Negin Khpalwak, a 20-year -old Afghan musician, often finds herself at odds with a society that isn't particularly supportive of her career choices. For women like Khpalwak, who is the first female conductor of an all-girl orchestra, there are always those who criticise and oppose her, not least within her own family. "The constant fight can be very exhausting mentally," she says.
But Khpalwak has one respite – a yoga centre for women that launched recently in Kabul. "Yoga has brought me peace of mind and helped me cope mentally with my circumstances," she told The National after one of her daily sessions with Kabul's first female yoga instructor, Fakhria Momtaz. "It has helped me develop a positive perspective, despite the chaos," she says.
Momtaz, 40, started teaching yoga about two years ago at a women's fitness club in Kabul. However, the popularity of her classes encouraged her to start her own yoga centre in the war-torn capital of Afghanistan.
“I have been learning yoga professionally for more than 10 years now, but I had been practising since I was a child,” she says, showing me photos of herself doing an impressive chakrasana at the age of two.
“I came from a family of athletes and they all encouraged my passion for yoga,” she says.
With the support of her husband, Momtaz opened the city's first yoga and fitness club for women, on the premises of Momtaz Web Solutions, her husband's company. "My husband has been my strongest support," Momtaz says. "Even though he won't practise yoga with me; he is a bit lazy that way," she says with a chuckle. With no other similar institutions out there, Momtaz's yoga centre quickly gained traction.
"The response was phenomenal; in just five months we have had women from a cross-section of Afghan society sign up," she says. The centre welcomes at least 50 yoga enthusiasts every day.
The ride, however, has not been entirely smooth. In a deeply conservative country like Afghanistan, new ideas and concepts can be greeted with scepticism. "I do receive some criticism on social media for my work," Momtaz says. "People who don't know much about yoga, leave comments saying that this is Hinduism and I am preaching another religion; or that this is haram and not for Muslims." She seldom responds, she says. "Sometimes, though, I tell them that yoga is not a religion, yoga is not a sport, but yoga is science, it is a lifestyle."
Momtaz is undaunted by the criticism. "It is still a new phenomenon and will take a little getting used to," she explains. The women who come to Momtaz are often well-informed about the benefits of yoga. "Many of them have travelled abroad for treatment, and have been advised by their doctors there to practise yoga for a healthier lifestyle.
“Others already know at least a little bit about what yoga is, so there is often very little convincing to do,” she says.
There has also been some interest from men who have inquired if they can enrol. “I have had to turn them away. This space is exclusively for women who don’t have as many places as men do to feel comfortable, safe and focus on themselves,” she says. But she is considering starting a yoga centre for men, perhaps later this year.
In the meantime, the centre is becoming a social space where women can unwind. It is protected, non-judgmental and offers a peaceful and calming environment. Apart from yoga classes, there are also Zumba, Wushu and karate classes, all taught by female Afghani trainers. "We also have a restaurant that is still in the works, which will serve healthy and organic food items. Although it isn't fully functional as of now, it still offers a range of herbal teas," Momtaz says.
The yoga centre has a play area for children, so women can bring their kids along.
"A dedicated trainer works with the children, teaching them yoga, as well as other activities, including English lessons," Momtaz says. The service is developing into a full-fledged daycare centre of its own with 15 children currently enrolled for a fee of 1,000 Afghan Afghani (Dh53) a month. The fee for the yoga centre has also been kept nominal to encourage women from more modest backgrounds to enrol.
"There is a one-time admission fee of AFN500 and a monthly fee of AFN1,000. This gets you daily access to the centre's activities and resources for about two hours, between 6am and 6pm," Momtaz explains.
But this project is about more than just profit. "It makes me happy when I see the women relaxed and calm after a session," Momtaz says. Yoga, she says, helped her to grow positively, and that is what she wanted to offer other women. "That I can provide such a space for Afghan women, who are the worst victims of the ongoing conflict, makes it all worthwhile," she says.
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