• "There are limited opportunities to keep fit," says Danielle Moylan. (Andrew Quilty)
Living amidst hostility and instability in Kabul, Danielle Moylan centred herself with Ashtanga yoga.
Cat Woods

25 Jan 2018 - 10:16 AM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2018 - 10:17 AM

Living in hot, dusty Kabul, Australian NGO worker and journalist, Danielle Moylan had committed to daily yoga practice with the aid of YouTube videos. Her solo practice was a form of stress release and and therapy in a land where suicide bombings and insurgency attacks are frequent occurrences.

“Practising solely off YouTube in Afghanistan can be frustrating,” Moylan recalls, “as there are a lot of power cuts and an incredibly slow internet so it often ended up not working or being disrupted 20 minutes in. But I also follow Mysore style Ashtanga, which is a set sequence that I’d memorised.”

Moylan’s life in the hub of warzones had begun when she was posted to Iran as a diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2012. As with all DFAT postings, the two year posting ended with a requirement to return and work in Canberra. She had met and married Danish journalist Sune Rasmussen in Iran, and feeling her work in the region was unfinished, Moylan chose to take on an advocacy management role with major NGO, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Afghanistan in 2014.

There would often be times where I’d have to ask the class to freeze in position because an armed guard on patrol had to walk through the room. 

Nine months after moving, she qualified as a yoga teacher while on a brief holiday to Thailand. On return to the fraught and fractious Kabul, she began teaching classes in addition to her role with the NRC. Her 90 minute yoga classes attracted foreign UN and NGO workers. Some were seeking stress release, some wanted the challenging physical training, but mostly, the benefit of being in a communal space drew them in.

“Living in a place where there is the threat of attack, and even just living and working in the same, small confined space with your co-workers is obviously stressful and there are limited opportunities to keep fit,” Moylan recalls.

She had begun her human rights work in Kabul at around the time that international combat troops were preparing to withdraw. Lingering hostility from the ugly campaign between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah had left foreign NGOs and the Afghan civilians fearful of further instability and the ongoing threat of Taliban insurgent attacks.

“A lot of foreign UN and NGO workers live in heavily fortified compounds and, for security reasons, are not necessarily allowed to go out. Sometimes, if a suicide attack had occurred or a foreigner had been kidnapped that day, most foreigners would be in lockdown. It’s understandable from the security manager’s point of view, but it’s probably the time they could most benefit from being in a yoga class.”

Mass phone surveillance, as well as the killings of several foreign journalists - including New York Times reporter Noor Ahmad Noori, Swedish journalist Nils Horner and photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus - had raised the very real prospect of imprisonment, kidnapping or death amongst foreign workers.

Knowing that time was precious and that for many students, one class a week might be the sole exercise and communal activity they’d engage in, Moylan focused on an intense, challenging class. Rather than the sleek floorboards, candles and crystal-dotted interiors of Australian yoga studios, classes were held wherever there was space.

“We’d often use whatever space we could find, like a dingy basement, or we’d pack a class of 20 students in a hallway. There would often be times where I’d have to ask the class to freeze in position because an armed guard on patrol – fully kitted out in helmet and body armour, with a loaded rifle - had to walk through the room. Classes would also start late as every student had to be screened carefully by security.”

Once all the students were present, the strain of life in Kabul would be evident in their faces and bodies. “It wouldn’t be uncommon for something terrible to have happened that week; everything from colleagues being kidnapped or killed, or relationships suffering because of the daily stress of living in a warzone. I would try to make myself available after class to talk or just hang out and practise headstands.”

Practising ashtanga brought together men and women from all nations. “I had regulars who were journalists, diplomats, think tank analysts, researchers, UN workers and NGO workers. The style of yoga I taught attracted a lot of men, and I had some extremely strong guys who worked in security for embassies. Some of the ex-military guys could do 20 one-armed push-ups but still found a strong yoga class challenging.”

Some were quite clearly traumatised and needed to be taught with care and a lot of encouragement.

It wasn’t only foreigners that took advantage of Moylan’s classes. “I very occasionally taught Afghan women, including at a women’s shelter, and I do know another lovely yoga teacher that had a weekly small class for young Afghan women. The women I taught at the shelter rarely left the grounds – [they came to the] shelter as runaways from abusive families or arranged marriages, and some were fearful of families or husbands tracking them down. Some were quite clearly traumatised and needed to be taught with care and a lot of encouragement.”

The past year has been a time of transition. In 2017 Moylan uprooted her life in Kabul and travelled via Spain and the Pyrenees to London, where she awaited a Visa for Pakistan. She has resided there since September. She is still drawn to places where human rights work and journalism are dangerous endeavours, and still dedicated to a daily yoga practice and to teaching.

“At the moment, I am just taking on private students who are referred to me by word of mouth. It’s a rare day that I don’t do yoga. During the year, I try to spend a month somewhere, studying with someone very advanced in teaching ashtanga to learn as much as possible from them as a way to further my training as a student an as a teacher.”

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