I recently had the opportunity to travel with Yoga Medicine and The Village Experience to Kolkata, India as a part of a team of yoga teachers and yogis from around the globe who were inspired to serve. Each individual had their own reasons for joining the trip, their own passion for and background with service, their own story that led them to Kolkata – but we were unified by the practice of yoga and a purpose of seva (selfless service). Once committing to this trip, each of us was asked to fundraise to support The Women’s Interlink Foundation and the Nabadisha Project, which I’ll tell you a bit more about later. But I am writing this post because I reached out to my community personally and through Yoga + Beer events and asked you to support – and you did, so very generously. And because of this, I have so many of you asking about my experience in India – and with every answer that I’ve given verbally in the weeks since I’ve been back, I feel as though I haven’t been able to adequately describe what I experienced, what I saw, and what I bring back with me. So this post is my attempt to put it all down on “paper” and to capture the entire essence of my time in India to the best of my writing ability.
So here it goes … I hope that there is something here that inspires you – to travel, to serve, to practice, to give, to smile, to learn more, or whatever this uncovers for you. I believe that the power of service and being mindful, compassionate human beings is in the ripple effect. So if my experience in India can inspire even just one person into action, the ripple begins. Ripple on my friends.
Welcome to Kolkata
I left Portland, OR at 11am on a Saturday, and I arrived in Kolkata at 7:30am on Monday. I should have been exhausted after no sleep and so many hours of travel, but the anticipation of being east of Europe for the first time in my life gave me a ridiculous amount of energy. It could have been all of the coffee I had consumed as well … I had read about the smell of India, but I wasn’t really prepared to experience it so quickly. And by quickly, I mean the second I stepped off the plane. A mixture of spices and sweet flowery smells, blended with the stink of pollution and sewage. My nose was unsure how to categorize the smell or how to describe it … but as ridiculous as this sounds, I fell in love with it the moment I smelled it. The smell is complex, chaotic, grungy, rich, and beautiful all at the same time – much like the country of India.
We had a private driver pick us up at the airport and were immediately thrown into the chaos and disorder that is India. The memory of pulling out into traffic as we left the airport will forever be ingrained in my memory. No lanes. No order. No structure. Even staying on your side of the road is merely a suggestion, especially if you could pass a bunch of cars by heading into oncoming traffic. Every car for itself, maneuvering itself into spaces that are by western standards too small to fit into. Throw in some cows in the road, pot holes galore (especially in the dirt roads of the villages), rickshaws and motor bikes. Most western drivers would have a melt down. Every second seems as though you are about to get into the biggest car accident of your life – but by some miracle, everyone seems to come out unscathed. The horn honking puts New York drivers to shame … but the honking seems to be done in a friendly, if impatient manner. No yelling or name calling. Just a friendly little honk to keep things moving along. The cars are pretty standard, but the taxis are adorable and the buses are extremely colorful. I’ve included some pictures here:
For those of you who know me – I’m fairly type A. And by fairly, I mean ridiculously. I believe that success comes from planning and having things in order. And sometime in the latter half of 2015, I started realizing that I need to stress and worry less, plan less, over-think less, and trust more. My mantra for months had been that “trust creates peace.” And I had a moment in this initial ride to our hotel when I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be. India had lots to teach me. That sometimes order can come out of chaos. And that I need to trust more, in the fact that even if things aren’t perfectly organized or perfectly in place, they can still work out, and sometimes for the best. Deep insights provided by the traffic and sights of India.
Our journey to the hotel quickly took us from city to village. The villages for the most part are lined with the tiniest little shops down both sides of the street, selling anything from food, to car parts, to shoes, to fabrics, to furniture, to you name it and there probably was a shop specializing in that item. The shops are tiny for the most part, but the amount of products they crammed into these spaces was impressive. And from what I can tell, life pretty much revolves around these shops. No matter what time of day we drove by – morning, afternoon, evening, night – people were gathered in these shops chatting, eating together, sharing tea, enjoying the company of neighbors, customers, friends or family.
Everything about life seemed to happen right out in the open. Showers. Bathroom trips (the number of urinating men I saw in my time in India resulted in me not even noticing any more). Laundry. Meals. Lice picking. Brick making. Naps. Prayers. Game playing. Tea drinking. Chicken plucking. All were things I witnessed happening outside the window of our vehicles on our many trips between the resort and Kolkata. Cows, dogs and goats wandered everywhere. And trash gathered on any open space or surface. Everywhere you looked, there were people living life. The western idea of driving into your garage in suburbia and living life behind closed doors couldn’t have seemed more foreign or bland.
Our resort was slightly removed from the hustle and bustle. We stayed in what looked like glorified bunkers – with hot water (for the most part) and a bed that I’m pretty sure was just a box spring – but it was clean and comfortable. And the food was delicious.
To keep from being swallowed by our jet lag, some of us grabbed a taxi as soon as we settled into our room and headed for a handicrafts market. It didn’t take long to realize that everything happened in “India time.” Your room will be ready for you to check in at 11am actually meant 1 or 2pm. We are 30 minutes away from the handicraft market, actually means your drive will likely take 60-90 minutes. Your black coffee will be right here, actually means maybe tomorrow. Sit back. Relax. Stop stressing out over time. Go with the flow.
The handicraft market was an explosion to the senses – all the colors, all the smells, all the sights. We arrived right as the market was opening so we got to watch the market expand from simply a concrete jungle, with goods covered up from the day before with tarps, to a busy market. Most vendors set their goods up on the ground, except for the few vendors who were in stalls or shops and had the luxury of counters and walls to hang things from. We primarily got lost in the fabric stalls, exploring scarves and saris. Silks and handwoven pieces of art. Every piece of fabric we found we loved more than the last – which was hard to believe because the last was the most beautiful fabric we’d ever seen. Average prices for the scarves ran between 600 rupees ($9 USD) and 2000 rupees ($30 USD) with room for bartering.
We spent the next couple days settling into India and the timezone by primarily staying put at the resort and completing the training portion of our trip together. Many of us on the trip are working on our 500 hour yoga teacher certification with Yoga Medicine, and this Seva trip included a module on understanding and teaching yoga for trauma. Understanding trauma is critical as a yoga teacher in a setting where you know your students have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, but powerful in everyday, public classes as well. As yoga teachers, we never truly know the reality, perspective and experiences of the individuals we have in class – what they have gone through and what they are going through. And honestly, this is true as human beings as well – we never know what the people we meet on the street or in the grocery store are going through. Empathy, understanding and compassion go a long way.
Each of the members of the trip had the opportunity to teach a class for the rest of the group. It was fun to experience how differently 15 people from around the world teach yoga and the style and perspective each of us had to offer. In my opinion, teaching yoga is a very personal thing – every time I interact with a group of yogis, I am sharing a piece of myself. In this sense, I can’t imagine a better way to get to know a group of yogis than to experience their sharing of yoga. Here are some pictures from the class I taught with my partner, Emily. We taught a restorative class – I know, that’s hard to believe.
During the few days spent at the resort, we started to little by little experience pieces of Indian culture. Drinking chai out of clay cups. Learning the finer points of the Indian head bobble (google it). Experiencing the realities of a culture that apparently never really sleeps (i.e. 3am dance parties and very early morning calls to prayer). Experiencing the beauty, color and festivities of Indian weddings. Eating Indian food for three meals a day – all the dal, the naan, the paneer, the masala, the chutney, the dosa and more that you could ever want. Reading Indian newspapers. And learning the fine line between covering up so much that you’re too hot, and not covering up enough to avoid being gawked at.
Our resort had a beautiful pool in the middle of it – but clearly stated that we needed “proper costume” in order to enjoy the pool. We still aren’t entirely sure what a proper costume is … as we never saw a woman using the pool. But we’re going to assume it is likely a wet suit (I joke …) but definitely a one piece, likely with some additional covering over it. Here’s a picture of the clay cups for tea, and some of the wedding colors. I failed to get food photos … because it was in my belly too quickly.
Our resort had an ayurvedic spa facility, so I decided to take the opportunity to experience an ayurvedic treatment in India. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I’m actually quite a private person with a huge personal bubble. Being naked or even close to it is not something I prefer to be in public or in photos or anywhere that someone might see. And I generally would prefer not to be touched … which is a weird trait for a yoga teacher, I know. When I was telling my husband about my ayurvedic spa experience – he literally couldn’t believe that I didn’t run away screaming. I include this brief synopsis of my experience both to share how amazing it was (honestly), and also as a PSA to those of you who are like me … because with a little advanced warning, I think the experience is better (luckily I had some warning).
I went all in and signed up for six treatments. My 90 minute, six treatment appointment, with two therapists cost the equivalent of $95 USD. The two therapists (both women) walked me into the room that consisted of a wardrobe, a solid wood table, a wood chair and a shower. They pointed at the wardrobe and said “dress.” And luckily, because of my advanced warning, I knew that meant to undress. Take everything off, while they sit there and watch. Respectfully of course, but there was no “I’ll leave the room and knock in a few minutes” courtesy that we get here in the US. I was naturally in yoga clothes, with the sports bra and everything … and never really realized how awkward it is to take some of that stuff off. The moment my underwear came off, one of the therapists slipped a loin cloth between my legs and tied it on. Even with my advanced warning, I was not prepared for this experience. Personal bubble, burst.
The treatment then started. They had me sit down in the wood chair where they started the treatments with a hot oil scalp massage. From the wood chair, to the flat wood table (which was relatively comfortable for the first 60 minutes) where they preceded to do a variety of skin and massage treatments (abhyangam). The massage treatments felt much more energetic and perhaps lymphatic than muscular – but delightful. And the final body treatment was patrapinda svedana, which basically consisted of the two therapists using hot bags of herbs to pound on the muscles of my body. Probably my favorite part of the treatment. After that, they moved into shirodhara, which consisted of a flowing stream of warm oil being poured onto my forehead. I lost track of time completely.
The six treatments were really relaxing and lovely. Especially after 30 hours of travel a few days before, my body finally felt rejuvenated. And then came the last piece of the experience – the shower. They sit you on a wood stool in the shower, and then they bathe you. Some experiences leave you never quite the same … and this was a little traumatic for me. I’m sure for some people this is really lovely and relaxing. It was just a little too much for me. All in all – a really lovely experience. My body thanked me for it. And it’s definitely one for the growing list of unforgettable travel memories. For a variety of reasons, I have no pictures of this experience.
Between our days spent at the resort and the days spent out working with the agencies we were supporting (that comes next), we had one day to play tourists in Kolkata. I am really grateful that my first India experience was actually fairly non-touristy … I prefer to get to know communities through the lens of service as opposed to visiting all the sites – but having one day on this trip to experience the community, the people, the culture, the city and the sites simply as a spectator was definitely memorable. We had about a 60-90 minute drive each day from our resort into the city of Kolkata – which is where we spent our sightseeing day, and also where the agencies were located that we worked with. This drive each day was the perfect way to ease into the bustle of the city, and the perfect way to decompress and reflect at the end of each day. Some views from our van windows …
Our first stop on our sightseeing day was Mother Teresa’s Tomb and the room where she lived in Kolkata. As for so many, Mother Teresa was a very inspiring person in my childhood and life, and honestly before preparing for this trip – the only thing I really knew about Calcutta/Kolkata. So visiting her room and her tomb was very special to me and made the fact that I was in Kolkata very, very real. Here are a few photos from our visit … including my first use of a real, authentic India toilet (BYOTP).
From Mother Teresa’s tomb, we went to a Kali Temple in Kalighat. The temple area was busy, crowded and absolutely, beautifully chaotic. We walked around the temple, but made the choice not to go inside due to the sheer chaos and number of people. According to Wikipedia, thousands of people flock to this temple every single day – and the day we visited was no different. We were present for a goat sacrifice, and watched as the pieces of the goat were carried off for various usages, with blood dripping across the temple square and pieces of goat randomly found here and there. I still haven’t brought myself to each goat cheese since I returned from this trip. I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures right around the temple – I like to be respectful of people living their lives and worshiping. But here’s one from afar where you can see the roof of the temple, and one of the street leading to the temple with shops lining the street selling various Kali items. And then one of our group, still reeling from the goat sacrifice.
Our last stop of the day was at a market place to do some shopping. We ended up in a stall that primarily sold fabrics, saris and scarves. Surrounded by walls of fabrics, you say what you are looking for – and they start to pull options. “No, I don’t like purple,” results in purple fabrics never being offered again. “Yes, I like this, but larger” results in all of the bigger but similar fabrics being pulled down. And so on, until you find just what you’re looking for. The market is filled with stalls selling pretty much everything you can imagine. I never left the fabric stall – but whatever I asked for (incense, malas, jewelry) resulted in one of the individuals working in the fabric stall, running out in the market and finding what I was asking for and bringing it back to me. Personal shopping at its finest.
And now …. what you’ve all been truly waiting for. The cute faces of the kids we worked with. The details about the agencies your money supported. And the impact we all were able to have in Kolkata, India.
Women’s Interlink Foundation
Women’s Interlink Foundation is the overseeing agency that operates both of the agencies that the money we raised went to support, which I’ll describe next. WIF has been operating in and around Kolkata since 1990, working for the empowerment of women and the rights of women and children. From their brochure, here is a description of all that they do: “Through its programmes and proejcts, WIF provides multiple need based interventions such as awareness creation, literacy to women and children, healthcare, nutrition, skill development, income generation, shelter, drinking water, sanitation, prevention of violence on target groups, rescue, rehabilitation & reintegration of trafficked victims, action against deprivation of basic rights, consumer rights & redressal, indigenous rural tourism with focus on livelihoods for tribals.” You can read all of the details of what they do on their website, which I linked, so I won’t rehash those details.
But here’s what I will share … I’ve spent a good deal of my professional life and career to date working in the nonprofit world. It was even my job for a period of time, to vet agencies for grants and to determine whether agencies were financially sustainable and having a significant impact in the community. I have worked with so many agencies and their leadership – and very few have impressed me as much as the team at WIF. We had the honor of meeting several of the men and women operating WIF, and I was inspired by each of them – their passion, their dedication to their work, their professionalism. And most importantly, their personal investment in each of the women and children within the WIF family … because it was very apparent that this wasn’t just an organization serving people in need. It was one big family, fighting for the rights of women and children – individually and collectively – in a society that historically has overlooked the needs, the desires and the rights of women.
Our money supported two of WIF’s programs – Nijoloy and Nabadisha.
Our first day spent with an agency, was spent at Nijoloy. The bulk of the money we raised supported Nabadisha, which I’ll describe last, but everything raised above and beyond the money needed for Nabadisha, went to support the building of a new level/floor at Nijoloy for vocational training.
Nijoloy is a home for rescued trafficked and orphaned girls and children of AIDS victims – but aside from that, it’s a home for some of the most amazing girls I’ve had the opportunity to meet. Nijoloy is a home and family – providing shelter, meals, schooling, counseling, health care, vocational training, college assistance, and any other support necessary to help these girls become self-reliant, confident and successful individuals. The girls that call Nijoloy home come from a variety of backgrounds – some have been trafficked, some were sold by their families into trafficking, some were victims of domestic violence or rape, some are orphans, and some are children of adult women who choose to be sex workers. If it is possible and safe for these girls to return to their families, Nijoloy works to make that happen. But in many instances, it is not, and Nijoloy becomes their family – until they are able to move out on their own as adults. It was said several times that these girls are not to be defined by what has happened to them – but by who they are and who they can become. Any of us would want that same opportunity and respect. So as you look at these photos, I ask you to not think of these girls as victims (especially since not all of them are victims), but as survivors and as strong, beautiful women with only opportunity and strong, bright futures in front of them.
The moment we stepped off the van, we were greeted by a crowd of smiling faces who were obviously so very excited to see us. We were each individually greeted with a flower necklace (I’m sure it has an official name, but I didn’t get it – it looked like a lei). And then we were seated for a ceremony of sorts that consisted of a dance performance and a yoga demonstration. Here are some pictures:
Nijoloy offers a variety of vocational training programs for the older, teenage girls that live there – block printing, tailoring, jewelry making, baking and spice grinding, to name a few. We toured their new spice grinding facility and dorm for the girls in that vocational program (and were fortunate enough to be able to buy some of the spices and bring them home with us – YUM!) and also had the opportunity to visit their tailoring and block printing facilities as well. The girls were invited to set up a shopping experience for us – allowing us to shop through the various bags, robes, scarves and clothes that they make. I know that I personally came home with a very large bag of gifts that I purchased from the girls of Nijoloy. The girls get to keep a percentage of the profit from each piece sold, in addition to earning an hourly wage. Nijoloy has contracts with Top Shop and other retailers who sell the pieces made by these ladies. Through these vocational training programs, the girls are earning money that can help them to eventually be financially independent, but also are learning skills that can translate into jobs and/or business opportunities for these women in their adult lives. Here are some pictures of the girls working and proudly showing off their products.
We also were the more-than-willing beneficiaries of the culinary training that happens at Nijoloy. This young woman proudly managed the preparation and service of our lunch – which was definitely the best Indian food I’ve consumed to date.
One additional note, we had the opportunity on a different day to visit the jewelry making training facility for Made By Survivors, which works with WIF and Nijoloy to provide this aspect of vocational training. Their jewelry is available for purchase on their website – and directly supports the girls from Nijoloy and WIF who are in their training program. Please visit their website and consider purchasing their beautiful jewelry for gifts.
After touring the facilities, shopping, and eating lunch, we had some free time just to spend with the girls. I’ve had several of you ask me for the stories of the girls in the pictures I posted – and to be honest, I didn’t ask them for their stories. I don’t know why these individual girls ended up at Nijoloy – and I don’t need to know. By the fact that they are at Nijoloy, it is safe to say that something has happened in their lives that brought them to needing the care and support of Nijoloy and the Women’s Interlink Foundation. And I chose to spend the day just laughing and smiling and taking selfies with them (a favorite pasttime). I think of several of these girls on a daily basis – they left an imprint on my heart. And if international adoption was allowed at Nijoloy … Brian and I would have children. If I didn’t know why Nijoloy existed, I would have just assumed these girls were any other group of young women – wanting to braid my hair, wanting to pose for pictures, wanting to know how my hair was pink, and having a whole lot of fun with my name – Mikki Mouse. Here are the faces of Nijoloy.
The staff of WIF and Nijoloy are deeply invested in each of these individual women. The staff shared with us that when one of these girls meets the man she wants to marry, she has to bring him home to not just one mother, but all of the mothers of Nijoloy, for their approval. If a girl needs a dowry, the staff work to make sure a dowry is built through donors and the Nijoloy family. Each of these girls might not have the traditional sense of family – but they have a family. And I know that each of these girls has the tools, the support, the opportunities necessary to live the future she can dream of and create for herself. With all of the things they might not have – there was no shortage of smiles, joy and opportunity among the girls of Nijoloy. It was almost impossible to leave ….
The Nabadisha Project
We spent two days visiting four of the fifteen Nabadisha drop-in centers in fifteen of Kolkata’s slums. $35,000 of the money our Yoga Medicine team raised, went to support these centers. Yoga Medicine has adopted these centers and starting with 2016 and the money we raised prior to this trip, we are responsible for raising the entire annual operating budget for these centers. Most of the money you donated to me for this project, went to support the children you are about to see. Each of these centers operates off of an annual budget of $2,000 USD. The Nabadisha centers operate basically like Boys & Girls Club – on a simpler, smaller scale. After working for Boys & Girls Club for four years, visiting these centers and learning that this is where our money was being put to work, was especially impactful for me and resonated deeply.
Included in the $2,000 annual budget of these centers is daily operations, including staff wages and healthcare for the staff/teachers that work within the centers, daily meals for the kids, daily educational opportunities, yoga classes, health checks for the children and access to medications and eye glasses at no cost, tutoring, and support in working towards college if desired.
In 2015, 443 children were served by these 15 drop in centers – all of which were school aged and 100% of these kids moved up to their next grade during 2015. Pulling from the Nabadisha annual report, the area of these centers “is the slum and pavement shanties. The target population lives in most unhygienic conditions, lacking proper drainage systems, cleanliness and privacy. The families of 8-10 members are cramped together in tiny temporary structures made of packing crates and rags. The men are employed as drivers, cooks, van pullers, cobblers, sweepers and vegetable vendors. The women are employed as domestic help. The monthly income of the family ranges between 2000-3000 rupees” ($30-45 USD).
The kids go to school during the day, and then head to the drop in centers after school. Just like our Boys & Girls Clubs in the state, the centers provide a safe place for the kids to go after school when there is no one at home to supervise them or help them with their homework. Each of the centers is located in or next to a police station and the centers are operated in partnership with the local police.
At each of the centers we visited, the kids demonstrated their yoga for us, recited nursery rhymes or songs, and showed us something educational they’re working on. We then got to serve the kids their daily meal provided by the centers, and then spent time taking more selfies and communicating via the little bit of English that the kids have learned. Here are some of my favorite photos from our visits:
And one more photo … our group with a couple of the college aged students that were once Nabadisha kids … but now are off working towards their bright, amazing future! They came to meet us and to share just how much of an impact these drop in centers had for them.
I was deeply impacted each time we watched these kids demonstrate “savasana.” In the middle of the chaotic city of Kolkata, in the middle of what I can only assume is a life full of unknowns and instability … these kids would lay down, surrounded by their peers, on their “yoga mats” and show us how to relax. The simplicity and power of yoga. Without the stylized IG selfies, without the expensive yoga pants and yoga mats, without the creative sequences and fun playlists, without the striving of having a certain depth of practice or a type of body. Just a moment of silence and stillness. A moment of security. A moment to simply be. When we strip this practice down to its essence, none of the rest really matters.
And I will take this further to be not just about yoga, but about life in general. My biggest take away from this trip is the joy that I experienced in India. In a culture and a country and a reality where “things” don’t have a place – the poverty was intense, the access to what we would consider adequate housing was almost nonexistent, not to mention running water, and indoor plumbing. The amount of money many of these families make in a month, most of us wouldn’t think twice about spending on a lunch at a restaurant. In comparison, the people I interacted with in India have nothing – but they have everything. When you strip life down to its essence, none of the stuff matters. None of the access matters. None of the luxuries we take for granted matter.
Do you enjoy your life? Do you value and make the most of every waking moment? Every dollar that you are blessed to hold in your hand or bank account?
Do you feel joy within your heart? Is your joy infectious? Is your joy independent of the things you have?
I thought I knew the answers to these questions before I left for India. But on my return, I’ve had a lot of reflecting to do.
I think we hear of extreme poverty. Of violent crimes. Of human trafficking. Of being homeless. And we think oh those sad, poor people.
But I have never experienced joy like I experienced in India. Your joy cannot be determined or defined by your circumstances, your bank account, the things that have happened to you or the world that exists around you. Your joy comes from deep within. And it is now my daily mission to find that seed of joy within myself and to let it spread throughout my life. Throughout my teachings. Throughout my interactions. Of all the experiences I had in India, the one I hope I carry with me forever is the joy I experienced.
I fell in love with Kolkata and the people we had the opportunity to meet. I will return someday. I am inspired by the agencies we had the opportunity to work with – and I commit to continue fundraising for the organizations, the children and the women we met. I am committing to raise at least $2,000 this year through my Yoga + Beer events in Salem and through direct asks from our community, to cover the costs of one of the Nabadisha centers. But I know we will raise more than that.
And I’m also committing to rallying our local yoga community to do more for our local community and agencies as well. More information will be coming out in the next few months about some things I have in the works.
This yoga practice is an opportunity to connect with our self. But I believe if it stops there, we’ve missed the point. Ideally we are taking the opportunity to connect inwardly, so that we can better serve and impact those around us – our families, our friends, our communities, our world. I have always believed that each of us has the power to serve. The power to make a difference – large or small. And that each of us was put here on this earth to make a difference – in the life of one or the life of many. Your calling might be to serve your family and be the best parent you can be. Or it might be to travel to Kolkata and raise money for agencies who are working to empower women and children. Or you might feel called to serve food at your local shelter. But there is something that you can do. There is no right or wrong to service. There is no right or wrong to being a good citizen. Find your calling. Find your path. Find your passion. And get started. Because this world needs people who care.
Thank you for caring enough to read this and for supporting me on my journey. Namaste.