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Monday, January 9, 2017

Deenabandhu: Lessons from "the Home of Love and Acceptance"

 YGB supporters Ms.Karin Korvin and Ms. Rina Tham joined me on this trip
Our next stop was Deenabandhu Trust Home, about six hours drive from Bangalore through Mysore Road and to Chamarajanagar, Karnataka. Chamarajanagar is a poor city with a population of over one million people surrounded by thick forest. Yoga Gives Back started partnering with the local NGO Deenbandhu Trust in 2010 and now fund 21 orphaned and abandoned children. Professor Jayadev founded this children's home in 1991 with six local orphaned boys and today, it houses nearly 100 boys and girls, providing a loving home environment and good education. I produced a film "Deenabandhu: Home of Love and Acceptance"  (2014) which gives you a feel of this wonderful home. It is now run by Professor Jayadev and Ms Prajna Neelgund, who left her high salary IT job in Bangalore as a computer scientist and joined this organization. She is full of energy and also passionate theatrical artist who guide children to play in poignant stories on the stage.

One of our first welcome treats is the girls' Bharatanatyam dance. They all dress up and perform several different programs for us. Seeing these girls happy dancing is a wonderful experience which underscores how far these children have come from their early hardship. I was very happy to meet Maalai (11years old) in a pretty yellow dress. She is the young girl who was featured in my film, limping with medical conditions. Four years ago, a local doctor misdiagnosed her, but YGB Ambassador Sophie Herbert Slater and her husband Dan Slater were visiting from New York and took her to a better doctor in Mysore who diagnosed her with Thyroid complications. Thanks to Sophie and Dan's attention and effort, Maalai (*her name is changed to protect her privacy) has been treated with correct medication and has really grown.  You can see how she has grown to be such a happy pretty girl. Just like many other children's here, Maalai had a very sad childhood. She was actually found lying next to her mother's dead body on the street of Bangalore. When you look at her smile today surrounded by many sisters and brothers who love her, it is clear that Professor Jayadev's dedication to create this "Home of Love and Acceptance" has truly become a reality for so many children.
Maalai (2013)
(Maalai, 2017)
YGB Ambassador Sophie Herbert Slater and her husband Dan Slater from New York (2013)

I love staying here at their guest house to feel the rhythm of the life at Deenbandhu Home. At 6 a.m., a bell rings and children get up, sweep the ground, and meditate. I go to the kitchen and get a cup of coffee or tea. House mothers cook three meals a day for all the children and guests as well as school teachers. We enjoy three delicious meals here: variety of chapati, omelette and cooked vegetable dishes (lady fingers/okra, capsicum/bell pepper, radish, beans, etc.) with always freshly made coconut chutney! Please follow Yoga Gives Back's FaceBook as we continue to share updates of these children we support. $500 a year can support one child at this home to let them live up to their dreams.

Over the last 25 years, Deenbandhu had sent about 100 boys into higher education or independent life with paid jobs. Last year, the first three girls also left the home to study or work in Bangalore. These alumni students return to the home throughout the year.
Last October, on the day of Gandhi Jayanthi, birthday of Gandhi, all the alumni students visited Deenbandhu and discussed how to understand Gandhi. I hope we can all learn from what they concluded here:
1. We have been receiving from society and it is now our turn to give back something to society.
2. What can we give? We are not rich! But we can still give back to society by staying away from corruption.
3. We give back to society by being honest.
4. We can give back to society by being punctual, helpful to others and by leading a disciplined life.

This list is a clear demonstration of the seed Professor Jayadev planted in these youths' minds at the home. They have no biological family and possess very little materialistically, but their minds shine bright and teach me a lot about how to live with a sense of gratitude and give back to society as much as we can. This day, one young boy donated 5000 Rupees from his income as a driver at Toyota Corporation. Others donated 200 pairs of slippers as well as sweets, crackers, jumping ropes, and toys for the children.
Professor Jayadev writes in his report of the day:
"... So the 'giving' was densely loaded with an attitude and feeling of fulfillment for being able to give, which actually subdued the arrogance of giving and at the same time the giver floated in a sense of gratitude. These are possible not by mere psychological understanding but with true spiritual comprehension. Often we read out the prayers of Saint Francis of Assisi---
O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much.
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved to as to love,
For it is giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned..."
This, in be brief, are the prerequisites that lead to the making of a personality of a child. It involves precise interpersonal interactions that lead to the etching of a desired character in children.  We are able to describe some aspects of this experience for which we have an easy vocabulary. Yet there are others aspects of this phenomenon which abhor vocabulary but are amenable only to a spiritual bent of mind...."

Every time I visit India and experience this kind of living moral values, I truly feel "by giving, we receive." On behalf of Yoga Gives Back, I interact with these incredible human beings and learn so much from them, which fuels me to keep working harder for YGB's mission. I am hoping to share these experiences with more of YGB supporters in person together in India. Yoga Gives Back has been truly blessed to partner with this incredible NGO Deenbandhu led by Professor Jayadev.

During my last visit in 2014,  I planted a small tree on behalf of Yoga Gives Back in front of Deenabandhu Women's Tailoring Center. See how much the tree has grown in two years, which also symbolizes the success of this women's training center. I would like to see YGB supporting these women's income earning work in the future by helping sell these bags (see them in this photo?) and many other items they make here to create sustainable income earning work. This is another big dream of Professor Jayadev's, to create a positive socio economic ripple effect in this poor local community.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Jayashree Never Gives Up!

Behind the inspiring story of Guruprasad, who is studying to become a dental oncology surgeon, there is an incredible story of his mother Jayashree whom I first met in 2007. Jayashree received her first micro loan that year and was very hopeful to give her children higher education. When I interviewed her for the first time, what struck me most was her honesty and clarity of her goal. "I am poor, my mother was also poor," she told me. She also articulated that her dream was to give her two sons higher education so that they can serve the community. This family never puts "making money" as a goal or priority. Their goal has always been "to serve the society." This was truly surprising as well as inspiring to me. I never expected that response!

I have visited Jayashree almost every year for the last 10 years. What I have come to understand clearly during this visit is that, she has put all she has earned from micro loans and any other debts, to her sons' education. If you watch YGB FILMS "Jayashree's Journey," you realize that she lives in the same house, same small shack, selling snacks and sewing bags in front of their humble home. Her quality of life has not really improved much. If anything, she has been able to buy a gas stove and television for her one room, dirt floor house for her family.

Guruprasad's master course tuition is now about $3,000 per year  which YGB's global community is supporting 100%. In addition, Jayashree is responsible to for about $5,000 of the total cost for the three-year master course to provide books, instruments, and other expenses.

Jayashree and her husband are so proud of their son Guruprasad and will never give up their support and struggle to make their son a proud doctor which is truly a miracle in this little village outside of Bangalore. This family is YGB's first direct fund recipient and I do hope we can continue our support until Guruprasad becomes a dental surgeon and can serve the poor who can not afford any care elsewhere. This might sound like an unattainable dream, but each time I visit Guruprasad and Jayashree, I grow to believe in this dream because they never give up! And there is a little brother following Guruprasad's footsteps. I will share his story during my next visit.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Cancer Free India!" SHE Scholarship Student's Dream

"There is no doubt. I want to save lives." 
This year, YGB's visit to India started with meeting with Guruprasad who is YGB's first recipient of SHE, Five-year Scholarship for Higher Education. Coming from a very poor family in the sububs of Bangalore, Guru is now 2nd year of his masters course at AECS Maaruti College of Dental Sciences and  Research Center, Bangalore, India. We first met Guru when he was a high school student in 2007. His growth in self confidence is truly remarkable to witness. You can watch two short YGB Films below, which I have been filming since our first meeting.

Last seven years, Guru has been studying day and night to realize his dream to become a dental surgeon. His English has improved so much that I did not even ask for a translator's help this time. Guru shared his dream of becoming an oncologist dental surgeon and create a cancer free Bangalore, cancer free India. His plan is to build a cancer care center for the poor who have no awareness or care about their serious illness.

AECS Maaruti College of Dental Sciences & Research Center, Bangalore.
Guruprasad was a economically disadvantaged high school student when we first met him in 2007. Today, he has a crystal clear goal of his life with a deep appreciation of an opportunity he has received to continue his higher education. When I asked if he wants to become rich, he responded without hesitation, "If you have a choice between becoming a rich or saving lives, I choose to save lives for sure!"

With YGB Team visiting Guruprasad, Alexandrina Tham (Author of Lucky Number 9), Karin Korvin (YGB supporter), and Babitha Nambiar (YGB Bangalore Team Member)!

YGB is so proud to be able to support a young compassionate student here in Bangalore, thanks to YGB's global yoga community's support.

This is an example of how your donation is making a real difference in India!!

Learn more about how Guruprasad's mother Jayashree struggled to give him a good education and how this became a reality.

Jayashree's Journey Continues (2014)

Jayashree's Journey: From Transaction to Transformation (2010)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Yoga is needed in Hell"---Pujya Swami

On March 8th, International Women's Day, the first Seva Celebration was held at Parmarth Niketan in Rishkesh, India, hosted by the spiritual master Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati and Sadhvi Bhagawati Sarwaswati. Yoga Gives Back was truly honored to receive recognition for its work to empower women in India at this celebration.

Pujya Swami and Sadvhi Bhagawati Saraswati, Parmarth Niketan, Rishkesh

Pujya Swamiji concluded this historic event with a joyful and powerful speech with an unexpected line, "Yoga is not needed in Heaven, but needed in Hell."!! Though surprising to many of us, this message strongly resonated in my me as I have been thinking about what Yoga and Seva mean to the real world, beyond its definition in Sanskrit.

Anand Mehorta, Sattva Yoga, Rishkesh
The concept of Seva Celebration was created Rishkesh native Yoga Master Anand Mehorta, founder of Sattva Yoga. "In Sanskrit, Seva it means to be of service. While we remain deeply committed to our physical practice, it is equally as important for us to remember that as manifestations of the Divine, we have a responsibility to take our practice off the mat and give back."

Bhavini Kalan and Laura Plumb
Daphne Tze and Anandra George
To respond to Anand's passionate call, world renowned yoga masters and teachers including Gurumukh Kaur Khalsa, Kia Miller, Tommy Rosen, Laura Plumb, Bhavini Kalan, Daphne Tze and Anandra George joined to offer a truly special soulful session for hundreds of yogis from all over the world. I was so touched by everyone's pure intention to express their support to empower women this day. Behind the scenes was the hard working organizer Annemarie Brown and her colleagues who made this very successful event happen. I am so grateful that YGB got this precious opportunity to connect with so many people from Norway, Germany, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Brazil, etc.

Pujya Swami and Annemari Brown

Tommy Rosen

Kia Miller

Gurumukh Kaur Khalsa 
In this chaotic world today, or because of the media, we cannot pass one day without learning about a tragedy in some place on this earth. I started Yoga Gives Back as I felt I needed to use my healthy body and mind to make this world a better place. Use myself as a vehicle, no matter how small, to make a difference. Our body is a temple and we need to cherish it to serve others. I continue to learn about the mind, body and the unlimited human power that can be tapped for better use. Here is truly an incredible example of ultimate SEVA. It is Japanese journalist Mr. Kenji Goto who was killed by ISIS terrorists this January. I have struggled to share Mr. Goto's mission and his story here and finally with Pujya Swami's words, "Yoga is needed in the hell," I found a way to connect my feelings to my thinking.

Japanese Journalist Mr. Kenji Goto who was killed by ISIS

The reason why I want to share Mr. Goto's story on the Yoga Gives Back blog is what Mr. Goto believed in and acted upon teaches us exactly what I continue to learn from YOGA. Mr. Goto's life mission was to help us make the connection to the reality of victims of war, especially children. He continued to ask us, "Can you really feel the pain of these children?" Following the death of Mr. Goto on January 31st (coincidentally my birthday), Japanese TV programs have been reporting about his legacy in detail. Here are some of Mr. Goto's words; " I do not want to document and share how dangerous war zones are. I want to share with the world how a person, a child is living in the war, what kind of life one has to survive, and what one feels. If you can really feel such a person's life as yours, you come to realize that we all share the same exact moment in life." Mr Goto lived to share the stories from war victims', especially from the children's perspective, committing his life to end wars on this earth.  He committed to report from war torn communities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and many other places, then finally into Syria last year. Before he entered Syria, he left a video message saying that no matter what happens, hatred is not the answer.

Village woman in West Bengal, India. I met her when she was beaten by her husband by being late to make lunch 
"YOGA is needed in Hell". Unfortunately this is true. There are many painful situations in so many lives in this world we live in. We can not solve everything but if we can just imagine and feel the pain of somebody else in today's hell, we can act and start taking small steps to support them. I believe the Yoga Community has tremendous resources to make a difference in this world. Yoga Gives Back was born in 2007 from one yoga classroom in Los Angeles, and now supports more than 500 destitute mothers and children in India, with supporting events in 15 countries. Our potential is unlimited if we just tune ourselves in to those who are really suffering from the many forms of hell in today's world. Just feel their pain and act. As I sat through this Seva Celebration, this message became very clear to me and I hope this makes sense to you, too.

The Ganges, "Mother Ganga", Rishkesh

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Meeting with SHE Scholarship teen students---Visiting NISHTHA villages #5

SHE scholarship students gathered to meet with us and share their dreams

YGB started SHE, Scholarship for Higher Education in 2013. During this visit, I met in total of 64 high school and college students this scholarship is funding in Karantaka and West Bengal states. I knew that each person comes from a very difficult financial background, but I did not realize until I met and listened to each student that YGB's SHE scholarship truly is the only chance they got to continue their education. Most girls in West Bengal would have been married off or sent to work otherwise.

Here are two personal stories that clearly shed light to these poor girls' circumstances. Rekha Naskar lives in Sibsuti Village, south of Kolkotta, West Bental, with her parents. She is the only child. Her father is a seasonal agriculture laborer and barely manages to maintain his family's daily needs. Both her parents are interested in Rekha's education, but due to the absolute lack of money, they had decided not to admit her to school and marry her off. She is only 17 years old. NISHTHA social workers identified Rekha's situation and offered SHE scholarship.

Today she is in Standard XI, equivalent of senior in high school. Rekha's mother told us, "I do not want my daughter to live like me."---sadly, this is the most common message I hear from all the mothers we meet. Equally, I can not help but feeling strong hope that this new generation of daughters can become real change makers in their society.  They have experienced and seen their mother's lives, poverty, gender discrimination and all the socio economic illness associated with poverty. Education is the only key for them to lift up themselves. I am proud to state that YGB is committed to give each person 5 years of scholarship for them to get a degree and advance in their lives.

Madhumita Mondal also lives in Shikhabali Village. Her mother is illiterate and her aging father works as a daily laborer to maintain the family. Some days, they do not even have enough food. Knowing her family's situation, Madhumita decided to stop her education. SHE's support came just in time and she now continues her education with her dream to become a teacher.

As I interviewed each student, I felt so empowered to learn their commitment for higher education with this scholarship. NISHTHA Director Mina Das explained about the reality.  "Drop-out rate for girls in higher education is currently 80%, leading to frequent child marriage or trafficking; female literacy remains at 60.22% in this region. Tutoring in computer and English, as well as social workers’ regular counseling, are needed to guide the girls to becoming strong citizen of society. As of today, a non-governmental organization NISHTHA is supporting nearly 4500 of the most vulnerable girls in this region and has identified girls to benefit immediately from this SHE scholarship.  We expect that at least 70% of SHE recipients will achieve graduation from high school level education."

It costs only about $25 a month for these teen students to continue their education in West Bengal and Karanataka states. This program is as significant as micro loans for impoverished mothers. SHE Scholarship seeds an incredible opportunity for these teens to become change makers, real leaders in the community to fight against poverty, injustice and inequality because they know it so well what these social illnesses can do to a human being. 

SHE scholarship program is sponsored by PURE International, YogaFit, anonymous donors and YGB's global community's support. Thank you everyone and this program will develop into a very hopeful project and I will continue to film stories of students to share with you in the coming years. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"I hit her, because she was late for lunch"----Visiting NISHTHA villages in West Bengal #4

During our visit to YGB's "Sister Aid" micro loan recipient mothers in rural villages in West Bengal, we bumped into one recipient yelling something outside of her mud house. First, we did not understand what was going on. Our partner NISHTHA social worker immediately jumped in and she also started arguing with a man standing in front of the house. Our translator explained that this poor woman just like any other women in this region, prepared breakfast, cleaned the house and went to the field to help her husband's work on their Guava field this morning. As she was so busy with her labor, she got a little delayed to return home to prepare their lunch. Tired and hungry, her husband lost patience and hit her on her right cheek, when she returned home, yelling at her. Obviously, this poor wife got very upset about this incident, which apparently has been going on for sometime. She is YGB's micro loan recipient who also put her loan as an investment to help grow her husband's Guava business together. And this was what she got!!

Unfortunately, this is a reality these rural women have to live with on a daily basis. Gender discrimination remains deep rooted in this region, starting with female infanticide. Census 2011 shows decline of girl population in India under the age of seven, with some estimating that eight million female fetuses may have been aborted in the past decade. When it comes to education, women's literacy in India is 65%, compared to men's literacy of 82%. Child marriage, child labor, rape, and domestic violence continue to threaten women's lives into adulthood. When poor women grow old, there is very little care for them and I witness this all the time in these villages. Older women never wear colorful saris, but rather cover themselves with completely ragged clothes only. It is against this sever reality, that I am truly inspired and proud to share with you how YGB's programs are making a real positive impact on these women's lives.

YGB micro loan recipients form a group or 10-20 women in eighteen villages. These groups have become not only a support platform for their new income earning businesses, but very important social support structure where women are free to discuss their domestic issues and get mutual support. I was happy to learn how NISHTHA social workers guide discussion such as domestic violence with these groups once a month.  YGB is the only organization in this region who is investing in women's empowerment with NISHTHA and it is truly an empowering experience to witness how YGB's global community's support is uplifting so many women's lives here. Micro loans do not only give women means to earn income, but more importantly seed fundamental sense of self-worth and dignity in them.

NISHTHA social worker and YGB fund recipients group "Shkti Prava" discussing Domestic Violence

Aparna Mondal is a mother of two daughters, who is also a victim of domestic violence. She energetically told me, "If any husband of our group abuses his wife, we go to him as a group and tell him that if he continues such behavior, we will take appropriate measures. We are not silent any more! I do not want my daughters live like me."

"NARI SHAKTI!!"(Women's Power)--Group's determination is echoed in the village after the meeting

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Atithi Devo Bhav" (Guests are Gods)---Visiting NISHTHA villages in West Bengal #3

"Atithi Devo Bhav" is a long lived India's tradition which remains strong in the rural villages in West Bengal. It means "Treating guests as Gods" in Sanskrit.

YGB "Sister Aid" fund recipient mothers welcome us at each village with a traditional puja

As we visit many poor agrarian villages here, we experience this living tradition all the time. Upon arrival to villages where YGB global community is supporting, women welcome us by gently taking our arms into their village. Once we arrive at the village, a lady blows a conch, and NISHTHA staff Shaumana makes her special sound pursing her lips, echoed by all the other women.

Then they shower us with beautiful fresh flower petals and embrace us with oil candle light and incense. Sometimes, we stand on wood platforms which has hand drawn designs, while all this ceremonial process takes place. We are also often offered seasonal sweets and fresh coconut after the ceremony. There is deep sense of respect for guests, and I often feel "Do I really deserve this?". Our local translator Malay explained that this is a beautiful Indian tradition that welcomes even your adversary and expect nothing from it. But it is also fading fast in city lives and growing nuclear family style.

On the surface, these women have very little, but it makes me wonder "who is really richer?"  In the  West or "developed societies",  we are often too busy to take time for such genuine hospitality, not to mention welcoming people you do not like. What a tradition, what a way of life!!! I continue to feel humbled. 

At lunch time, women in the villages always gather and prepare scrumptious lunch course for us, which consists of at least 5 different thali (small dishes), with chapati and rice. It is all about giving and welcoming, nothing else.

During my visit here in India, St Francis' words continues to repeat in my mind, "By giving, you receive". We are offering financial support to these women, but I receive so much spiritual wealth in return that I can not help but share this kind of precious experience with you all and YGB global community who support YGB's mission. 

As we leave each village, women gather around our auto rickshaw and keep saying "Abar dekha hobe", meaning "Please come back" and then stand there till we disappear from their sight.