When Actions Can Change The World

Simple human kindness is a trait we all share. As human beings, it’s difficult to imagine a world with no compassion. You see a person in need, and you feel a natural desire to alleviate that need, even if all you can do is to give a kind word and an encouraging smile.

As practicing yogis, we are exposed to the concept of karma yoga – or the yoga of selfless service – which is based on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. This sacred Hindu text tells us that serving others through our actions is less about providing assistance to an individual than about being given a chance to help nurture the world. In other words, when we care for another person, the benefits of this also flow on to the wider community.

Few of us would argue the enormous level of need that exists all around us. It’s brought home to us each time we follow the news. Every day, there are stories about poverty, racism, substance abuse, domestic violence, rape and murder. All across the globe, human rights abuses, corruption and conflict are rife. And when we see this human suffering, it’s easy to feel disheartened.

Amnesty International human rights campaigner Ming Yu agrees that all the ‘bad, sad and crazy stuff’ that we are confronted with can sometimes leave us feeling overwhelmed. ‘But if we deliberately choose to constantly practice our compassion and take concrete action in whatever way we can to help out, then we can contribute to social change in a positive way,’ she says.

The challenging nature of her work in countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar to advance the rights of communities at a grassroots level, as well as spearheading Amnesty International Australia’s push to prevent torture by police in the Philippines, has brought her into contact with some ‘incredibly stoic, courageous and visionary individuals’ who are dedicating their lives to improving the lives of others. It has also taught her the value of being kind to ourselves.

‘We need to find the balance between helping others out where possible, but also making sure you are a healthy being too, otherwise you won’t be much help to others,’ the Sydney-based activist says.

Yoga Australia vice-president Leanne Davis echoes this sentiment. The Queensland yoga teacher and Chinese medicine practitioner believes that by increasing our own physical and mental health, yoga will automatically make us more compassionate to the needs of those around us.

‘The science of yoga is concerned with a moral and ethical way of life that avoids personal problems and helps us live in a state of yoga that is peaceful and not disturbed by other people or events,’ she says. ‘The more at ease we are in ourselves, the more attentive and the more available energy we have to share with others.’

Yet how do we go about helping other people? How does anyone know where to focus their attention when the problems in the world seem so insurmountable? Can our individual actions even make a long-term difference? To answer these questions, Australian Yoga Life spoke to three people who are working to effect change.

Each of these ordinary people are reaching out. Each of them feel compelled to take action. And each of them admit they have moments where they wonder if what they are doing is really enough. The reality, for each of them, is that their collective work has far-reaching benefits, not just to the individuals they are helping but to those individual’s families, their communities, and the wider world.

Making yoga accessible

Social worker and founder of the Cultural Yoga Project (CYP) Lani Kaplan believes in helping others through sharing. Passionate about the plight of Australia’s growing refugee and asylum seeker population, she is reaching out to them through the shared experience of yoga.

‘When working as a social worker I am ‘helping’ people to fulfil their basic needs so that they can survive with more ease in this country and within society,’ says Lani, who trained as a yoga teacher in 2012. ‘But with the Cultural Yoga Project, it’s more of a sharing experience. Sometimes the best way to help is by sharing positive energy with one another. When we emit compassion and loving-kindness towards others and provide a safe, nurturing space to harness this, we are helping by showing the power of human connection.’

The CYP’s program offers refugees and asylum seekers free yoga classes taught in a therapeutic and trauma-sensitive manner. South African-born Lani, 30, felt moved to found the non-profit organisation after seeing the incredible resilience of refugees and asylum seekers who were being detained at the Australian immigration detention centre on Christmas Island.

In 2010, following a stretch working at a youth refuge and wanting to learn more about yoga and philosophy, Lani, who migrated with her family to Melbourne at the age of four, decided to embark on an eight-month journey to South Asia.

On her way to India she stopped at Christmas Island and visited the immigration detention centre with the charity Australian League of Immigration Volunteers. It was an experience she describes as ‘life-changing’. ‘I was fortunate to spend time with detainees, listening to tales of their indescribable journeys and the hardships they had endured, both in their homelands and now at the centre,’ Lani recalls. ‘I wondered how they functioned, how they smiled or cared to share. But so many did.’

She remained on the island for an entire month, during which time she volunteered to teach the detainees yoga. ‘It was obvious to me, through the mutual excitement of both myself and my students that in every class there was a shared experience of peace in our hearts,’ she says. ‘I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my energy to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, but I always felt there was a missing link in my social work roles. I wanted to find a way to officially offer yoga as a service.’

Four months later, while drinking tea on a trek through the mountains in Nepal, Lani voiced her desire to a fellow traveller. ‘This traveller casually mentioned that she had a friend who had set up a non-profit organisation in Africa providing recycled bicycles to students,’ Lani said. ‘When I asked her how, I remember her shrugging her shoulders and saying, “She just did it”. It was in that moment that I realised I could too.’

Fulfilling her dream took a lot of patience, commitment and hard work. ‘At the start I was hoping there would be a checklist to go by, but there wasn’t,’ Lani said. ‘Each organisation I researched was different and information had to come from many sources. There were countless phone calls, emails, and cross-checks with a lawyer.’

After a lot of what Lani calls ‘learning by doing,’ three years later the organisation has provided yoga classes to more than 200 refugees and asylum seekers, both through its mobile outreach service, which conducts weekly classes in communities across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, and also through its yoga day retreats in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges.

Taking time out to care for themselves, reduced stress and pain relief are just some of the benefits students have reported to Lani. ‘One day, a woman wanted to talk to me after class,’ Lani recalls. ‘She had tears in her eyes as she fumbled through her purse. She had a little Buddah for me wrapped up with a bow. In broken English she explained to me that the yoga classes had been the best addition to her life. She told me that before the classes she was depressed and couldn’t find the energy to do the laundry. Yet now, she was motivated to get up, come to class, and the ripple effect was that she was in a positive mood back home. She said that yoga “had changed her relationship to life”.’

The work of the CYP has begun to receive community recognition. The City of Greater Dandenong awarded the organisation its first grant in July last year to run five, one-day yoga retreats. And several Melbourne yoga studios have helped with fundraising efforts and donated yoga mats.

‘We need to let go of this idea that we are too small to make a difference,’ Lani says. ‘It is not enough to sit back, watch the news and empathise. We need to be proactive. Everyone can do something. My motto is to start with your passion, start where you are and then build up within your own personal capacity from there.’

India calling

One of the prevailing emotions that Aziza Raziuddin, 21, battled with last year while she was working with poor women in the remote Indian village of Maralakunte, south of Bangalore, was the sense that what they were doing just wasn’t enough. The bachelor of health science student, who was part of a team of six young Australians, was working with social enterprise organisation 40K Globe to teach local women to make yoga mat bags.

The success of the project, which now employs three women to hand stitch the bags, taught Aziza that ‘empowering individuals’ is not just an ideal, but a tangible goal. And it was the empowerment she saw in these women that left her with the deepest desire to do more.

‘I was with one of the women when our first bag was completed and she had this big smile on her face and she knew she had done an awesome job,’ said Aziza, who lived in the village during the month-long program. ‘I felt so proud of her, and of our group, but at the same time there was a part of me that wished we could have employed more women.’

To date, the women have created more than 600 bags, which are shipped back to Australia and sold in markets and online through the 40K Globe website and Etsy. Profits are used to pay the women and to help fund education pods, which are afterschool facilities operated by 40K in the villages it works in, utilising tablet technology to teach rural children English.

‘Being part of this program made me realise that empowering others can be a simple process,’ Aziza said. ‘It’s about recognising an individual’s talent and giving them the opportunity, or creating an environment, for them to use their skills for self-employment or motivation. We planned an easy, step-by-step process to make the yoga mat bags and provided all the raw materials these women needed. This is where the women came in and stepped up to the challenge. Working with them one-on-one, and seeing these bags finally change from just scraps of material to actual bags, was when I realised the power of empowerment.’

While the project has positive flow on effects for the whole community by increasing the women’s household income and improving the village children’s access to education, it represents only a small fraction of the help that’s still needed, says Aziza. Born and raised in Sydney’s North Shore and of Indian descent herself, she said the hardships faced by villagers in the poverty-stricken region are difficult to comprehend. ‘It’s not until you live there that you realise just how tough it is,’ she said. ‘Most of the village houses have minimal furniture, the electricity is unreliable and there are no phone connections. “Showers” are a bucket of cold water, there are only squatting toilets, and garbage and kitchen scraps are thrown out the windows to gather in large smelly piles on the ground.’

But what really opened her eyes to the reality of the village people was seeing them at work. ‘I remember visiting a quarry with our group and seeing men, women and children working to smash granite with hammers. They laboured at this job six days a week, being exposed to constant dust and risk of injury, for the sickeningly low wage of 200 rupees (approximately four Australian dollars) per day.’

The solution, maintains Aziza, lies not in charitable handouts but in putting power into rural communities’ hands by creating more employment opportunities that improve the lives of individuals and focus on long-term sustainability.

‘That’s what 40K Globe is all about,’ Aziza says. ‘We go into rural communities and conduct a needs analysis to understand the underlying concerns of the community, then we design an impact project around that.’

Filled with a determination to help drive change, Aziza has volunteered for another month-long assignment with 40K Globe. This time she will be a team leader and will head a group of up to eight young Australians who will work on a new impact project in another rural village in southern India.

‘The most exciting thing about going back is getting a second chance to work one-on-one with these rural communities,’ Aziza says. ‘Actually living in these communities has made such a difference to how I personally see the way in which we can help tackle poverty in developing countries. It’s not about going into their homes and fixing their roof, or just giving them money to feed their families. It’s about giving them the opportunity to work with what they know. I think that can have a real impact in driving change in rural India.’

Working to abolish slavery

Yoga teacher Naomi Young-Pickrell will never forget the moment more than a decade ago when a young Nepalese boy turned her worldview upside down. The newly-graduated journalist had just quit her job as a bartender on the Gold Coast and had taken up an internship with a newspaper in Kathmandu. After befriending a photojournalist who worked at the paper, Naomi was invited into his home.

‘He had a beautiful wife and two lovely children, a boy and a girl,’ recalls Naomi. ‘But there was another boy who lived with them. Unlike my colleague’s son, who looked well fed, wore decent clothes and attended school every day, this other boy, who looked about nine, was skinny, dressed in rags, and never went out.’

With growing disquiet, Naomi watched a scene unfold in the house. Silently, with eyes downcast, the boy moved through the rooms, cleaning, fetching drinks and helping to cook. ‘When I asked my friend who the boy was, my friend said he had done a local farmer a favour by taking the boy off his hands and providing him with food and shelter in return for help around the house. In other words, the boy was a domestic slave.’

Horrified, Naomi immediately left, but regrets she did nothing at the time to help the child. ‘Nepal really opened up my eyes,’ Naomi, now 32, says. ‘From what I learnt from aid organisations that combat human trafficking, there are more than 20 million people enslaved in the world today, and half of those are children who are forced to work against their will without pay in restaurants, factories, farms, domestic homes and as sex slaves in brothels. These children are often subjected to physical and mental abuse, starvation, rape, unimaginable living conditions, and are denied contact with their families,’ she says.

‘When I got back home I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It kept me up at night. I felt so overwhelmed by the problem and didn’t know what to do.’

It was the birth of her first child six years later that finally spurred Naomi to take action. ‘Holding my new-born daughter in my arms, I couldn’t comprehend how a mother could sell her child into something as cruel and inhumane as sex slavery,’ she says. ‘So when an opportunity came up to organise a community screening of Justin Dillon’s human trafficking awareness documentary ‘Call + Response’, I jumped on it. I arranged to have a giant blow up outdoor movie screen set up at our local parklands in Palm Beach and invited the community to come along to watch.’

The birth of her second child only motivated her further. She began to hold yoga classes each week to raise money for AFESIP Cambodia, a non-profit organisation that supports women and girls victimised by human trafficking and sex slavery. Buoyed by the success of these classes, she set up a website under the banner ‘Be Free Yoga’ and put out a call on social media, inviting other yoga teachers to join her.

The response was incredible. ‘In the first year alone I was contacted by over 50 yoga teachers from all over the world, including Australia, Thailand, America and the UK,’ Naomi says. ‘We now have 30 ambassadors holding regular weekly fundraising ‘practice for freedom’ classes while many more have held one-off events. Collectively, we have raised over 80 000 dollars for our project partners AFESIP Cambodia, Free to Shine and Project Futures, organisations that work on the ground in Cambodia to prevent human trafficking.’

Naomi’s drive to help further the cause through yoga came home in 2014 when she travelled to Cambodia to visit young female survivors of sex trafficking who were receiving rehabilitation and job skills training at AFESIP shelters in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. During her two week stay, she was given the opportunity to teach the girls yoga.

‘It takes a lot of courage to try yoga – to be in your body and turn your attention inward to be with whatever it is you’ve been through,’ says Naomi. ‘These girls were very brave, open, receptive, and had a great sense of humour despite what they had experienced. They touched my heart deeply and I felt so grateful to be able to share yoga with them.’

The shelters have since integrated yoga into their rehabilitation program after Naomi spent time outlining the benefits of yoga to the psychologists at each centre.

She says the chance to bring hope to the survivors of human trafficking and sex slavery is a constant source of motivation for her. And she plans to visit the shelters again this year. It is work that benefits herself, she says, as well as benefitting others.

‘I used to feel discouraged and overwhelmed by the world’s problems and doubted that I alone could make a difference,’ she says. ‘But I now realise that you don’t have to do some large scale thing. You only have to do something very small and the ripple effect can be huge.’

Amnesty International’s Ming Yu agrees. ‘There is power in the individual, as well as in a movement of people, to change the world for the better,’ she says. ‘Small acts, such as buying a homeless person dinner, listening without judging a friend in need or donating 20 dollars to a women’s shelter, can fill people with hope, and can have a greater impact than you might ever realise. I prefer to live a life where I am a positive presence in another’s life, whether they be a stranger or a friend. And I want people to know that choosing kindness in your daily decisions and interactions can be a very positive experience, both for you and those in your community.’

When Actions Can Change The World

Suvi  Mahonen

Surfers Paradise, Australia

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