Pooja, a teenage girl, holds my hand and sways gently side to side.
Her eyes are lifted to the sky, to a more beautiful place than this concrete and tin-roofed room where she leads a roomful of prostitutes in singing an anthem of hope. She sings the next part of the song in Bengali and I hum along as she looks me in the eye, holding my gaze with her hope.
Bengali is still a strange tongue to me. I wonder if Pooja has already become a sex worker.
“Many of them were sold as sex slaves by their own families when they were teenagers,” my translator tells me. Because female babies are considered a burden on their families, many families choose to send them into brothels at age 16 or younger.
My translator says this has been a big problem in Nepal, and that the underage girls from there with lighter skin are worth more money to the male customers.
The other women in the room are older than she is, mostly looking like nice Indian “aunties” with their saris wrapped around their bodies, which are their source of income. When people are poor, all they have to sell is their bodies, it is the oldest profession on earth.
It is sad, but it isn’t stopping anytime soon and these women organize themselves to fight for their rights. The slogan is painted on the wall of the downstairs lobby,
“Sex work is work too.”
I have been coming to teach yoga to these sex workers in Calcutta for three years.
Today is a special class because Off the Mat, an American yoga non-profit that has helped sponsor this project, is here with me. Sean Corn, Suzanne Sterling and twenty American yoga students are here to take the class with me—to see first hand how these women live in the trade of sex trafficking.
Earlier, when Sean introduced me to her group, she said,
“Psalm has been a lone wolf here for years.”
It is true, I have come here out of a personal mission, not from a larger organization. These women feel like my sisters, my friends. Most of them are single mothers struggling to feed their children, just like I used to be when my own son was younger.
It was yoga that saved my life and gave me strength and hope to carry on; and so it is yoga that I am sharing with them here. To me, the bottom line is that yoga helps to lessen suffering, in each person and in the world. The air is electric in the room of 50 sex workers and 25 American yogis.
I start our class with a bhajan, a song to the Goddess. I sing, then they sing the same line back in response.
All of the women are sitting on the floor in a circle and I am leading in the open space in the middle. All the energy is like an electrical current moving through my body. The faces all begin to blur together as I turn in the circle, encouraging them to clap and sing with more bhakti, devotion.
Even though I am in Sonagachi the sex slum, I feel like I am in heaven.
All the differences of color, countries, caste and class disappear as we melt together into the place we are all one woman, one soul.
It is like a town hall meeting of women from two cultures as I go back and forth between teaching them yoga and asking them to share their struggles and stories with their new American friends. I have my translator ask the women,
“What do you want yoga to help you with in your life?”
One of the women sitting on the outer edge of the circle shoots her hand up. She lifts the drape of her sari and grabs her sizable belly with both hands as she says something in Bengali and the room erupts into laughter.
“She wants to reduce her stomach with yoga exercise so that she will be more attractive and it will be better for business.”
I laugh too and wink at the woman. “Well, we can work on that too. First we can change the body but also we are changing the mind. Yoga gives you a healthy body and mind”. The translator explains what I have said and the women solemnly nod their heads in agreement.
“What are your greatest challenges?” I ask.
Another woman raises her hand. She is elegant and a little older, her sari the color of a summer sky.
She says her mother was a sex worker too.
Her mother used to bring customers to their house and make her wait outside where she could hear the noises. This caused her a lot of pain.
When she became a sex worker, she treated her children better; she made sure they did not have to become sex workers. She saved money for their education. Her daughter has a masters degree.
But still people look down on her and judge her because she is a sex worker. Her son is sometimes ashamed of her, even though she took care of him. Sometimes he does not speak to her because he does not want his new, higher class friends to know where he came from.
That is her main challenge.
I look into her beautiful face—at the wrinkles that have been carved with time, hard work, love for her children and the determination that their lives would be easier than hers, that they would not repeat the pattern of being sex workers like she had followed in her mother’s foot steps.
“Tell her that she is a hero to me. The problem is that society puts all of its negatives onto these women. Society puts the shame and blame on them, but this mother is a hero, doing so much to survive and take care of her children.”
We stare at each other for a moment and the rest of the room disappears.
We may be from different countries and cultures but there is only one nation united under one vagina to me. Shame, suppression and violence layered on women’s bodies are problems all over the world. I am a mother, she is a mother, our hearts are the same. Every mother only wants her children to suffer less than she has; it is the hope for the future, to end the cycle of suffering.
There is an alternative for the sex workers who do not want to have their children growing up in the sex slum.
The organization Durbar has opened a youth hostel school an hour outside the city, where they can live and study where it is safer. The air is clean and the school is situated in the middle of green rice fields, a contrast from the grey, smoggy skies and open sewers where their mothers live in Sonagachi.
The first day I arrive to teach the sex workers’ children yoga, they come running down the stairs to greet me. Happy, smiling kids ranging from five to 16 years old.
After a few introductions, we begin laughing as they show me new Bollywood dance moves and I try to follow along. It is strange to think the hardships they have come from and still they retain their innocence, they are still just children.
The older kids are in their last year at the school. There is no school after they complete the 10th level. I ask where they will go?
“Back to live with their mothers in Sonagachi,” their teacher tells me.
“What future do their mothers want for them?”
“Ninety percent want their children to have a different profession than sex work, that is why they have sent them to this school.”
There is still hope that these kids can break the cycle of becoming sex workers like their mothers. Still, this hope seems like a fragile thing when I think about them having to go back to living in the sex slum when this school year ends.
I want to do anything I can to help them have a chance for a different fate.
I will be returning to teach them yoga again in a few weeks, and to train five of the older kids to become teachers for the younger kids. They will build self esteem being given the responsibility and my organization will send money every month for their teaching positions so they can save up for continuing education. Courage to Rise, my non-profit organization, will be sponsoring a yoga teacher to stay with them and train them one week every month for the next six months.
The hope is that they will break the chain and not become sex workers like their mothers.
This is how we can change the world, through our children.
You can get involved and help fund this project to break the cycle of sex trafficking at Courage to Rise.
Psalm Isadora is an internationally known instructor in tantra and yoga, lecturing and teaching workshops across the United States and India. She grew up on a born-again hippie commune in Northern California. She was initiated and asked to teach Tantra by her guru, Sri Amritananda. Her classes and talks blend yogic philosophy, tantric goddess worship, and Sufi and Christian mysticism with a good sense of humor. Committed to service as a path to spiritual awakening, she has started a non-profit for women’s empowerment, Courage to Rise.
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Assistant Ed: Terri Tremblett/Ed: Kate Bartolotta