April 5, 2010

Finding “Real Yoga” in an Unlikely Place: Haiti. ~ Margaret Juliano

I went to Haiti to be of service, to find out whether and how a yoga service project could be established in the devastation that followed January’s earthquake.

When I arrived in the country, I found utter chaos, a lack of coordination and dust. A lot of dust. But I also found a re-affirmation of the truth that has been at the core of my own yoga practice: that each person is connected and carries a bit of the divine.

In the westernized yoga world, we greet each other with the word namaste. In Haiti, people look each other in the eye and wish each other a “good day” or “good night”. This holds true no matter what the circumstances, even amidst dust and devestation. The locals even found time to remind me, kindly, what time it was whenever I confused the two greetings.

The Haitians I met suffered through my inscrutable French, which I hadn’t practiced since high school. Realizing why I deserved that B- after all, I wished that I had studied harder so that I could communicate with more people. So that I could listen to more people.

Some say namaste means, I bow to you.” I tell my yoga students it means, “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you.”

Before embarking on my trip, I thought it might be hard to find the divine in Haiti. And I certainly saw the worst that humans can live through, or perhaps, more accurately, live on. I saw people living in tents comprised only of a few sticks and battered sheets, with not even a chair to sit on in the mud, next to huge piles of garbage. I saw children standing barefoot on those piles of garbage, fields of them almost. I also, at one point, saw a small child playing with the rocks at the top of a tall pile that had once been a building.

The children still played. They played in the streets. They played while waiting in line to go to camp. They smiled widely at me, laughing at my inability to “distinguish your arm from your leg” (Haitian children are very good French teachers, so I know this vocabulary now).  In each of these children, a brightness shone out through their smiles, through the shy mumblings of their names.

I saw faces of older women, creased deeply with weather and age, a look of sadness in them. But when I quietly offered a greeting, they broke into the same wide smiles of those children. They recognized my effort to establish that I saw them. I saw each one of them. They showed patience at my poor French skills and timid voice. With each greeting, I passed along that essential message: I recognize the divine in you. More importantly, I was reminded that even in piles of rubble, surrounded by smoke from charcoal-fueled firepits, these women could recognize the divine in me and greet it.

We’ve all seen debates in the U.S. about what is real yoga, or authentic yoga is. Which branch or school gets closer to it. Whether or not granola is involved. I don’t care about any of that.

The essential message of yoga to be taken from all of the Sutras, all of the Vedas, is that of Union. We are deeply, intimately connected to each other and to our enviroment. If this is true, yoga depends on how we practice this union—how we relate with those around us. If we seek the divine in ourselves and others, we will find it wherever we look. Even in the rubble of Haiti.

Maggie Juliano (CYT) is the founder of Sprout Yoga, who teaches donation-based yoga in Media, PA. She also works with rape and domestic violence survivors. She recently traveled to Haiti as part of Yoga4Trauma: Project Haiti, a collaborative effort she helped form with Sue Jones. Maggie is also an attorney.

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