Karma yoga is defined as application of yogic philosophies – a fearless expression of yourself that produces no harm to anybody and at least some benefit to somebody. It is a giving without expectations and an intention to help others. In a way, sitting meditation is experiencing the universe within us and karma yoga is connecting with a shared humanity externally.
Inside out and outside in.
Before going further in talking about my karma yoga, I’ll first give you a little background on situation. We are currently in the middle of our 5th week of study here and I think it has been a challenging week for many of us. The 1st week was a bit of a honeymoon period – full of excitement and energy. The 2nd week was more settling in and a drive to get to know everybody and explore the whole city. In the 3rd and 4th weeks, we found our favorite lunch time hang-outs – out favorite shops and restaurants – but also came up with more challenges including the natural disaster happening all around us, the hot and humid weather and many people getting sick with stomach issues or simply the common cold. In the 5th week, I feel a month of pushing to try our hardest, long days and nights kept up by explosive thunderstorms that actually shake the building a bit, the heavy humidity and the aftermath of sicknesses have taken their toll. Tensions are a bit higher and our inner sense of peace is threatened by small but annoyingly frustrating things like unpredictable rains and heavy humidity leaving freshly washed clothes smelling like mildew and making me wonder why I bothered washing the clothes in the first place and the swarm of flies that we can’t seem to escape from. However, on the other hand, I feel like we have also become a lot closer and like a family. We share our positive vibes, hugs and support.
We all have ways of coping with some of these 5th week challenges. Many eat out more now, treating themselves with some different meals to break up the routine a bit. Some shop and have honed their bargaining skills. Some also try to become more involved in the community. So here we are back to karma yoga…
As you may have read in one of my earlier blog entries (“Eye of the Storm”), I have been feeling a little helpless in learning about peace in the middle of a major natural disaster where we are somehow a little detached from the whole situation. I ended that entry by talking about doing my best where I can in the local community.
I think in a lot of different cases, the big events get a lot of attention in the short term while longer legacies and conditions that heightened vulnerabilities in the first place fade quickly from public imagination. While rescue efforts are very, very important as is coordinating relief camps, the empty streets foreshadow a longer term issues. This is supposed to be the height of tourism from Indian nationals going on holy pilgrimages or rafting excursions down the Ganges. The monsoon rains coming a month early and subsequent disaster has hurt the local economy, destroyed infrastructure, ruined crops and threatens with the risk of water contamination.
Inspired by a desire to help where I can and an understanding that those hardest hit often already faced many social inequalities, I have started volunteering with a local organization called Khushi, which means joy in Hindi. Khushi (http://khushi.org.in/index.php) mainly runs an afterschool program for about 300 kids. Children attending government schools usually come from impoverished backgrounds and often suffer from malnutrition, medical problems and educationally, crowded schools with little individual attention and high drop-out rates. Khushi works to fill in the missing gaps and works with the local school to improve facilities including new classrooms and salaries for teachers, paying for children’s school uniforms, books and registration fees and has a free afterschool program 6 days a week covering a variety of school subjects, plus computer, art, yoga, sewing and other classes. They also run a food program.
Khushi works in the Sheessam Jhari neighbourhood of Rishikesh, a poorer neighbourhood mainly inhabited by migrant Bihari people. Bihar is a state in northern India and one of the poorest in the nation. Many Biharis have migrated to other parts of India in search for work, often struggling to survive with unreliable, exploitative informal work and suffering from increasing discrimination and prejudice. Kapil, one of the staff at Khushi, said that many of the hawkers (probably including my dedicated bindi salesperson) are Biharis. A friendly local restaurant owner who we have gotten to know gave me a lift to the school on his way to Rishikesh market today and pointed out that a line of people waiting for food handouts at a local ashram were mainly all Biharis.
Somehow, I realize more and more that everything is interconnected. Our yoga lineage that we are studying is the Bihar school. I wanted to help out more with the flood victims who I had conceptualized as those stranded in the mountains. Instead, I aim to help out where I can locally in Rishikesh and end up realizing the damage the rains have wrecked in the city.
The Sheessam Jhari neighbourhood, where Khushi mainly serves, has been hit hard by the flooding and much of the neighbourhood is still under a layer of sand brought by the overflowing river. The neighbourhood lost something like 25 feet deep of riverbank and people are working hard to build a sandbag wall as more rains have been forecasted. A lot of the sand for the sandbags comes from excavating areas pretty much buried by the flood. The school, which is less than 100 feet from the river, is completely flooded and mired in about 3 feet of sand. It was rather shocking to walk up to a classroom and realize that I was standing halfway up the door frame and the fan looks just hanging a few feet above the water. Workers are digging trenches to drain the water still trapped in the classrooms.
The school is closed so while there are less children currently attending the after-school program at Khushi, I feel like Khushi is playing an extremely important role of continuing education and I feel very honoured to help out.
I was working with a bright 12 year old girl today at Khushi who was very shy at first but really opened up with a thirst to learn as we read together, made animals sounds associated with the story, worked on some English grammar and conversation. After an hour and a half, I asked if her head was getting full. She smiled and said no. After two hours, I asked again if her head was feeling full of information. She smiled again and said no. However, my head was full and the English portion of the afterschool program had finished.
She invited me to her family home for tea after. She lives with her mother, father, grandmother, three brothers and what seemed like a family clan of other relatives and their children. Her family home is a two story concrete structure that looked like just an unfinished frame of a building. There was an opening from the roof all the way down to the ground floor above the concrete staircase, which had no walls or railing. Rooms where people slept looked remarkably like stable stalls. However, the place was relatively clean and cared for and though no one (except the girl I was teaching) spoke any English, they were rich in hospitality.