Survivors of the Nova massacre find healing through yoga

Science and Health

Soldiers returning from the front often find it difficult to readjust to normal life. Following past wars, they just had to grit their teeth and ignore their traumas, sometimes at an incalculable psychological cost. But now there are treatment options, such as the ancient Eastern mind-body discipline known as yoga.

“After October 7, we immediately realized the need to help people recover from the shock they’d been through,” says yoga teacher Neta Margalith of the Brothers in Yoga nonprofit organization. “Our teachers went out to conduct informal yoga sessions on army bases, and we held hourly classes via Zoom.”

They soon realized the need for a permanent site for conducting workshops.

“When the disaster occurred, Maccabi World Union, the only organization that owns a hotel, put its people and resources to the needs of the state with an emphasis on those who needed this help more than others,” says Amir Gissin, CEO of Maccabi World Union. “In the time that has passed since October 7, we have been able to assist and treat evacuees, families of the wounded at Tel Hashomer, abductees and their families, and a large and important population of regular and reserve soldiers from special units suffering from PTSD.

“For their benefit, we opened the Balance compound, which is now hosting groups of soldiers who, in order to return to operational activity or routine, need our assistance.”

Glamping tents are used for practicing and hosting retreats of soldiers and victims of the Supernova music festival. (credit: Jonathan Bar)

Developing the Balance glamping complex

Thanks to a generous donation from the Jewish Federation in Chicago, the Balance glamping complex was initially erected in Kfar Hamaccabiah to provide an immediate response to victims of the Supernova music festival. The sprawling campus in Jerusalem’s Ramat Gan, with its lawns and sports facilities, provided the perfect setting for the Balance – A Place to Breathe program held in cooperation with the Safe Heart association, which includes 400 psychologists, psychiatrists, and certified clinical instructors with experience working with traumatic experiences, and Brothers in Yoga. The beautiful and cozy tents were donated by Glow Glamping Company, which after October 7 shifted from sustainable tourism in the North to helping support the victims of the Supernova festival and combat soldiers.

Margalith, 31, established Brothers in Yoga two years ago with the aim of treating traumatized soldiers. “Now I’m mainly an administrator,” she smiles. After seven years traveling the world studying various yoga styles – including trauma-informed (or trauma-sensitive) yoga – she returned to Israel at the height of the COVID outbreak. “That period brought back my personal traumas, including from my military experiences, and through yoga I treated myself. It took deep meditation to see my purpose – I was considering returning to the Himalayas but already knew several Israelis with PTSD and realized the need to stay here.”

She recruited other yoga teachers and people from the business and psychology fields, and Brothers in Yoga launched its first four-month “recovery journey,” starting with a three-day retreat, with weekly Zoom meetings and a final three-day retreat for closed groups of post-traumatic soldiers – some recognized by the state, others not. “By October, eight groups had completed the process, about 100 people in total. Eight of them went on to become yoga teachers themselves, ensuring continuity,” she says. “In late October, my brother’s glamping company set up a tent village for evacuees in Kfar Hamaccabiah in Ramat Gan, and we brought the program there, shortening it from four months to one month, with a three-day retreat in Kfar Hamaccabiah and a final one-day retreat. We’ve conducted six groups since November from the Supernova festival, close to 100 people in a separate month-long program.” 

In January, some 150 participants have experienced these retreats, including residents of communities near the Gaza Strip, survivors of the Supernova festival where 360 revelers were slaughtered, and post-traumatic regular soldiers and reservists. Many of the participating soldiers have come from the IDF’s elite Yahalom commando unit, which specializes in tunnel warfare, demolition, explosive disposal, and commando operations, with tasks ranging from sabotage missions to clearing bombs and booby traps in battlefields. “Practicing yoga together with others from the unit creates a common experience that allows them to process what they’ve been through and gives them practical body-soul tools for when they return to civilian life,” explains Nadav Zimand, 34, a former commander in Yahalom who now heads the Yahalom Foundation nonprofit organization that supports the soldiers.

In this war of tunnels and explosive charges, Yahalom’s role has been crucial, and many of its reservists were called up. “The issue of trauma is front stage, unlike in the past,” notes Zimand. “For example, our soldiers had the grisly job of clearing the attacked kibbutzim of unexploded munitions and booby traps. Without going into graphic descriptions, about 300 soldiers had to deal with some 3,000 bodies, including those of dead terrorists. This phenomenon has just got worse as more soldiers are exposed to such scenes.

“We immediately realized the importance of treating them – some already had pre-symptoms of mental illness – and offered a variety of options, such as classic psychological treatment, group nature walks or sea trips, and yoga. Each was free to choose the suitable setting for him to deal with it. Many went for yoga and are very satisfied.”

The first retreat for 10 to 20 Yahalom soldiers finished in early January; another one was opened in early February, and five more are planned.

Tamir Iluz, 27, was vacationing in Barcelona with his girlfriend’s parents from Springfield, Illinois, on October 7. He returned to Israel immediately and went straight to his unit’s base. A medic in Yahalom, he describes the following months as “tough.”

“We were in many tunnels. Three of my friends were killed – two in an attack in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza, where I was a medic. It was a harsh experience,” he sighs. 

“When we left Gaza, I heard about the retreat subsidized by the Yahalom Foundation. It was hard to readjust from fighting in a war to regular life, and this was exactly what I needed to ease the transition. The accompaniment and guidance were amazing – I felt that the instructors genuinely wanted to help us. My group was led by someone who is post-traumatic himself. There were a lot of guided breathing exercises.

“The concept of soldiers going through this together is wonderful,” says Iluz. “Even if we didn’t know each other before, we’d been through a common experience and didn’t need many words to express ourselves. After the retreat, I realized that I’d returned to natural breathing – my body was no longer in survival mode.” 

Ofek, 29, a Yahalom team commander, began gathering his team together on the morning of October 7. “I immediately realized it was war,” he says.

After nearly three months spent blowing up tunnels, munitions, and “many buildings,” he was released from duty but found it difficult to readjust. “Once I got home, I realized that there’s a parallel reality out there. I thought I was okay until I felt the pain of the citizens. I’d been unaware of the depth of distress about the hostage crisis, and didn’t even know everything that had happened on October 7. When you’re in reserve duty, you don’t feel it because you’re always busy. But now everything’s changed.

“It was a shock to return, and I had to close that gap. I needed time to get back to myself, to look inside. I’ve practiced yoga in the past and felt the need for a ‘ceremony’ to put an end to the previous chapter.”

Ofek, who preferred not to give his surname, and his team went through the retreat together. “Many of us have been together since regular service. Yoga was part of my life before the war, but you can’t meditate when there are explosions all around you. After the first session, I burst out crying for half an hour – not because of sadness but because I missed being myself. Yoga helped me get back to being who I am; it came to hug me.”

For the past three months, Margalith and her partner have been living in a tent in Kfar Hamaccabiah. “It’s my mission. I’m giving it everything, 24/7,” she says. ״Our aim is to reach at least 1,000 people this year in long-term programs. Maccabi organization is with us, but we need financial support or will be forced to close the site by late February.”

Maccabi World Union head Amir Gissin hopes the funding is found. “Kfar Hamaccabiah, Maccabi’s home, was fully involved in the war effort, and we immediately converted all our educational sports activities to mobilize for those vulnerable groups in Israeli society who need a warm home these days more than anything. There’s a deep sense of satisfaction when a large organization like Maccabi manages to turn all its work toward a good and important cause,” he concludes.■