When 30 Afghan prison guards took a break from warden duties to try yoga, they lunged sideways in unison to meditate on pursuing a more peaceful existence in Afghanistan.
The unusual scene was orchestrated by French yoga enthusiast Amandine Roche, on a personal quest to promote the idea that for fighting to end and battle scars to fade in the warring nation, inner peace must out.
Taliban, Afghan and Western troops should practise yoga and meditation, she believes, to work towards more harmonious and brotherly social relations and help bring three decades of war in Afghanistan to a close.
It is a message she has been taking to powerbrokers on both sides of the conflict, albeit with limited success.
So far her project is self-funded and small in scale, but while yoga for the masses may seem naive in a country steeped in warrior culture, she has at least won some high-profile audiences.
“Real peace starts within, like the war starts within. We need to raise the level of consciousness;, it’s as simple as that,” Roche said at her home in the Afghan capital Kabul.
“I say: ‘Guys, why don’t you stop? It’s pointless for 30 years; just sit, sit and cool down.'”
Downward dogs and sun salutations are not common manoeuvres among military commanders running the war in Afghanistan but at least one senior officer, in charge of US-led detention facilities, listened to her plan.
Roche spoke to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a Navy SEAL then in charge of Task Force 435 that heads US-run detention facilities in Afghanistan. “He did think it might be a constructive programme,” said Major TG Taylor, spokesman at US Central Command where Harward now works.
“He is open to evaluating non-traditional ideas and supports consideration of new and unique ideas,” Taylor added.
Ultimately, however, his successor in Afghanistan did not pursue it.
“We took an exploratory look at this thing,” said US Navy Captain Kevin Aandahl, current spokesman for Task Force 435. “But it just didn’t go forward.”
Undeterred, Roche now teaches yoga and meditation twice a week to NATO troops in Kabul, with up to 16 soldiers and non-combatants attending each session, said a NATO welfare officer.
She has also held one meditation session with a former Taliban commander, and has approached several government ministers in the hope of receiving state support – so far none has been forthcoming.
In May her project Sola Yoga was given a celebrity boost when she attended a peace conference in New Jersey and met Iranian-American Cameron Alborzian – yoga devotee, fluent Dari speaker and one-time male supermodel.
“Yogi Cameron” – star of Madonna’s 1989 music video Express Yourself – was now earning up to $30,000 per week as a restyled guru to the stars in Los Angeles and was an eager recruit to Roche’s cause.
He travelled to Afghanistan for a fortnight in June, visiting officials to drum up support for the project and managing to obtain access to Kabul’s Pul-e-charkh jail and the prison in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, where they persuaded guards to try out some stretches.
The Afghan commander in Bamiyan, Ghulam Ali Batur, said his men tried yoga briefly but was doubtful it would catch on, though he admitted that “it tends to calm people, violent people.”
“Trust me, it will be a too difficult job” to convert Afghans, deeply suspicious of any foreign influence, to yoga, he said, citing its Buddhist and Hindu roots.
Roche, who used to work in peacekeeping for the United Nations, points out that Afghanistan has its own tradition of meditation in the mould of Abdul Ghafar Khan – a Pashtun spiritual pacifist who died in 1988.
But yoga seems a long way from catching on in a country where resolving disputes through violence is deeply ingrained.
Mental health is also hardly discussed in Afghanistan but Roche’s vision is that meditation and yoga can give Afghans a tool to help them discover inner calm away from the traumas that result from the violence surrounding them.
“They say that you are possessed by the genie, by the devil. They don’t know what’s mental health,” said Roche.
“I can give them a tool to control their mind because they’re all traumatised,” she mused. “All Afghans have a horrible story to tell you, a book to write.”
Roche’s greatest success has been teaching yoga to street children in Kabul, working with charity Afghanistan Tomorrow to inspire a calmer generation.
Leading a group of young girls with candles burning in the room, she encouraged them to sit cross-legged, close their eyes and forget their troubles. Later the girls tried to pose like trees, standing on one leg.
“This tends to calm me and helps me to be better and faster in my studies,” said 11-year-old Roquia.