This is part three; click here to read part one and here to read part two.
Before returning home to Philadelphia in mid-December, I sought permission to visit Odanadi Seva Samsthe (Odanadi Seva Trust), a non-profit working for the rescue, rehabilitation and empowerment of victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
I planned to host a Yoga Stops Traffic event on March 9 for the second year in support of this organization, and I wanted to meet the kids and see the center I’d been hearing and reading about for many years through the global Ashtanga Yoga community.
On my very last afternoon in Mysore, Apu drove me in his rickshaw to the outskirts of Mysore to visit Odanadi. We arrived at the front gate and climbed out as several rowdy, friendly children ran to greet us. Apu had been there many times and was happy to return.
I signed in and we stood around chatting for a few minutes as Vinitha, the Administrator, warmly greeted me, and the boisterous kids teased one another and vied for my attention. One of them boldly jumped right into my arms. Carrying him inside, Vinitha led me around the building to see the space and meet the staff.
We went by the Office for Women with its staffed hotline, the dining area, kitchen, dorm rooms and library. Kids were playing chess in the hall, and I noticed beautiful paintings on the walls, composed of poignant female forms. Were they self-portraits? In these paintings were cages, voids of space, fragmented bodies and backs turned—images of sorrow, but painted with bold color and spirit.
The courtyard antics stood in sharp contrast with this muted, quiet sanctum, bathed in lengthening afternoon shadows. Growing tired of carrying my little friend, I let him down to walk beside us, and at some point he rejoined his playmates.
We peered in on the President, Stanley Parashuram, and he welcomed us in with the wave of an arm while he continued to speak on the phone. There was a harmonium in the corner and the sparse small space was full of sunlight beaming in through the windows.
After some small talk, I shared with Mr. Parashuram what a neighborhood leader said to me last March in Philadelphia when I was promoting a Yoga Stops Traffic event to benefit Odanadi:
I asked Parashuram, “If you were standing by me with this leader where I live, what would you say?”
Parashuram didn’t hesitate: “For concern only. People come here with concern and compassion.”
Dissatisfied with his response, the sum total of my feelings being a volunteer serving Indian children and women arose in my throat: “How do you help kids love and accept themselves with compassion when they only know the opposite?”
Parashuram explained, “We have our own building. It’s designed as an environment to support a certain psychology. Did they tell you outside? There is no lock on the gate. This means to the kids there is no binding here, only the bonds of love and affection. The children are happy here. We are happy. They are happy learning and we also are learning the ways of compassion. People come in compassion from around the world.”
At that moment, a petite young woman, Jayashri, appeared at the door with her eyes cast downward. Parashuram invited her inside, and in English, he told me she recently gave up her own baby to the orphanage where I volunteered. Stunned, I grew confused as my feelings swirled around our interconnection.
Parashuram invited Jayashri to sit beside me at the conference table and explained something to her in Kannada—the mother tongue spoken in this region of South India—while I wondered which baby was hers. She looked at me and smiled, then looked down again, seeming to look inside herself.
Through Parashuram, I asked Jayashri when she had given up her baby. Together they agreed it had been about two months ago. I gazed at Jayashri and she seemed so familiar. I know that look! I thought to myself. It seemed she was smiling but hiding something inside too. Did she feel numb from confusion? I wondered, confused and curious.
“Odanadi is a Kannada word that means to come together,” Parashuram continued. Uncomfortable with what I saw in Jayashri’s face, because I was aware of seeing myself, I interpreted her expression. Jayashri and Parashuram spoke Kannada and then she nodded. Jayashri acknowledged she voluntarily gave up her baby.
“She did not want the child. It is alright! You do not have to want your child,” Parashuram said. I nod in empathy, still preoccupied with which baby, and startled by how I am recognizing myself in this young woman who seems sadly content with her choice.
I nod my head again and sincerely agree,
“Yes, you do not have to want your child; you do not have to keep your child. It is ok to not want a baby!”
Still stunned by the coincidence, I wondered if I should be more demonstrative; but I felt at a loss for words, and awkward in the room, as the shadows lengthened. Children peered in at the door and Parashuram took another phone call, so we made our goodbyes.
I hugged Jayashri, shook hands with Parashuram and met up with Vinitha outside the door. We walked outside to the courtyard garden and said farewell. Once beyond the unlocked gate, I climbed inside Apu’s rickshaw for the bumpy return ride.
Instead of going home, I met my friend Myles—he volunteers with the older kids—at the nursery to say goodbye to the babies. Holding each child once more, I shared the strange coincidence with Myles. We talked about how these radically divergent non-profits in Mysore get wrapped up with our lives as Ashtanga Yoga students.
As we left the nursery and headed to Guru’s Corner Stand for one last chai, the Director appeared in the hall. I asked the million-dollar question. She matter-of-factly replied. I got a little dizzy.
In my arms only minutes ago, Divangi seemed more animated, knowing and reciprocal than ever. She reached her arms up to me in greeting and smiled, and as we gazed at each other one more time I whispered, I hope I never see you again, because that would mean she found a loving family. She seemed a hundred times more understanding and cognizant than the day before.
Could she smell or sense or see her own mother on me? I shook off the thought. Receiving a valuable lesson from these intimate relations gone badly—humbled beyond words by a moment so synchronous it almost felt staged—I felt egoless and small in a web of life, love and forgiveness.
I ate dinner alone and reflected on the meaning of this coincidence. What’s my role? Should I press Rob to adopt? Should I share this story? Again, I’m humbled by the uniquely Indian wisdom of these established non-profits and their divergent but entwined styles.
I was awestruck with admiration for these matter-of-fact every-day saints and miracle workers in Mysore. Feeling sick with the thought of leaving in a few more hours, but ready to return home, I scribbled down what Parashuram said so I would not forget:
“…there is no binding here, only the bonds of love and affection. The children are happy here. We are happy. They are happy learning and we also are learning the ways of compassion.”
This is not a tall tale of the curative power of fairy tales, just my experience of helping babies who need love, and seeing myself through the looking-glass of empathy. Wanting with all my heart to explore touch and healing, it’s not ironic I became a caregiver for an abused infant of a victimized woman.
I truly felt interconnected with the subtle web of life on this planet, in Indra’s net of jewels. Our web supports our lives, and we, it. When we are weak, our need for touch is more pronounced, but touch is for everyday as well. When we touch each other, by extension we touch the net, and we become extensions of the net. Without a doubt, touch saves lives, heals souls and can catch us to remind us of how we are all, together, unified both in place and time.
That fall, my friend Julie wrote:
“There is not a greater joy in the world than to shower a tiny one with love and watch them blossom! There is so much information out there, as I’m sure you know, and a lot of it is very useful indeed. But the heart always knows. The gut always knows. Our minds can be so confused. Being around children has the potential to bring out a lot of stuff from deep inside and a lot of healing and growth can take place. Not easy but wonderful. And yes, at the end of the day, even with all the info available, always follow your heart. When in doubt, when angry or worried or fearful, always choose love….”
My name is Katherine Shriver and my devotion to practicing Ashtanga Yoga began by chance in June 2000. For me, Ashtanga Yoga is a movement poetic and a self-healing discipline that helps me trust experiential awareness. I like to think of Yoga as physical embodiment of a thread that weaves together the fabric of universal consciousness. Before taking the teacher’s path and long before receiving KPJAYI authorization, I worked in pedestrian and bicycle transportation policy research and advocacy. I teach at Yoga Mala Shala in Philadelphia in dedication to the spirit and tradition of Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. My husband, Dr. Rob Tucker, and our two cats, Margot and Georgie, like to remind me that Ashtanga Yoga is not about asana after all. Contact me through yogamalashala.com
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Assistant Ed: Jennifer Spesia/Ed: Bryonie Wise