Bassam Kubba: Yoga and Truth for Survival
By Megan Fliegelman
Bassam Kubba is a Muslim born former Iraqi refugee and software engineer who had to depart his home nation due to the immense pressures and realities of war. After stints in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, he has since resettled in New York City. While living in exile, he left the world of computer science to translate for the United Nations, teach yoga, and later become the first Iraqi man to compete in the International Federation of Sport Climbing World in 2011. This is a story about survival. But mostly, it’s a story about truth. The following is an edited excerpt from his interview.
Your journey is quite a unique one. You were in a peaceful nation full of culture and food, and for you there was a lot of opportunity. How did that all come to change?
So many people take for granted what “home” can mean, but for someone that’s been displaced and removed from it, what is home to you now?
I think home is where my heart is. My family is scattered all over the universe and every time I see them and then leave, I just feel a piece of my heart stayed with them. So, I think home is within yourself. It’s not a location anymore.
I used to live in Iraq, and we had a happy family and life, but unfortunately, the wars led us to travel around, and then eventually separate from the family. Some of my family went to Serbia, and I came here to pursue my life.
One must never forget the power of making the best of a situation. When you were a refugee in Jordan separated from your family, how did you spend your time?
I wanted to follow some passionate movement and really liked the climbing, so I practiced so much I became a teacher. In that region we have a lot of other refugees not only from Iraq, but also from Syria; so I volunteered my time to teach them acrobatics and climbing. I always do the best I can to help others around me.
Q: What forms of yoga did you practice?
I began with vinyasa. I loved it because while everyone would think it’s all about physical flexibility, I also found it worked for mind flexibility. I had so much cultural blockage because in the Middle East, you only live a certain straight path with no room for left or right. Vinyasa led me to acro. I had a lot of emotional weight because you live a certain way to please family and society. But then, I couldn’t live as my true self, in the reality I wanted. Yoga helped ease the way inward and let go of the baggage and blocks, which then helped me open.
Q: Why did you pursue teaching yoga?
It had helped me so much through challenges like identity, judging myself, pushing myself, punishing myself. I learned about how to be comfortable with my own skin, shape, and size, and that brought a lot of relief so I really wanted everyone to experience the same thing. The reason I love to teach acroyoga is because it brings back the inner child that we forgot in our bodies. Not having fun makes us old. I think acro yoga pushes people to really be silly and laugh.
And keep that perpetual smile.
Exactly. Keep the smile going. I also learned it gives people more confidence. I always
thought, “Ah, I’m skinny; I cannot do these things.” But then when I tried them with the proper technique and instruction it made me feel strong and confident. I wanted this confidence to touch people’s hearts and souls and just uplift them with me, because I was so uplifted.
Are there are any truths that you created to help you on this path that you now feel like you’re prisoner to?
Everyone in life will put some layer of protection to shield themselves, and within these will be also other layers that hide truth, because we feel we’re being judged by people around us. I had a lot of those layers. One of the biggest ones was that while everyone knows me as half-Serbian and half-Iraqi (because my mom is Serbian and my dad Iraqi) the truth is I have another biological mother who is Iraqi - so I am actually fully Iraqi. I never told anyone because having divorced parents is an issue, and my biological mother had a mental illness. I wanted to feel as though I belonged like my brothers and sisters. This is actually the first time I’ve revealed this because I’m embarrassed for having hid it for so long.
There are so many layers to truth. You are at a point where you are releasing these layers. But I wonder why we still hold onto them. Why after they were no longer needed for that level of protection, can’t we let them go?
When you are used to living in a certain path and you teach your brain to say certain things, you just keep carrying them all the time. Throughout my travels and meeting other people from different cultures, especially in New York City, you realize there are all kind of rainbow colors, and ways, and there isn’t only one straight path. There are so many roads and options.
Bassam, what do you see for the future? What are your next steps?
I learned to live in the moment because I found the more you plan, the more you can be disappointed or angry if it doesn’t go a certain way. So, I’m not living the past. I knew that truth already. And I’m not thinking about the future and stressing myself. I’m living happily right in this moment.
Your given name of Bassam and the token that it holds of the perpetual smile, do you think that the truth that your parents had for you was placed in that? For you to be in your perpetual smile?
Definitely yes. I really admire that my family chose that name for me. Minus the wrinkles that come from it, but I actually like them. My “happiness lines.” For anyone with difficulties or struggles they can look at me and say, oh this guy is happy. I can be happy, too.
Megan Fliegelman is an Emergency Manager and Athletic Trainer, former member of Homeland Securities’ Regional Catastrophic Planning Team as well as Stanford University Sports Medicine Team. She is also the former International Director of Teacher Training for ISHTA Yoga.