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Aid to Zen: X/Y/Z – Xanax, Yoga and Zen

This post is part of Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z by Alessandra Pigni.

Today I’m serving you a trio of common (or not so common) practices among do-gooders: drugs, yoga and…Zen. 


When planning for the Aid to Zen series, a fellow humanitarian suggested that X should stand for Xanax, a popular drug used to treat anxiety. Maybe, like I did, he also found aid workers to be generally well equipped with all sorts of recreational and prescription drugs to keep anxiety, depression and in general life’s misery at bay. Like the humanitarian I met in the field who acted as a “pharmacy” for fellow aid workers, giving away Valium bought in a country – so she told me – “where you can buy it without prescription”.

By now we all know that pills are neither the best, nor the only route to taking care of ourselves. So for those who opt for self-care with no side effects, yoga is a popular option. 


Yoga may have gained a reputation for being a favourite activity of “white chicks” with a lot of time and money on their hands. Truth is, when it comes to practicing it, we don’t need fancy equipment, our mind and body is all we need. Yoga blocks? Chunky books work absolutely fine – I use Stieg Larsson’s fantastic Millennium Trilogy. After reading them, the three books turn into perfect yoga props. Here are some of my favourite stories of yoga in the field:

A friend used to teach yoga on a rooftop in Gaza. She says it was a journey of self-care and self-awareness. She shared her story with me here.

Farashe Yoga in Ramallah was set up by a group of Palestinians and internationals and quickly became a place to rest and refuel, lots of activists and aid workers found in it a space of sanity. I certainly did.

Beit Ashams near Bethlehem was founded by a friend and former NGO worker who at some point had the wisdom to move away from donor-driven projects, and created a community centre to serve the needs of fellow Palestinians. 

While I think it’s a bit of a stretch to think that yoga can change the world, I know it can do wonders for our physical and mental health. And just in case you are searching for the right type of yoga, I suggest that hyper-active types try out a non-doing, non-competitive practice like yin or restorative yoga


With its frantic pace, ongoing stress and constant emergency mode, I can’t think of anything less “zen” than humanitarian work. Yet paradoxically, there is something “zen” about operating in extreme situations, where we have no choice but to live in the present. Truth is, many aid workers don’t live and work in extreme conditions, but in a rather comfortable air conditioned office

Yet, whether you are in the field dealing with emergencies, or behind a desk, overwhelmed by emails, a drop of “zen mind” can help. Of all places, it was Jerusalem where I picked up bits of wisdom from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Han. His words keep helping me along the way. Though I’m not terribly good at practicing the art of doing nothing, here’s one of my favourite reminder of the importance of stopping and resting in order to heal:

“When animals get wounded, ill or overtired, they know what to do. They find a quiet place and lie down to rest. They don’t go chasing after food or other animals – they just rest. After some days of resting quietly, they are healed and they resume their activities.” 

So before exhaustion hits, be sure to rest and take stock. The world doesn’t need another burned out, cynical and slightly neurotic, well-meaning do-gooder. As late activist Tooker Gomberg wrote: “The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul you can make a real positive contribution, and live to witness the next victory!”. Finding ways to pause and look after ourselves, is essential if we want our work in the world to be sustainable, meaningful and joyful. 


What to read:

Thich Nhat Hanh, Stopping, Calming, Resting, Healing 


[This post marks the end of a journey from Aid to Zen, and the beginning of a new chapter in my life and work. I’ll be back with a new website and meaningful content on building resilience, preventing burnout and beyond. In the meanwhile, if you haven’t done so already, you can check out my book.]

One Response to Aid to Zen: X/Y/Z – Xanax, Yoga and Zen

  1. Clarisse Altes-Sroussi says:

    Thank you for having taken us along this journey. Looking forward to reading you soon and wishing you the very best in your new adventure.

    With love and light
    Clarisse – Zoé
    Aid Worker in Thailand

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.