Yoga for Peace in Afghanistan

Yoga in schools has been one topic covered here on PeaceLearner, but another area where Yoga and meditation are being used as approaches to peace and nonviolence is actually in Afghanistan, through the Amanuddin Foundation. Started by French human rights activist Amandine Roche, Amanuddin facilitates yoga programs for Afghan people. The program there is called Sola Yoga – “a peace initiative based on the ancient/ancestral science of Yoga and meditation,” where “participants will develop the tools they need to control their feelings and temper negative emotions such as frustration, anger, hatred, and revenge.” Sola Yoga focuses on teaching breathing exercises, concentration exercises, and non-violent practices.

Roche told Reuters: “It’s a new solution to an old problem. War starts in the minds of men, so peace starts in the minds of men. You cannot bring peace with the means of war, it’s as simple of [sic] that.” Roche believes that peace cannot be imposed from the outside, but must come from the inside of an individual.

Roche is also focused on bringing yoga to Afghans because she believes it will help them begin rebuilding their society after the devastations of war. While some might call Roche, who was detained by the Taliban in 2001, crazy for working with these gunmen, she says: “My vision is to teach meditation to all the insurgents, to organize vocational training for them to become mediation teachers, so … they can go back to society, they have a job, they can reintegrate, and they will become peaceful” (Reuters). Roche has worked with the Dalai Lama and members of the Gandhi family to learn about non-violence and meditation. She also worked for the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping and helped to organize the first Afghani presidential election.

The Amanuddin Foundation is just getting started and will surely be growing in months to come. The foundation has gotten a lot of press in recent days – to read more, see these articles:

Can yoga and meditation help bring peace to Afghans? – Reuters

Sola Yoga: Can Meditation Bring Peace to Afghanistan – Huffington Post

For This Yogi, Afghan Peace Plan Needs More Downward Dog – Wall Street Journal

Reading about the Amanuddin Foundation can be a meaningful way for learners to realize the power of nonviolence and have an example of just how effective and helpful the practices of Yoga and meditation can be. By seeing how Roche and her colleagues are affecting peace in Afghanistan, we can explore different approaches to peace and possibly adapt them to use in our own contexts. Amanuddin’s work is also a moving example of the nonviolent transformation of conflict – especially Roche’s goals of arming insurgents with vocational skills to help them rebuild their lives in Afghanistan.

Reframing Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving cartoon

In his much-acclaimed book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen evaluates the misrepresentations and often omitting of historical truths in textbooks, explaining how myths of our history continue to be perpetuated today. The third chapter of his book, “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving,” offers a sobering and at times much more interesting outlook on one of our most celebrated holidays.

The “First Thanksgiving” story many of us have been taught involves Pilgrims coming to America on the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock, and sharing in a bountiful feast with the Indians (most likely involving a giant turkey and an overflowing cornucopia, one of my favorite things to draw in elementary school). I have a distinct memory of dressing up as an Indian, complete with a leather dress and feathers in my braided pigtails, while other classmates wore Pilgrim attire, for our very own reenactment of the First Thanksgiving. Activities like these are fun for young students because they involve playing make-believe, dressing up in costumes, and eating yummy food.

But Loewen would argue that there are a lot of mistruths behind this story. What many of us don’t know, or at least what isn’t being conveyed in most American history textbooks, is that a devastating plague had swept through North and South America before the Pilgrims arrived. Loewen tells us that “for decades, British and French fishermen had fished off the Massachusetts coast…it is likely that these fishermen transmitted some illness to the people they met. The plague that ensued made the Black Death pale by comparison…within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England,” (70). The epidemic spread west, not stopping until it reached the Pacific Coast.

When the Pilgrims got to Plymouth, which, as Loewen points out, was likely not their intended destination, they found not “virgin wilderness,” as is it often characterized, but entire established, settled villages decimated and abandoned, the ground littered with corpses because no one was left to bury them. The Pilgrims faced no threat from the Indians when they arrived: “Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, was eager to ally with the Pilgrims because the plague had so weakened his villages” (72). Loewen goes on to point out that Pilgrims stole food and crops from what few Indians remained alive, some even robbing their graves.

There is also the story of Squanto, who some of us may remember as being the Indian that knew how to speak English and taught the Pilgrims how to plant things. But what many textbooks leave out is how Squanto learned the English language, and the near-mythical journey and toil that he endured under the hands of British and Spanish slave traders. After being captured by a British captain and taken back to England, Squanto served 9 years as an employed slave, then returned back to Massachusetts, only to be seized again by another British slave raider and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto then escaped from slavery and Spain and returned to Massachusetts by way of England and Newfoundland. When he finally arrived, he found his home village Patuxet – aka Plymouth – in ruins. He had no other choice than to comply with the Pilgrims, and “as translator, ambassador, and technical advisor, Squanto was essential to the survival of Plymouth in its first two years” (84).

Loewen shares other fascinating information about this time, including cannibalism in the early Virginia colony, and concludes this about our celebration of Thanksgiving:

“The civil ritual we practice marginalizes Indians. Our archetypal image of the first Thanksgiving portrays…the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best next to their almost naked Indian guests…The notion that ‘we’ advanced peoples provided for the Indians, exactly the converse of the truth, is not benign. It reemerges time and again in our history to complicate race relations. For example, we are told that white plantation owners furnished food and medical care for their slaves, yet every shred of food, shelter, and clothing on the plantations was raised, built, woven, or paid for by black labor. Today Americans believe as part of our political understanding of the world that we are the most generous nation on earth in terms of foreign aid, overlooking the fact that the net dollar flow from almost every Third World nations runs toward the United States.” (86)

So even though Thanksgiving is a great time to enjoy being with family and loved ones and practice gratitude for the gifts we have been given, it’s important to know the real history behind this holiday. By being cognizant of these historical truths, we are recognizing the marginalization of Native Americans in our history, reframing history and changing the perspective of one of our country’s most significant events. Awareness of these truths, whether in a classroom setting or maybe even integrated into your own observance of Thanksgiving, can also help foster community building. By acknowledging marginalized groups and gaining a better understanding of our collective experience, we are taking ownership of our learning and creating new ties that unite us as a community of learners and Americans.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New Press, 1995.

  • Read an excerpt from “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving” on google books
  • Find the entire book on Amazon

A Peace of Art

Roger Shimomura

While field trips are not always accessible for every classroom, one of the many nice things about living in Washington, DC is the plethora of free museums and art galleries around the city. One of those free venues is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), a museum which, “through the visual arts, performing arts and new media…portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.”

NPG offers guided, interactive themed tours for school groups, several of which address marginalized societies in America. These tours are standards-based and fit into many art, history, social studies and language arts curricula. For instance, teachers can select “The Struggle for Justice” tour, which “showcases major cultural and political figures—from key nineteenth-century historical figures to contemporary leaders—who struggled to achieve civil rights for disenfranchised or marginalized groups.” Students can view portraits of Susan B. Anthony, César Chávez, Leonard Crow Dog, Ellen DeGeneres, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Larry Kramer, Rosa Parks, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and others. Seeing these portraits up close offers students the opportunity to make visual and artistic connections with the historical and literary figures they have learned about in the classroom and in texts.

Currently, there is also a temporary exhibit at the NPG dedicated to contemporary portraiture entitled “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter.” The exhibit features seven artists showcasing Asian American portraiture and helps to enlighten viewers to the Asian American experience, offering “representations against and beyond the stereotypes that have long obscured the complexity of being Asian in America.” Teachers can also arrange for a guided tour of this and other contemporary portraiture exhibits at the gallery. This exhibit gives students a visual tool for relating to and understanding the Asian American culture and experience, helping them identify and break down stereotypes of a marginalized group in our society.

While seeing these portraits and exhibits up close can be a powerful experience for students, the great thing about these tours is that they are also offered online, along with lesson plans and materials for teachers to use if they are not able to take a field trip to the gallery. The tours mentioned above are suggested as suitable for grades 6-12. And even if you are not in the classroom, these are terrific exhibits to explore on your own or with a family, some friends, or a community group.

One other exhibit worth mentioning is “30 Americans,” a showcase of works by many of the most important African American artists of the past 30 years. The exhibition is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and “focuses on issues of racial, sexual, and historical identity in contemporary culture while exploring the powerful influence of artistic legacy and community across generations.” The Corcoran does charge for admission of visitors over the age of 12, however – tickets are $8 for students and seniors, and $10 for adults. Nonetheless, the exhibition has already garnered praise; The Root calls it “massively ambitious” and says “the artists featured in the exhibit provoke, disturb, enlighten, inspire.”

These various exhibitions seek to give a voice to marginalized groups and bring attention to justice and peace in our society. Anyone viewing these collections, whether a student or an adult, is afforded the opportunity to practice community building by taking into account others’ experiences and noticing and appreciating their differences. The powerful nature of the exhibits and tours might also channel empathy and compassion, allowing viewers to nurture emotional intelligence. Viewers are given the opportunity to utilize other intelligences as well by combining what they have learned in the classroom or in texts with visual and verbal information about the subjects in the artwork, obtaining new knowledge along the way as well.

Important Info and Dates:

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter
August 12, 2011 – October 14, 2012

30 Americans
October 1, 2011 – February 12, 2012

National Portrait Gallery Resources

Info about school programs:

Online exhibitions and lesson plans:

Professional Development Programs for teachers: