So much of what we interpret as fact is woven into the fabric of our imaginations through the insights of others. When thinking about traveling to more exotic and far-afield parts of the world, first impressions are often distorted of tales of the impoverished and disadvantaged. We hear stories of the hopeless despair of those whose lives are not painted in the same strokes of our own. India sometimes falls into that category. For years, I listened to young yogis share their “view” of the mother country. The smells, the history, the poverty, the overcrowding, the sounds, the pollution – get ready.
I saw Eat, Pray, Love (preferred the book) and would have stayed cozied up in Italy eating vats of pasta any old day. So many impressions, a multitude of opinions, now was my time to form my own from first-hand experience. But would I be shocked, overwhelmed, incensed? Would I love or hate the place? There was no middle path for what a trip to India would be. As a yogi, it’s hard not to feel obligated to have a spiritual awakening amidst the ash-clad sadhus wandering around piles of burning garbage, sunken-bellied cows with the stunning mountains and gilded saris in the background.
The intention of this trip was to collaborate with an NGO with Bloom & Give. Last year I was invited to become one of their yogi Instagram ambassadors. I loved their products, beautifully hand crafted textiles and their social mission: to keep girls in school longer. Fifty percent of the Bloom and Give products’ profit goes to Educategirls.ngo (EG) which is a small grass-roots movement helping rural community villages learn the value of keeping their daughters in school. This trip would include all the yoga, travel and sightseeing and diversional bus rides one could imagine. But we also had a social agenda: to learn how young girls and women are treated in India. We visited primary schools, a boarding school, the village advocates, the girls’ mothers, and worked a day in a textile factory where women make $17 a month.
What we learned surprised us; what we learned about ourselves and our limited worldview was also illuminating.
We arrived under a sulfur colored sky and took in the indelible New Delhi air. After two days of flying and a lost layover in London, we were ready to start our journey to the land of impossible hyperbole. India is India after all. A few decades of yoga practice and several decades in technology too, I have felt India a near and dear place through the relationships I have developed with her people and with India’s gift of the yoga practice now blessing the West.
When we landed and made our way to the diplomatic enclave, I was struck first by the beautiful greenery sometimes forgotten in the biggest cities. We left the airport with minimal traffic. Delhi was a beautiful city. It is also the most polluted city, but that was the only commentary I had heard. I preferred focusing on the beautiful rows of flowering trees.
This should be a quick trip to the hotel, I opined. Then all that changed; the reality of real India took us by surprise.
A tsunami of scooters, cars in this emerging BRIC economy dammed up around the bend with a curious configuration of side players peddling rusty old bikes, a few sandaled and speeding by on skateboards. Looking over to the right between the over packed buses with not a single square inch of space between the armpits of fellow men, women and children we saw the others choosing more domesticated approaches to their transportation as one man took to camel, another by elephant. It was not overwhelming as we sat in sub-standard air conditioning and heard the non-stop symphony of car horns barking at everyone and no one at the same time. It was nothing more than being greeted by Mother India herself as she opened the door with her excited children screaming and swirling about excited for their guests.
I never lost my calm in India and there were many challenging times. The opportunities, like its diverse population, offer an unlimited amount of stress triggers like guitar strings waiting to be played and plucked. Here is one example: the ill-directed driver who took us on a misguided nine hour detour through the shanties between Delhi and Rishikesh, stopping at road stop bathrooms one step up from Slumdog Millionaire.
What I quickly learned about India was she keeps her own schedule. In this way, she is obstinate, immovable like a mountain sheath. Try to get your coordinated taxis to meet you as discussed at a certain time or place betwixt the market stalls of Rishikesh, well, good luck. Need to get to the airport three hours early? As outlandish as it seems, yes, most likely.
She is also abundant and fecund, fluid and moving like the Ganges River. Everywhere you look, you are impressed by the richness of greenery and vastly dynamic landscapes, each region its own tableau for storytelling through cuisine, culture and aesthetics. I was starting to get for the first time in my life both the powerful life force of planet as woman, her body and the resources it offers, and the insatiable cruelty and greedy entitlement we force upon her like hungry dogs nipping at her teats. There is a beauty in her selflessness. Even if it seems a romanticized view of India, and worse yet one peering through the speckled lens of a Western yoga teacher, I still would hold tight to my feelings that India has everything of a land lost in time as it does a civilization coming to grips with finding its bearings in the modern world.
As we drove through the deserts of Rajasthan, the mountains of Rishikesh and the cities of Agra and Delhi in between, I saw the many sides of the Mother, and I reflected on her resources. How much more does she have to give before she breaks? How many ways are we as a people around the world taxing her health? History and the sun shine down upon her, and show her favor. But like spoiled kids, do we show her the respect she deserves?
When does the young maiden evolve into the mother, raise her young and then like a setting sun fade into the crone?
The greatest learning for me about how girls and women are treated in India came through the meditations and considerations given to India and the Earth as mother more than interacting with the children.
Now, let’s get to those kids, shall we?
Nothing could have prepared me (and we had hours upon hours to prepare because the dusty roads out to these rural village shows were long) for walking into the schools. I started to cry immediately. These weren’t sympathy tears; I was moved by the beautiful spirit of these children and that I had the opportunity to be there with them for that day. I wished with my whole heart that my daughter could have been there with me.
The classroom floor for the Kindergartners was covered in sukhasana kids. They looked at us as we walked in with fascination. Their big eyes widened with nervous and bashful curiosity. Most of these children never leave their small rural village. Only a handful had even made it in for a field trip to Jaipur. Americans (oh and one Czech), blondes, women with cornrows, women with light skin, some with dark skin but different features, one Asian man, nine women without saris.
Who are these strange looking people, I imagined them thinking.
The conditions of the classroom were not horrible at all. Granted, they did not have computer labs (one of my first original ideas for the visit, but alas, the infrastructure and connectivity is not available out in these parts to connect or maintain such systems). We had translators ask them questions, and a few stood up and shared. With each classroom, the children got taller, opened up a bit more, but the size of the classrooms kept shrinking. This became undeniable for the number of girls in school after the third grade. It is the harvest time, we were told, and girls work in the fields. But for most of them, it means, they have completed their education.
The reality for many young girls in these remote traditional places, some of which are not even registered via census for context, are committed in marriage at exceptionally young ages. As early as age eight, these girls have the rest of their lives laid out for them. There will not be opportunities for education or for careers. For some, there will be no real decision-making in the course their life will take. This is impalpable for the Westerner to comprehend, as we are afforded with so many liberties that it takes having conversations in these far reaches of the world to understand how different we view basic standards of living and moral imperatives like personal choice.
We did an art project with some of the girls and hung around taking selfies. For some of these young girls, they had never seen a picture of themselves before. We were able to show pictures of our kids, our pets and what it likes like where we live. They took to the phones with massive interest. Some things clearly are universal and transcend cultural barriers. We gave our phones to a couple of the older girls who got to shoot pictures and film our day.
At the end, we were asked to take a group photo with the school leaders and they asked us to sign their guest book. Something as simple as being asked to sign a paper record of our visit seemed so removed from our Seattle high-tech disposable lifestyles and impersonal ways of connecting.
From there, we traveled to a boarding school for older girls. Some are residing there as orphans and others have their mothers nearby in the village where the EG team discussed with them the importance of educating their children. Girls who receive longer education create more income, have less children and in general marry years later. This has great advantages for getting out of cycles of poverty and enables personal empowerment. We met a few of the EG advocates, young women with smiles that go from house to house in the village meeting parents. It only takes one family to make the choice to keep their daughter in school that create the groundswell and social influence for other families to follow suit.
Rajasthan now has more girls enrolled in school than other states within India and EG is expanding. At the boarding school, we met with the leadership counsel of young women who each take on certain roles and are given titles. Each stood up and shared their name, title and their role at the school. There is the girl who on-boards new arrivals, one that teaches the girls about hygiene. Other girls work to comfort the younger girls, another does sports, another games and birthdays. I was blown away by their confident smiles. We met with a few of the village mothers who shared why they sent their daughters to school there. This is a place that values girls and in a place like India, that is not always the case, at least in the ways that we understand or find it socially acceptable.
We kept the day fun and in high spirits. I loved spending time with these future leaders. What I witnessed was a new future for the young women of India, a ground-swelling of women becoming empowered. I saw and felt hope. There was no need for pity whatsoever. You also don’t need to dip in the Ganges or hang out in an ashram to find yoga in India. It’s on every street, in the hand of every beggar, in the bright-eyes smile of its children and the warm hosts we met along the way. A garland of malas and balloon pants in Rishikesh was not where the insights are found. We found them on the streets and in the villages.
Yes, Mother India was raising her daughters. On that trip, she raised me up a little bit, too. Thank you, Mother India.