When Fakhria Ibrahimi Momtaz was born in 1977, Kabul was a midsize mountain town, considered by many European tourists as an “exotic” and inexpensive stopover on the overland “hippie trail” route to India.
Photographs from Kabul at that time show young men in bell-bottom trousers and young women in short skirts and stylish updos, strolling down tree-lined avenues. A yogi sitting in lotus pose outside of a roadside tea shop would not have seemed out of place back then. But today, mention of Kabul often brings to mind a very different picture: war and bombed-out buildings without electricity or running water. Today, yoga and Afghanistan might seem incongruous with each other.
That is, until you meet Fakhria Ibrahimi Momtaz, the woman behind Kabul’s Momtaz Yoga Center—a studio designed to offer a safe space for women to gather, in a country still struggling with instability.
In 2016, I worked in Afghanistan for just under a year. Unrolling my mat every morning on a Kabul rooftop, with a view of the Pamir Mountains, helped me at that time to find balance and stillness. When I later learned about Momtaz’ studio through a mutual friend, I was keen to meet her, and I finally had the pleasure of speaking with her. During our conversation, she described the challenges of teaching yoga in Afghanistan, as well as the positive impact yoga has had on the women she has worked with. We began by exploring yoga’s strong pull on her, long before she ever truly knew what yoga was.
According to Momtaz, yoga has virtually always been a part of her life. She remembers watching her older sisters and brothers doing daily exercise and practicing martial arts, and it wasn’t long before she also began her own form of physical practice.
As we spoke, she recalled those early days when she was constantly and intuitively moving her body into different positions—some of which resembled asanas. “I didn’t know that the poses I was doing were yoga poses,” she said. “Even my family didn’t know. I just remember always practicing asanas at home.” Connecting the dots between her childhood practice and the discipline of yoga would come later, in Pakistan, when a family friend introduced her to it.
Momtaz shrugged and with a good-natured laugh added, “I was born a yogi.”
In 1996, before the Taliban took control of the capital, her family fled Afghanistan, joining hundreds of thousands of refugees making their way to Peshawar, Pakistan.
In Pakistan, as a young 20-something, Momtaz studied medicine, a career her family hoped she would pursue. “I didn’t see myself as a doctor,” she clarified. “I saw myself as a social leader.” Her family returned to Afghanistan in 2002 to rebuild their lives, after the Taliban was ousted from government and women were allowed to work again.
Her passion for positive social change and connecting with women’s everyday experience was what eventually led Momtaz to open her yoga center in Kabul in 2016, creating a place for women to gather, share, and benefit from the practice. As we spoke, she described the challenges women continue to face in modern Afghanistan: “It’s difficult to be a woman in Afghanistan. There is so much domestic violence and social violence against women in this country, and I wanted to do my part to provide a refuge for them through yoga.” Her own yoga practice had provided a sense of grounding during difficult circumstances in her life, and this was why she wanted to share the practice with other women. “I really enjoy when I see women with nice smiles and refreshed faces after my class,” Momtaz said.
Her passion for positive social change and connecting with women’s everyday experience was what eventually led Momtaz to open her yoga center in Kabul in 2016, creating a place for women to gather, share, and benefit from the practice.
In 2015, Momtaz started teaching women-only yoga classes at fitness clubs in Kabul because gender segregation is strictly enforced in Afghanistan. Some of the women were already familiar with the practice and had attended yoga classes while living abroad.
It was those early students that inspired Momtaz to open her own studio, which now has daily morning and evening classes for women of varying ages and backgrounds—office workers, housewives, university students, teenagers. What keeps her students coming back, Momtaz explained, is the profound and positive impact that yoga has had on their lives. She described how yoga helped one of her students relieve anxiety and address emotional and life issues with self-confidence, over time, through a devoted practice.
Momtaz also relayed a touching story of a young girl who found solace at her studio after losing her mother: “She went to many doctors and finally one doctor recommended she try yoga. When she came to me, she was very depressed, not sleeping or laughing, and staying indoors. But after practicing with us in the studio for several months, she began to feel more like herself again. Her family was so happy about it.”
And she shared another heartfelt story, of students who resolved interpersonal conflict through their practice: “I also had some teenage students who had been fighting every day, both at school and at home. Through yoga, they overcame their anger and aggressive behavior toward one another.”
But running a yoga studio in Kabul is not without its challenges, in part because of Afghanistan’s deep conservatism and the perception of yoga as a foreign religious practice.
“Sometimes, when the media publishes a report on our studio, people will leave comments saying that yoga is haram [a forbidden practice],” Momtaz said. “Yoga comes from the Hindu religion and we are a Muslim country, so people believe it’s a religious practice that conflicts with our own. Before I opened my studio, this was one of my fears, but my passion for yoga and helping women helped me overcome it.” Fortunately, Momtaz said, she has had constant support from friends and family who believe in her work.
Now, at 41, Momtaz is not only the founder of a thriving yoga studio, but also the CEO and co-founder of an IT company and a mother of four.
Like her mother, Momtaz’ eldest daughter, who is 17, has become a seasoned yoga practitioner (a rarity in Afghanistan for women so young). She and her siblings, who also practice yoga and do martial arts, spend time with their mom at the studio. “My nine-year-old daughter and twin boys [both seven years old] come to the yoga center every day,” she said with a proud smile.
And Momtaz’ supportive husband, a professional landscaper, keeps the studio full of plants and flowers. The south-facing windows bathe the studio in natural sunlight, creating a bright and comfortable environment in which women can practice.
The two primary teachers at the studio are Momtaz and her eldest daughter, though she has also hosted one teacher from the U.S. who came as a volunteer. Despite the challenges of finding yoga teachers in Afghanistan, Momtaz is keen to bring yoga to more women throughout the country.
“I think the positive impacts I have seen so far are encouraging but are not enough. We have to expand and bring yoga to more women—women who are living in shelters, in prisons, in orphanages. We are currently in need of so many yoga teachers in Afghanistan.”
As news of her studio in Afghanistan spreads, Momtaz is able to represent a side of Afghanistan that often goes unnoticed. “I am very happy to introduce the real and positive face of my people and country to the world,” she said. “We’re not terrorists. We’re not fundamentalists. We are normal people who love life.”
It is that passion for life that energizes Momtaz’ yoga practice—advancing her vision of a yoga that helps transform the lives of women in Afghanistan.