Hala Barakat is a trained botanist with thirty years of experience in researching the environment, plants and agriculture in Egypt. Currently, she works as a yoga teacher and freelance food researcher. As the founder of Rohana Yoga Studio, she brings her skillsets together to offer yoga, food and more.
What came first: yoga or food?
Initially plants came first as this was the focus of my university studies. But I started "trying" to be a vegetarian at 18 and that was when I also decided to become a botanist. Yoga came much later to help me through a difficult time after the loss of my father.
Why do you find the topic of food to be such an important one?
Egypt has a long history and food is an important part of it. Not much research has been done to unravel this heritage and this is why I am interested in exploring it. Furthermore, food heritage relates to our wellbeing and satisfaction, childhood memories and family gatherings at grandmother’s house. It is important to preserve what still exists and bring back the forgotten recipes and ingredients. All of this has a positive effect on our lives and identity.
You recently took part in a series on [the now blocked] Mada Masr that offered recipes using local, seasonal ingredients. What inspired you to start the series?
The idea actually came from one of Mada's editors, Naira Antoun. I thought it was a great idea. I just loved it and wanted to contribute with background information about the veggies and vegetarian recipes.
What would you say to people who think they don't have time to regularly cook for themselves?
Keep it simple and plan ahead.
Can you give us some examples of how to do that?
I can give you examples from the way we eat during the yoga retreats. Lunch could include:
Freekeh (green cracked wheat) cooked with red cabbage or zucchini, yoghurt sauce with fresh garlic and salt, and a mixed green salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing. Or avocado salad with green, red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, onion and cilantro. Boiled potatoes then oven roasted with olive oil, rosemary leaves and coarse salt grains, paired with cottage cheese.
Always use seasonally available vegetables and whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat pasta, burghul or fereek), make your sauces and salad dressings from scratch.
What inspired you to open a weekly market at the studio? What are some of the products you sell?
My students were asking for healthy food options like fresh wholesome breads and other vegetarian and vegan foods, which inspired me to start the market. We now offer it on a weekly basis—fresh wholesome bread of different types, vegan and whole wheat cookies and homemade granola. We also sell fresh homemade paneer cheese, yoghurt and farmer's cottage cheese, seasonal jams, chutneys, vegan cakes and muffins, too. We source quality products from small scale producers of molasses, tahini, sesame oil and chai spices. We are always adding new and seasonal products.
The market is also a chance for students and other interested individuals to check out Rohana’s line of yoga accessories, mat bags and fashion pieces—all unique and well-made with the loving hands of Egyptian women. Other items include up-cycled bags made from packaging materials or from used yoga mats and more.
With such a wide variety of yoga and meditation practices available, where do you recommend someone begin?
I believe that all yoga (types) are good, but if you are a beginner then start slowly. Maybe with gentle yoga stretches once a week, even if you do other types of physical activities regularly because yoga targets different abilities and requirements. Then slowly progress by adding another class and try a different, more physically demanding yoga such as Ashtanga, Sivananda or Hatha. Be sensitive to your body and find what yoga suits you on the physical, mental and spiritual levels. Remember, there are no shortcuts, no fads in real yoga.
Meditation I believe has to come a bit later in yogic development. I also think that the aspirant needs to try different meditational practices to find what she or he understands and could bring her (him) closer to the path to effective meditation.
What does yoga have to offer an individual that other "athletics" don't?
Yoga is a real life-changing experience but only if we are dedicated to practice, learning through reading and applying yoga to our everyday life. Change happens gradually on the physical, mental and emotional levels.
When you say "applying yoga to our everyday life", can you tell us what you mean by that exactly?
There are many ideas we talk about during the yoga sessions that can be applied to life outside of the yoga place. I always stress that we need to be gentle with our bodies during the yoga session, never force a posture and never be in pain. This stems from the first point of the first limb of yoga (yamas): ahimsa or non-violence. If we can extend this to our everyday life starting with ourselves, our life will be much easier. We need to learn to be gentle with ourselves and others, listen to our bodies and hearts, accept situations and be flexible. This doesn't mean we would be weak. On the contrary, we need to be clear, firm and direct, but gentle.
Also, there is the concept of being relaxed and focused during the yoga session. I stress the need to keep the body relaxed and the mind focused on what we are doing. In our everyday life, we need to try this attitude, relaxed but focused, putting our heart in everything you do, no matter how seemingly trivial or banal. Try it while you are washing your face, closing the house door, writing an email...just keep all your attention on what you are doing and see how much of a difference this would make to your enjoyment and performance.
How do you balance work and leisure time?
I love what I do, though this may seem like a "punch line". It is very true and was not a very easy decision to make. I work a lot but I still make sure to leave myself a weekend with no teaching at the studio so I can do other things. This is not easy when one has her own business/passion but it is essential for the sustainability of the process.
For more information from Hala Barakat and the events happening at Rohana Yoga Studio, please visit the Facebook page here.
Photos courtesy of Hala Barakat