (Picture: Pabitra Das)

Focusing on the breath

Without breathing, there’s no yoga! The body is tangible and the mind is subtle. And the only connection from the body to the mind is through your breath. If you close your eyes and sit for only five minutes a day and just focus on your breath, you’re starting to take your awareness inside. This starts to develop the practice of meditation.

Even in the practice of asanas, if you’re not breathing, there’s no point. The act of breathing is our life force, our energy. The extension of the breath is the extension of our energy. The more you slow down your breath, extend the breath, the longer and healthier you will live. If you see yourself getting angry or scared, you’ll see that your breath becomes shallow and fast.

When I first started teaching yoga, I used to get stressed out during public speaking sessions. But when you get a control of your breath, you can control that. The longer you breathe, the calmer you breathe and the more you breathe, the healthier your mind is.

Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) People love handstands! They not only work on a physical level but also put you in a happier mood. When you invert yourself and challenge your mind, you are bringing out the child in you. It’s playful. That’s why people love it. A lot of social media posts today are about handstands. It has a playful attitude about it. It’s fun!
Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) People love handstands! They not only work on a physical level but also put you in a happier mood. When you invert yourself and challenge your mind, you are bringing out the child in you. It’s playful. That’s why people love it. A lot of social media posts today are about handstands. It has a playful attitude about it. It’s fun! (Picture: Pabitra Das)
Forearm Stand (Pincha Mayurasana) This posture works on strengthening the core and the upper body. It is basically an inversion — when you’re inverting your blood, you’re bringing blood to your head and you’re defying gravity. You’re in a way inverting the circulation, which is very healthy for your organs. They say if you do this once a day, you live longer.
Forearm Stand (Pincha Mayurasana) This posture works on strengthening the core and the upper body. It is basically an inversion — when you’re inverting your blood, you’re bringing blood to your head and you’re defying gravity. You’re in a way inverting the circulation, which is very healthy for your organs. They say if you do this once a day, you live longer. (Picture: Pabitra Das)

Primary benefits

It works on two levels. First of all, yoga helps directly in detoxifying the body. It works with the internal organs like the liver and the spleen; that keeps the metabolism and immunity system of the body higher.

It gives you better sleep. A lot of people suffer from insomnia and most of them face difficulty in waking and sleeping. When you start practising yoga, your mind becomes calmer and you get more quality sleep. When you sleep, a lot of things happen. You grow, you’re healthier, your immunity system reboots.

It’s not only that yoga helps you lose weight, it also helps you in controlling it by making you a mindful eater. You’re mindful of what goes into your body. 

Eating healthy

When you are practising yoga, you cannot have really heavy things. It’s impossible to have a hamburger and then do yoga. You don’t want things that are not good for your body or for the environment. So you start to eat cleaner; often people choose a vegetarian diet. A lot of people today are also choosing a vegan diet.

I don’t drink during the week because I have to practise. If I have a glass of wine, the next day I feel it in my body. So, if I drink, it is on the weekend and very moderately.

Staying fit

Yoga decreases a lot of body ache by increasing flexibility and making the muscles and bones stronger.

On a mental level, yoga works directly with the parasympathetic nervous system which is basically what’s responsible for making us relaxed. When you are constantly active, the parasympathetic nervous system is not activated. Even when you’re doing the active kind of yoga, whether it is ashtanga, vinyasa or hatha, there are times when you rest, whether before or during or after, in Shavasana, and the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated and it makes us relaxed.

When you control your breath, you’re more in control of your mind and you start to increase your capacity to focus. You are living in awareness. So, really it’s a practice that changes people.

Starting out

Yoga is not a pill that you take and get magic. You need to be consistent. Don’t waste time. There is nothing more important than your mental and physical health and happiness. Yoga is ultimately a journey of self-exploration.

I was a very angry, anxious and unfulfilled person. Yoga gave me a lot of peace of mind. It made me very healthy. It made me become much more aware of my body and my mind. It made me happier.

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