Finding stillness: how Zen Yoga changed this Iranian woman’s life

Yoga Scholarship

A turbulent life in Iran led Azi Etemadi to immigrate to Germany where she found “the sweet taste of stillness”, and became a Zen Yoga teacher to help refugees.

Cottbus in eastern Germany is a small and quiet university town surrounded by fields and forests 125 km from Berlin. Small and quiet is exactly how Azi Etemadi likes it. She lives there, writing her thesis on urban planning, and enjoys walks in the forest close to her home. Her life now is a far cry from the life she led in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Azi, 31, moved to Germany in 2015 to begin a masters programme in World Heritage Studies at Brandenburg University of Technology. Until 2014, she never thought she would leave Iran. “I thought I would stay and do something for my country and my people,” she says. Life, as it often does, had other plans.

Finding the thread

Life in Iran isn’t easy. Especially if your parents are Marxists, and support the idea of a communist revolution. “My father was put in prison three years before Iran’s Islamic revolution, and remained jailed seven years after,” she says. “When they imprisoned him my brother was only one month old. We faced quite hard times, and always had to be careful, and keep quiet about our background.

“Hardship and suffering really came when I was 18 years old, and I lost my grandma,” Azi continues. “Some other personal experiences led to a very severe depression. I kept it from everyone, I didn’t talk about it, and no one noticed. At that time I was in a very dark place and I knew no one could help me, even if I asked for help.”

Spiritual inquiry has been an important thread in Azi’s life since she was a child, and the truth is she needed it more than many of us. That thread began when she was 14. Drawn to yoga and meditation, she bought books by Osho outlawed by the state from underground book stores. Reading these sparked a deep interest in Zen Buddhism and the perspective helped her survive the darkest times of her life. The thread pulled her out of her country, to a faraway land, and ultimately to studying yoga and mindfulness at Zen Yoga in Berlin.

At rock bottom in Iran is where Azi found the will to transform her life. She began practicing all the meditation techniques she had been reading about, and slowly light began to drive out the darkness that had engulfed her life. “The person who I am today, I owe that to yoga and meditation, “ she says.

After graduating from university with a degree in architecture, Azi hoped to forge a positive new life. But economic deterioration in Iran, party due to sanctions imposed by the West, makes life for so many hard working Iranians almost impossible. Working 15 hour days, the only time Azi had remaining was for sleeping. Even then, she couldn’t afford her own apartment. It became clear she had to get out.

Making the leap

She chose to study in Germany because of the affordability of its public universities, and in 2014 applied to join the masters programme. A year later, when she was 26, one of her parents’ comrades picked her up at Berlin airport and ushered her into a new world.

“After I arrived,” she says, “my life was like a rollercoaster. “I had some big dramas learning how to survive here. I was studying and working a lot. Eventually I realised I was getting very far away from my meditation and yoga practice. I could not maintain it everyday like before.”

That spurred her to searching online for a yoga studio where she might be able to volunteer or intern in exchange for classes. When she found Zen Yoga, and read the classes and training are in English, she was overjoyed. She emailed Tatjana, and was in luck. “She responded very quickly and said there was an opening at the front desk once a week,” Azi says. “I went to her studio every Thursday for almost one year.”

Founder and owner of Zen Yoga Tatjana Mesar quickly noticed how sincere and focused Azi was with her practice, and was more than happy to support her. As time went on, and Azi learned more about Tatjana’s 200 hour yoga teacher’s training course, and a desire in her to also teach grew.

Azi at her 200-hour yoga teacher training in Berlin

“I wanted to give a scholarship to someone who could work with refugees, and then I discovered Azi speaks Farsi, Turkish, Azerbaijani, so she was the perfect candidate,” Tatjana says. “We agreed that she can have a full scholarship and then work with refugees in their own languages.”

Helping those in need

Since the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, Berlin residents have watched as people fleeing war and destruction in their homelands have sought shelter and safety in the city. For Tatjana, this cuts a little closer to home than for many of us. She grew up in the former Yugoslavia, and survived the wars that tore that country and culture to pieces.

“The recent refugees come from a different culture, but they have the same look in the eyes as the people I know from my country who became refugees, who left everything behind and wondered what happened to their loved ones that remained,” Tatjana says.

Back when Tatjana first arrived in Berlin in 2009 she volunteered to teach yoga to women from Bosnia who had escaped the genocide there. After working with them for six months she realised she didn’t have the necessary skills to help people with that degree of trauma. Some of the Bosnian women, for example, had flashbacks when they closed their eyes.

“I’m really careful to emphasise that being a yoga teacher doesn’t equip you to be a therapist,” Tatjana says. “In my 300 hour training we learn about trauma sensitive language, but this is basic knowledge. I always recommend someone going to teach in an environment like that to be mentored by people who work there or who are equipped and licensed.”

Tatjana Mesar at her Zen Yoga Berlin studio

Making yoga for everyone

Another of Tatjana’s students, Hania Hakiel, is a psychotherapist who works with refugees in her position as a manager at Give Something Back to Berlin (GSBTB). Hania has been mentoring Azi. There is much to learn, but the three teachers see this as important work, especially given the potential for yoga and mindfulness to help people, and also because of the lack of diversity in the yoga scene in Berlin, and elsewhere in western nations.

“We discuss diversity a lot in my advanced 300 hour teacher’s training course,” Tatjana says. “There is often a good intention amongst yoga teachers to create more diversity, but in practice it doesn’t really happen. The solution is for teachers to go to the places – community centers and so forth – where minority groups aren’t the minority, but the majority, and to teach there. That requires totally different skills and also an openness to doing things differently, and not on your own terms.”

Sharing the sweet taste of stillness

For now Azi is enjoying the quiet life in Cottbus, and completing her masters. She sees how challenging it is to be a refugee in Germany. The language, bureaucracy, the absurd volume of snail mail correspondence, unfriendly locals, racism, the individualist culture – all of these make integrating difficult. When Azi is finished with her masters she plans to share Zen Yoga with refugees who have come from her region in the world.

“Zen and yoga changed my life, how I see myself, and how I see the world, and this is something I want to share with others,” Azi says. “I really want to work with women refugees here in Germany because I understand the background they come from. I would also love to work with children. If I had known these methods in my childhood, maybe things would have been better.”