March 12, 2013

Part Two: Volunteering at an Orphanage in India. ~ Katherine Shriver

Photo by Katherine Shriver

This is part two in a three part series; read part one here.

I made plans to return to Mysore, India for my fourth visit in the past six years, to study Ashtanga Yoga with my teacher, Sharath Jois.

After having flown halfway around the globe for three months of classes in asana, chanting and philosophy, upon my arrival I also arranged to volunteer at an insular orphanage, in a Brahmin neighborhood near the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI).

I arrived, equipped only with my beliefs that care and affection transmit a will power to survive and thrive, and this care and attention makes people warmer and builds good character.

On my first day in mid-September, Surya and Kamala—the staff Motherspatiently led me down to the nursery floor mats and drew me into their nursery room rhythms of human bonding: holding babies, feeding babies, dusting babies with powder, changing nappies, washing babies, changing babies’ clothes, rocking babies, resting babies and playing with babies.

Inexperienced with infants, and without a shared language, I was to observe the staff first, then assist them, and then at some point begin to help the babies.

Viresh, the oldest baby, was seven-months-old and barely crawling. He was adopted the week after my visits began. Sundar, a six-month-old pudgy boy with a sweetly infectious smile, sucked his thumb and reminded me of God. Two-month-old Aathmika was born premature—with long limbs and delicate features, she cooed and made guttural sounds.

During my second week, a small one-month-old girl arrived with HIV and no name. The staff Mothers placed her crib against a wall away from the others, concerned and sorry. She fussed the most but did well, and when I visited the next week she had a name, Pramiti. Maybe because others hesitated, the Mothers especially encouraged me to hold her and looked surprised when I kissed her and wiped snot from her face.

Friends with children offered online advice from afar about attending to the clues and cues from the children. “Touch, touch, touch! Rock and sway! Sing in a low voice. Eye contact,” wrote Amy. Sylvie added, “When a baby cries, pick him or her up. They need to be held. Reflect their emotions. Soothe them.” Pia wrote, “Love the children with their problems.” Julie reflected my feelings: “…never too many hugs and cuddles and eye contact and stories and getting down and playing with them, just be with them. Love them. Cuddling literally helps them to grow.”

The babies bonded with me a little more each week—i knew much of the babies’ time was in their cribs on their backs, so I set out to help them explore a wider range of motion. While the babies were on floor mats, I observed how they moved their arms, back and legs, as well as how they used their heads and eyes.

When not being cuddled, they often wriggled. What would they do if I carefully placed them on their bellies or sides? If I pressed my fingers to their feet, would they press back? They listened gingerly as I recited the alphabet and nursery rhymes. Each liked to have his or her head near my heart.

One by one, each baby peed on me, as if marking me.

The days I did not see the babies due to their doctors’ appointments, my heart ached.

The staff Mothers asked me to bottle-feed one of the babies in late September. Hungry to feed them after watching the Mothers do it for days, Aathmika locked her pretty eyes with mine as she drank her fill. I missed my own mother, who loved to breast feed; but I felt closer to her too, and at peace with the world.

In bonding, there is an exploration of fit and Aathmika fit perfectly in my cross-legged lap. Never the first to cry but demonstrably vocal, she shaped her lips to mouth sounds and often looked around, listening. Eventually, she could mimic the simple Sanskrit vowel sounds ahh, eee, uuu and almost the more complex aay and eye.

With Aathmika in my lap, I could help Sundar stand up and sit up, bracing him at the hips and torso. He loved this and flashed a triumphant smile as we applauded. By now, the fussy Pramiti had become feisty, until I discovered she would forget her woes and smile whenever I blew on her face. Especially strong and coordinated, she was the most eager to move.

There is an art and a code involved in feeding and giving affection to babies. During my time at the nursery, I was still a visiting guest with different ways. Surya and Kamala would hold and feed the babies while socializing with each other, other staff and older children.

Not always the focal point in the nursery, the babies were being socialized to listen. India is a very aural society, and it seemed auditory sense was the babies’ first key to the world around them. Conversation soothed them, and if it got too quiet they would grow upset and look around for the reassuring sound of a familiar voice. I did worry my western style of dynamic play seemed too different, but I firmly believed in the value of physical stimulation and challenge to help build their coordination and strength.

While it seems there are cross-cultural differences between east and west in socializing infants, gift giving is something we all do. During my fifth week, I could not resist buying each baby an outfit and felt excited to share on my next visit. The babies felt the adults’ anticipation and pleasure as we sat together, reflecting and magnifying our positive emotions. This boosted my confidence, deepened our bond and increased the frequency of my visits.

Now more comfortable handling them simultaneously, sometimes the mat was crowded with babies, older kids and staff. Together in our tub of love, the babies were starting to reach out for each other. By mid-November, I was giving each baby a daily massage with organic baby oil.

A new one-month-old unnamed baby girl arrived late in October; the baby’s grandmother had rescued her from her mother who had refused to feed her. She was in a perilous state, with her grey-green papery skin hanging in dry folds. Her slack skeletal form hunched tight and her bald skull was prominent; she did not seem human. Frightened for, and by, her fragility, I felt pain being near her. For days she did little more than sleep, furled up and still, her wrists locked in flexion and her long-fingered hands cold to the touch.

Soon afterward, another unnamed female baby was dropped off in the nursery. Unusually small, not even the length of my two hands, all she did was sleep, eat and cry. With five babies, and two of them struggling to survive without a swallow reflex, I believed the Mothers needed and appreciated my help. Older children and other staff also stepped in to give care.

Fortuitously, Sundar was adopted in early November and soon after Aathmika also found a new home. The emaciated girl with the glazed expression stabilized and was given a name, Divangi. After a few weeks, her swallow reflex began to develop and she was nursing with a bottle rather than having milk poured down her throat.

I sat by her crib and laid my hands on her head and torso. No longer a curling hunch, she laid on her back or side, but her thumbs still rigidly pressed against her palms. I started holding her long cool fingers, pressing the palm of her hands and softly prying her thumbs open. Surya showed me how to support and tilt her head so she could be bottle fed with half-pint milk bottles.

The first time I fed her she wanted a second bottle—Surya smiled.

As November progressed, Pramiti accepted me as a mother, the Mothers said. I cautiously began to give massages to Divangi. She enjoyed moving in her body, and was starting to smile more each day. As I slowly extended and flexed her long limbs she gazed in wonderment, as if every moment amazed her, as if surprised to be experiencing something other than slumberous pain in her body.

Crying less and less she was more curious, strong and resilient each day. She would awaken while I was playing with Pramiti, and whimpered to be held too. Together on the mat, we found ways to fit together and comfortably cuddle.

One day, she touched her heart with her hand while being massaged. Eventually Gitika, the smallest baby who cried the most, did the same thing.

The intimacy of supporting infants in critical care healed me too and taught me a thing or two.

We can’t get ahead of our children when we touch them. As in any relationship, with one self or others, you can’t do it half-heartedly, or without your full attention.

Babies will reject our attention and avert their eyes if we’re being too detached or preoccupied.

If we attend to them exactly where they are, if we connect with breath and feel our hearts beat together, we find the right balance. Or, as Gandhi once said:

“…If they will grow up in their natural innocence…we shall go from love to love and peace to peace.

Sure, this could have been enough of a touching story about common ground, but I really bounced in the net of interdependence on my last day in Mysore.


To be continued…


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


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