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Where it Matters Most

Miss the previous update? Read it here.

In India, a government-level ban known as the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was placed on determining the sex of babies in 1994, in response to the rampant issue of female fetuses being aborted—census data indicates that up to six million girls have been aborted over the past decade.

Girls can be considered a financial liability viz dowries and inheritance rules dictating passage of wealth only to sons, and are generally seen as “lesser than” their male counterparts with no other purpose than to cook, clean, and raise children. Interestingly, the issue is more common with India’s rich, than it is with the poor.

Right and wrong aside. What message does this send about what it means to be a girl or woman in India and what if you are one and feel you have a dream to live out?

Bhava in the Center

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Since mid-September, I have been teaching an afterschool program for a group of 15 (originally 17, two have since left) girls from the leprosy community, ages ranging from 10-17. We meet Monday-Friday from 3p to 4p and engage in an assortment of activities that encourage them to be their best selves and pursue their dreams (a few of the older girls are even serious about going to college).

After returning from my brief trip to the US in August, I had a vision for the program and some instinctive understanding it should just be for girls. So I went with it, despite some of the initial confusion from the community about what exactly it was that I was up to (this having to do with the clause above the photo, i.e., why invest in people who are just going to be housewives?).

I’m glad I did. After a little over a month into our program, it's become quite spirited and I have seen some heartening changes in the group.

At the center of what we do is the creation of bhava. This is a Sanskrit term conveying qualities like mood, feeling, and spirit. And please trust me that this is a highly accepted and culturally embraced practice, existing to some extent even in government schools.

There are external measures you take to do this, such as treating your meeting space like a kind of temple. This involves cleaning with care and mindfulness. Burning incense, or similar. Lighting a candle. Having positive images and sayings on your walls. Making sure all of your things are organized and in their right place.

You can see in the above and below photo how we create decorative rangolis at the entrance of where we meet. It creates a warm, welcoming feeling.

Then there are internal measures you take, such as making time for meditation or a form of silence with the group, inclusive prayer if it’s culturally or organizationally acceptable, singing, dancing, and honestly sharing what’s on your mind.

As an example, below you can see us performing an aarti.

All of these things we do daily.

When combined, a kind of active holding environment or presence gets created — a nurturing space that fosters intimacy — that then, organically, informs you as the teacher and helps carry out the flow of the program effortlessly. That might sound strange, I know.

As an example, I rarely plan out a lesson in advance—I usually receive that inspiration in the moments following our daily meditation. I prefer it this way because I know whatever it is I’m sharing in the moment, is particularly right for that day and particularly right for the group and me.

Something Amazing Happens

As another example of this "effortless flow," about three weeks into the program, we were paid an unannounced visit by trustees from a local charitable trust who "just happened" to arrive in the middle of one of our classes to check in on separate program they had supported.

After explaining what we were doing (i.e., supporting a talented group of girls, most of who are demonstrating potential for something greater than getting married before the age 20) the trustees asked the eight or so on the verge of finishing high school, who among them was interested in going to college. Each enthusiastically raised their hand.

To me and the co-teacher, Rakhi, they then explained that the trust specifically sponsors education costs and would be interested in doing so for these girls when the time came. Again, most of the members of this community are financially poor. Paying college tuition fees, especially for girls who aren't supposed to go to college (or finish high school), was one of the challenges we were facing.

This is a not so small example of the magic I’m fond of talking about when operating from this space of bhava. I see it in my personal life and I’ve seen it in most of the programs I’ve been involved in.

Fortuitous circumstances can naturally gravitate toward you, at the exact right time and in just the right way.

Concepts We Have Worked With

In terms of formal teaching, my emphasis has been on timeless, universal values that encourage character growth, with a lean toward those keystone areas, like self-confidence, that help trigger other values to develop on their own.

One of the rules for participation in the class is informing me or the co-teacher if you are going to be late or absent. For courtesy and for respect, of course. But what we keep repeating about this small practice is that it is a 1-2 minute exercise in work you don’t want to do that makes a huge difference in how you are perceived by others.    

We talk about success in those terms. In this case, when you demonstrate you care enough to take the extra two minutes to inform me or Rakhi you’re not going to be able to make it to class, especially at age 10, you have now got my attention and I’m probably going to be inclined to give extra to you, maybe even present you with special opportunities because you are giving extra, potentially when others are not.

This leads into the all important concept we’ll keep coming back to. Small is big.

The program, itself, is a demonstration of this. We’re not doing anything particularly sophisticated or "big" but we’re doing what we’re doing with great deal of care and this tends to make a big impact.

Dil se suno or listen with your heart. This is another idea we're working with that has to do with authority and is of particular importance for girls in India because nobody really is encouraging them to do this.

When it matters least, is when it matters most. I teach to look at your daily life as a form of religion.

For example, people beg to God for prosperity, good fortune, and the like, when they needn’t necessarily outsource this power. I have stressed that honest, loving effort is what attracts good fortune. Taking the time to pick up a pile trash when you don’t have to. Doing something kind for somebody else, just because. Generally, giving of yourself because you know it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re looking for a reward.

Be the change. We talk about the importance of throwing away trash into a dust bin and how, if you see somebody else not doing this, it can be hard to convince them to do it as well. However, if you change your own habit first, this can have the power to change somebody else’s, as you may inspire them to do so. Or not, that’s not important. Doing what you know to be right is the important part.

What we're essentially talking about is being your best self and doing work — service — that doesn't necessarily pay off in the immediate short-term but that pays off in much grander ways over time.

Public Speaking

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Getting comfortable with public speaking is one of those keystone areas that can create change in a number of other areas, particularly self-confidence and leadership, which are areas that can take a hard hit being a girl in India.

Any chance that arises, I ask the girls to practice speaking in front of everybody else. Authentically and from the heart. For the most part, this happens during our opening circle at the beginning of class, where we all go around and say how we're doing or share something that's on our mind or going on.

At times, during English tuition, I will also purposely put somebody on the spot by asking a question in English. It can be an embarrassing experience for whoever is on the receiving end because she really has to listen to me, everybody is watching, and she might not know the answer. But we all get through the difficulty, even if we have to work at it a few minutes, and I constantly encourage the girls to be OK with that kind of discomfort and not let it shut them down.

After a month of practicing public speaking, it's one of the areas where I’ve seen the most growth. The girls are appearing more confident and comfortable in their skin. There is one in particular, Suman, who was so shy and reserved before we started, who is now one of the most skilled speakers in the group.

We’re Practicing a Kind of Yoga

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What we’re doing in this class, primarily, is expanding our comfort zones. It’s a kind of bending and loosening of uptight areas, no different  than the actual asana practice of yoga.

It just so happens though that Thursday is our day of actual yoga and relaxation. This is, perhaps, my favorite day because the intention, more than other days, is to create a space for inner peace and healing. It’s the day I notice the most immediate change in everybody (sweeter, quieter, gentler) and where I feel they are receiving the most concentrated benefit.

Anupuna (below, right), in particular, who gave some troubling answers on the initial questionnaire and who is really overworked in the home, tends to fall asleep during the relaxation exercise, which I am so happy about. She needs the extra rest.

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Doing 30-minutes of yoga with the group can be challenging at times with the giggling, grunting, and talking that goes on. Some of that still happens here and there but, for the most part, everybody has become good at being quiet during this time and giving the movements a good effort.

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As a way to celebrate the end of the formal week together, a healthy, freshly cooked snack is served after the relaxation. I leave the girls alone here and allow them to chat it up and have fun on their own. It has become one of the favorite parts of the program.

Wrapping Up With a Day of Service

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On Friday, we conclude the week with a community service day. On this day, we roll up our sleeves and clean dirty areas of the community together or do other odd jobs. In the evening, some of the older girls have taken to singing bhajans to the leprosy patients who come to receive a free dinner at the community kitchen. Others, help clean up the dirty dishes after.

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I teach that what we are doing is not labor. Similar to how I clean my room with care to create a nurturing space for this class, we clean the community to create a nurturing space for others, even if it only lasts a couple of hours.

We’re giving a gift. We smile while we do what we do. Enjoy ourselves. Say a prayer beforehand. And usually conclude with a moment of silence and a few “hip hip hoorays!” Again, to bring in that spirit, that bhava.

Soon, the group will divide into smaller teams and be given Rs. 200 (~$3) each to, in some way, help people other than family out. It will be an exercise for the girls to, hopefully, get a feel of the joy and sense of connectedness when you give in this way.

Ending On a Note of Gratitude

Here, I have tried to capture the heart of the program and left a number of things we did out.

I did not touch on the formal exams the group took throughout the program and how that caused me to ask one student to leave for failing it, nor some of the inspiring guest speakers we received like Nimesh Patel, Jyotsana  Parmar, Neeta Jadav, and Fernando Grajeda and Ellie Walton, nor the results from retests of the form I gave out that gauged the girls' self-esteem, values, and ability to work towards their dreams.

This article was written particularly for the few donors and close supporters who made this program possible and who continually encourage my work. My hope is that it gave you a realistic sense about what we're up to because all of you are many thousands of miles away.

Please know I think of you often, am holding the program to a high standard, and feel such gratitude for your belief in our vision. On behalf of all the kids and Rakhi, the co-teacher, THANK YOU!

Continue to next (and final) update about this afterschool program.