adventures of a fearless (mostly) globe trotting seeker...
wondering, wandering, barefoot, nomadess

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Follow your ecstasy!

Hyderabad, India
Jan 31

What do I believe? I was recently asked to contribute to a book about belief. I believe in a lot of things, but what is most essential? Once I send it off, I will forever be nailed to the spot in this book of collected artist, activists and writers.  I want my belief to be as good as everybody else’s. I want my belief to be so good that it could start a new religion. I want my belief to convey my deep sense of spirituality and the importance of my thoughts. I want my belief to change the world.

I am writing this on a plane in India. There is a very white almost transparent young man with red hair, freckles, a tie and clean pressed white collared shirt and slacks in the aisle across from me. He must be a Mormon missionary. He looks out of place in a sea of bright colored saris. A few rows back there are two women covered head to toe in black burkas with only their eyes showing. They must be Muslim. I smile when I think about the Mormon trying to convert the Muslim women and the difference in their “uniforms”. We all have to believe in something, it organizes the Mystery.

Name: Psalm Isadora
Occupation: Tantric Yoga Teacher

I believe that God is a giant vagina in the sky. I believe that this Universal Mother Goddess is alive and well and re-birthing herself to teach us about laughing more and taking ourselves less seriously. I believe that good sex can save the world, one orgasm at a time, why not? Not just good sex of course, but learning to feel worthy and love ourselves and give and receive intimacy. I know it's shocking but I believe God wants us to have fun and pleasure! We have been programmed to feel guilty about experiencing pleasure and shame is one of the biggest things holding back our evolution. We have to break our conditioning to expand our limited beliefs about who we are and what we can do.

I believe that we are essentially good but have been taught not to trust ourselves. I believe that our essential nature is love and that everything has been created from the throb of desire for God to have a love dance with itself. You are God and I am God meeting on the dance floor of life to have a dance in the Divine theater. We dance our angels and demons, our light and our shadow. Our only job is to remove the negativities that keep us from the intimacy of experiencing ourselves and each other as unconditional love. This is not always easy, to heal ourselves, to face our fear and transform it back into love, but that is the spiritual transformation all mystical paths seek.  When we can see all things as beautiful, even the difficult things, then we can experience our freedom. We are the creators of our destinies. I believe that how we live and treat each other is more important than what we say we believe in. People are more important than religions. There are many ways to pray- singing, dancing, yoga, meditation and rituals. All paths lead to the same Source. I believe we cannot wait for heaven, but are responsible to create heaven on earth through love, beauty and empathy.

I believe in freedom. When we are happy, God is happy- so follow your ecstasy!

Should the rapist be hung?

Is violence the answer to sexual violence?
Anger over the brutal Delhi mass-rape has erupted in India and protestors are marching in the streets and demanding the rapists be hung. This is in the country where Gandhi Mahatma  (great soul) tried to advocate non-violent resistance. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" he had said. Violence breeds violence, we need to heal the underlying issues of sexual repression that lead to rape and incest with education. We need to break the silence about how widespread sexual abuse is so that society is forced to open it's eyes to the truth and begin to heal and make changes. This issue is not just in India, but the world is now watching this case under a magnifying glass.

Most societies turn a blind eye to the shadow of sexuality. When there is an incident of rape to incest that is forced into the public eye, society responds explosively by demanding "justice" for the victim and violent punishment for the perpetrator. This cycle is not new and has not brought lasting change because it is still a process of denial of the underlying root issue of sexual repression that leads to the violence and abuse.

I read a statistic that said 1 in 3 women had sexual violence or abuse. That is a staggering number but I think it is still less than the actual number. From years of teaching yoga and spiritual programs where people come to heal, I would say 2 out of 3 women have experienced sexual violence or abuse. I think the same is true of men, but they have an even greater taboo against speaking out about it since it damages the macho masculine ideal we have created. It is difficult enough for a woman to be vulnerable and break the silence to speak about her sexual abuse, it is much more difficult for men to do the same. If they were molested by another man, they will be labelled "homosexual" for the rest of their lives.

It is ironic that in a country like India, where there are images of female Goddesses that are worshipped in the temples and small statues in people's homes, women are treated as second class citizens. The sex double standard affects women of all socio-economic classes. One of my Indian girl friends who drives a Porche told me she she had gotten urinary tract infections growing up because the women in her house were taught they could only use the bathroom early in the morning and late at night after the men had gone to sleep, so the men would not be "offended" by her bodily functions. This while the men relieve themselves by peeing openly in the streets. Holy men walk naked through the streets or with small cloths covering their genitalia while women are wrapped in the long fabric of the sari. Why is the man's body holy when it is naked but the woman's body is not? The shaming of female sexuality and genitalia is pervasive among all classes. Men are allowed to be sexually promiscuous while a woman may ruin her reputation for a lifetime if she dates, had sex or lives with a man out of wedlock.

How can you worship a statue in the Goddess in a temple and allow flesh and blood women to be abused? Sex is one of the biggest taboos in India. It is still one of the biggest religious taboos everywhere in the world. Wherever religions create sexual taboo, there is the hypocrisy of abuse. Think of all the cases of Catholic priests who are supposed to be celibate molesting choir boys?

Why have religions created so much taboo against sexuality when it has been proven again and again to be a breeding ground for rape, incest and molestation? Isn't it time to open our eyes and acknowledge that we need to change the root of the problem and stop the sexual repression?

I cannot think of one country or religion where men are forced to cover their bodies so that they will not cause women to sin or sexually attack them. Why the double standard? As a woman, I grew up religious and was taught if I dressed in a way that showed my body, it was sexually provocative and if a man sexually attacked or abused me, "I had asked for it". I think men should be offended that we think they are so weak that they cannot control their sexual urges. The sexual repression of the female bodies causes a brain washing of the men too, so that they are so sexually repressed they act out to sexual stimulation in violent ways.

Things are really changing in India. I was at a friends house watching TV and they had a woman on the news who was telling a terrible story. She said her daughter had been molested by her own father and when the mother brought him to court the judge said, "It is not possible for a father to do such a thing." He then asked the husband what punishment he would want for his lying wife.

Aside from how horrible this kind of suppression is, it was astounding to me that they were talking openly about it on television now. Sex has been a taboo in India for a very long time. Now because of the Delhi rape case, stories like this are exploding and coming to public light.

"There is no stopping the truth now", my friend Vinay who I am watching the TV with says. "Students in Delhi are finally protesting and they are not stopping. The politicians are being forced to have answers. The students are bringing new life to the country."

I truly believe if there was less suppression of sexulaity and women (and men) were more empowered to understand their sexuality- there would be less sexual violence erupting from the repression. Step 1: EDUCATE! What if we actually educated children about sex instead of hiding it from them. I would like it to be truly an empowerment of understanding the power of sexual energy, not just how to put a condom on. My parents were Christian conservatives who pulled me out of public school the week they had sex ed. At the same time, I lived with a background of sexual abuse. I was too ashamed to speak openly and seek help. Repression does not yield the results we want, it creates a cycle of sexual abuse. We are the generation who can break the chain of repression and abuse for our children and heal for all our relations.
It is time for us as a human race to evolve around sexuality and sexual issues. It begins by breaking the silence around abuse so we can heal the root. The more people who stand up and speak the more we can bring light where there has been shadow. in the past, people have been afraid to speak up because they have been labeled and stigmatized for the rest of their lives. The only way to change this is to shift the perception that only a few have experienced this sexual violence and abuse. It takes a lot of courage, but we can support each other, we are not alone.
On March 16th, Courage to Rise is having a National Day of Action 
Live events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Kauai, Salt Lake City, DenverWomen+ Sex + Power"I promise you can be more powerful"Stop Sexual Violence and Abuse2013...We RiseConscious Activism and HealingWe will have movie screenings of real women's stories, yoga and circle discussions

Join us!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sex Trafficking in the City of Joy pt 2

Calcutta, India

Blood Red.
I woke up in a panic with my heart racing. I rub my eyes and remember where I am, Calcutta. My sheets are thin and itchy and the blanket barely covers my toes. My pillow is lumpy and my eyes are puffy from an allergic reaction. I didn’t come for comfort, I came on a mission. I remember my dream. I had been having nightmares of my own death since I got to the City of Joy. They are always the same.
A crowd has gathered, I am walking behind them to see what they are shouting and cheering for. Suddenly I float upwards so that I have a birds eye view, I see it is myself being led to a courtyard and prepared for hanging while the crowd pumps their angry, blood thirsty fists in the air. My hands are tied and I am being led by an executioner to the center of the courtyard, to be tied to a pole. To be burned. I look at all the faces and see them twisted with anger and thirsty to see me die. What have I done that would hate me so much? Is it because I am a woman? Because I am a woman struggling to be free? The dream was always the same, except sometimes I was hanged or stoned to death instead of being burned. I was always in a courtyard and always surrounded by an angry mob. I feel a strange sense of dread about going to Sonagachi to teach the sex workers today. I feel as if I am walking to my own death, but I cannot explain why. The animal sacrifices I had watched at the Kali temple had blurred together with my subconscious dreams of being burned and the line between waking and dreaming reality started to blur in the malaria dream Technicolor streets of Calcutta. I felt like my anxiety was making me go crazy, but I focused on breathing and forcing myself to relax and face the fear but keep moving in the present moment. One foot in front of the other I steeled myself to go teach yoga in the sex slum, still I felt I was walking towards some mysterious death.

I dressed in a long skirt and a shawl so I wouldn’t offend anyone with my bare skin on my shoulders and ankles. My guide would be here soon and we were going to a famous Kali temple before I went to teach in the red light district. My second trip to Calcutta to work with the sex trafficked women and I was suffering from deep anxiety. I used to take medications for anxiety before I found yoga because my panic attacks were so intense my lungs would shut down and I would stop breathing. We ride through the noisy streets, bumping along in an old british ambassador taxi with ripped upholstery and springs that pinch my ass. The taxi lets us out on a busy street, the asphalt is hot and the sun blazing overhead. Beggars with broken limbs scoot around on wooden carts with wheels. One man holds out his hand to me with no fingers, probably his own family cut them off when he was a child. Stalls sell chai in clay cups and overflow with statues, beads and souvenirs from the temple. I follow my guide through the mayhem into the temple, which is even more chaotic. People are pressed together and the heat of the day is making a mood of irritability. Kali is the patron goddess of Calcutta. She is considered the primal energy that creates all things and absorbs all things, the mother of birth and death. She holds a curved sword in one hand and a severed human head in the other, which signifies her freeing her devotees from suffering and illusion to give them liberation. Many people are suffering in the city of joy.
This is the most famous temple in Calcutta. Here in the Kalighat temple they still perform live animal sacrifice to appease the primal Mother Goddess Kali. The crowd to see the Mother and get her blessing is crushing each other. I feel a sharp elbow in my back as I am pushed and shoved in line, I stand my ground so I don’t get trampled. My guide knows a priest who cuts us in line for bakshish, a Hindi word which means both bribe and tip. The cut in line saves us about an hour of waiting. The woman in a green sari we get cut in front of starts screaming, “Why? Why?”. She is screaming and getting everyone’s attention. “They are not used to it” the priest says to calm her down. “Not used to it! Why should we be used to it and treated like cattle while they get cut in line?” “They” means the white people. I agree with her on principle that it is not fair, but I am too hot and the crowd is too aggressive to care about principles today. Today we are the ones cutting in line, tomorrow we may be the ones getting cut in front of. I have to firmly grip my guide’s arms so that we don’t get pushed out of line. The emotions of desperation turning to fear and anger are churned up to a fever pitch as we get closer to the holy of holies, the Mother statue inside the temple. The mothers children are angry and violent. People in line are holding their hands folded in prayer at their hearts and their lips move silently as they make their fervent prayers to the Mother Goddess. A fat police man starts grabbing people and throwing them out of the sanctuary. A skinny man comes flying out, tossed by the police man. I keep gripping the metal bars separating us from the holy statue and pray not to die today. When it is my turn, I feel hands grab my shoulders and push me in front of the statue, I say a prayer and look into the eyes of the statue, a primordial chunk of rock with three bright orange-red eyes staring back at me. Blood red eyes. I feel a wave of energy pass through my body, a feeling of power and grace. I feel hands pull me away, my turn is over. My prayer was for peace inside myself and the world.
Loka samasataa sukhino bhavantu
May all beings be happy and free from suffering

On the way out we stop at the bali sacrifice pit, where they are beating drums, burning incense and sacrificing goats. I join a crowd standing on the steps to watch. There is a stone pit below us with two altars covered in red blood, orange marigold flowers and grey ash from burning incense sticks. Silver coins wink in the sunlight from small offering bowls at the feet of the altars. My heart is racing as I hold my hands over my heart in the prayer gesture. A bare chested priest in a white dhoti smeared with blood drags in a goat. It is a small goat, a baby. I think of all the goats I grew up raising on the commune farm. They were like my pets, so playful and smart. The goat struggles and cries to get free from the priest. The priest holds him tightly and brings him to the altar. He stretches the baby goats neck to the U-shaped chopping block and lowers an iron rod so the goat can’t break free. The priest raises a large curved silver sword. The blade winks in the sun like the coins in the dishes. The drums are beating, the smoke from the incense burns my nose. I feel electric, I feel horror and fear, still I force myself to bear witness, to keep my eyes open. Time stops and I hold my breath as the priest stands frozen with the blade. Suddenly the blade falls and the goats head rolls on the ground. My stomach flips. I begin to cry, still I force myself to keep my eyes open. A second priest brings out a second goat, bigger this time, and puts its neck on the chopping block. The drums beat louder as does my heart. Death is part of life, I remind myself.  Why do we live in a world with so much blood shed? So much fear and suffering?
Goats are called sin-eaters because they are used as sacrifices for others sins. I think of the prostitutes in the red light district, they are the sin eaters of society. The blade falls, and blood pours out over the cement, the priest pulls the goats body away and the legs are still twitching while the heads rolls a few feet away. The blade falls again and again.
One goat
two goats
three goats
four goats
five goats
The goats crying stings my ears. Each time they sacrifice a goat I make the sign of the cross over my heart. I was born a Christian not a hindu. I remember an old prayer, Forgive us father, for we know not what we do.

After the round of sacrifice ends, I walk to the U-shaped chopping block and put my own neck to the metal where the goats heads were placed. There is still blood on it from the sacrifices.
Thy will be done.
I leave a small rupee coin offering in the dish and we leave the temple. The Kali temple is like the world, beautiful and terrible. There is so much in this world that is painful for me to see, and somehow I must keeps my eyes open. I must learn the wisdom of having the courage to struggle and change what I can and the wisdom to accept that there is some guiding principle, some call God, whose will I can surrender to when I cannot understand. Why? I think like a small child questioning their parent. Why do some people suffer more than others? Why are we so cruel to each other?

The cab driver stops and we get out to go into Sonagachi. I look into the eyes of the prostitutes lining the alleys of this sex slum. Why isn’t life fair?  I ask myself or God. There is no answer. Why isn’t the right question. Why will only drive you crazy. How? How can I change myself and be the change I want to see in the world? How gives me purpose in a crazy world. Women sat against the brightly painted walls, in equally bright saris, all staring at me with black eyes rimmed in kajol as they wait to be selected by customers to be paid for pleasure or some fascimile of pleasure. Their eyes looked back at me like the eyes of time, dark, glassy, unpenetrable. I feel fear and tightness in my lungs walking through the decrepit alleys that twist and turn, the buildings leaning in towards each other so that it stays cool in the brothel neighborhood, but doesn’t let in much light. The air is thick, moist and sweaty, not able to pass to the sky, creating a feeling of gloominess. Like water that becomes brackish when it can’t flow back to rivers and the sea. Water like that you aren’t supposed to drink, they call it “black water”, because it doesn’t flow.

Sonagachi is a fully formed little universe, with all the sex workers and all the businesses that serve the sex workers and business of prostitution. There are chai wallahs sitting on stoops pouring the sweet brown liquid into the red clay cups that are a signature of Calcutta. There are carts full of fresh frying samosas and puri. The sticky smells of spices and sweat cling to my skin. Calcutta, city of joy, the laughter of the sex workers children rings through the alleys. Some of the children have just gotten out of school and are wearing their neat uniforms, the girls with their glossy black hair tied in braids and ribbons, they buy snacks at the street stalls. My guide says many of the women got here because someone married a poor girl and then sold them to Sonagachi, to the madams and pimps who are part of the eco system of  prostitution. It would be easy to descend into madness here, except that this is a place just like all other places, and there is a logic to survival. Above all, we humans find a way to survive. I feel a strange sense of dread knowing I am going to teach yoga in a few hours. My dream flashes in my mind, I see myself hanging in a courtyard with the angry mob shouting. My chest tightens and I will myself to relax and breath. I cannot explain this feeling, it feels like the sense of dread a warrior would know when battle is approaching. What battle am I fighting? What secrets of my own subconscious are being churned from deep in the sea within me? I have my own memories and fears stirring inside me. The old demon of anxiety that I have felt for so long, the ugly fear of abuse and sex that makes me feel powerless. I must confront my fear, it is the path of the warrior. The only way out is through, one step at a time.

We find the Durbar building, grey and concrete. Climbing the stairs I see giant boxes of condoms and we pass a brightly lit room with women chatting on the phone. This is a place the sex workers come to call each other for reminders to get tested for STDs and to go the doctor appointments. There is even a bank in the building for the women to be able to save their money. We walk up the stairs and with every step I feel more anxious, but I know what I have come to do. We get to the roof where I will be teaching yoga, concrete floor and a green plastic roof. The women filter in and soon there are fifteen of the sex workers. No one is wearing yoga clothes or has yoga mats like my students in America. I have a translator who tells the women to sit down in a circle.
“I have come from America and I love India”. I begin. “I want to teach you yoga because it has helped to make me happy. I used to feel depressed and like I had no power, until I found yoga. I was a single mother who used to struggle to make money to feed my child. It is not easy to be a mother. We need a lot of energy and strength to take care of our children and ourselves. The most powerful energy we have is the power to create life, our Shakti, the energy of the Goddess. All women are powerful, all women are mothers are like the Goddess Kali. All women should feel respected and worshipped. Yoga will help you feel this power in yourself. Even when life is difficult and you cannot control the things around you, you can always feel this connection to Shakti power in yourself.”

I begin to teach them a breathing exercise called bastrika, where they pump their arms up on the inhale and down on the exhale. This exercise always makes my body tingle with electricity and I encourage the women to really go for it, to pull the Shakti energy into their bodies. They women begin laughing and some look self-conscious but I smile and motion for them to keep going. The energy in the room builds and after five minutes I tell them to rest and close their eyes to meditate. I look around the room at their glowing peaceful faces, it looks like all the worries are gone in the heightened energy field. The class is going well and the women are in a good mood so I keep going. I have them do some stretches and vigorous yoga movements. We laugh with each other while we do the yoga. When I try to show a yoga move to a curly haired woman she gets competitive, “A Bengali never loses” she says pointing to her chest proudly. “No contest, we are friends” I point to both of us. “We both win” I say and all the women are laughing. I end the class with a meditation where they put their hands on their hearts to feel the Shakti, divine feminine energy. When the class ends, I tell them I want to film them if they are willing, so that they can send a message to the world. “What do you want to tell the world about your lives?” I ask.

A thin woman in an orange sari steps forward from the group. She tells the interpretor that she does not mind showing her face on camera, many of the other sex workers have asked to have their faces blurred. She has sharp cheekbones and two dark, piercing eyes, one that looks at me and one that points in the opposite direction.  It makes a strange combination, the fierceness of her one-pointed energy and the lazy eye. She points a long, thin arm at the camera and says, “We are the same as you! We are mothers who do what we have to so we can feed our children. The men have left, but the women will never leave their children!” Her anger rises as she almost spits her words out.  The psychologist Carl Jung said rage is a feminine emotion. “The men are drinking and beating!” She shouts, pointing her sharp finger at the camera. Rage at betrayal and abandonment and unfair cruel treatment by the men in her life, by the men in this society in general. “I am like Arjuna” she says, pointing to her chest. “I do what I have to in my role as a mother, it is my dharma, but I do not take the karma for my actions!” She looks defiantly into the camera. I feel all the years of anger at the judgement and abandonment of society she has felt as a sex worker. From people who would have done the same in her position. Who would watch their child starve? Shouldn’t that make her a survivor, a warrior hero not a whore? Arjuna is the hero of the most popular spiritual book in India, the Bhagavad Gita. In the story Arjuna is a high-born prince who must fight one side of his family to try to save the other. He wants to give up and walk away because no matter what he does he loses. One side of his family winning means he must kill other members of his family and fight against his own teachers. God appears to him as Krishna and tells him he must stay on the battlefield, it is the path of the warrior, he must live in a world of action. He was born into this role and he must play his role in the theater of life, there is no escaping this law of dharma. All actions bring negativities, karmas, that is the law of the world. But if he can perform his dharma, do his best actions and surrender the outcome to God, then he will be free of negative karmas. “You have a right to your actions, but not to the fruit of your actions, those you offer to God” is a saying from the Gita. When she said she was like Arjuna, she was a low caste prostitute who was rejected from society comparing herself to the flawless hero of this famous epic. It was a seditious and powerful thing to say, turning popular culture and religion on it’s ear. She was like Arjuna, she stood on the battlefield of life and had to act as a mother, that was her dharma, to act as a mother must act to feed her children. She was saying she did not take the negative karmas, sins, for having sex with men for money because she was only being a mother. It was a powerful message to society, to all those who prefer to judge or turn a blind eye and allow these women to live in the shadow of sexuality, carrying the negative energies of society on their backs.

The woman in the orange sari stands with her dark eyes wide, her arm in the air like a sword. Then she turns and points to me. With her bony arm in the air and her finger pointing for emphasis, she tells the translator, “Tell her not to be afraid. We are all with her”. It is like she looked right through me and saw my own fear, anxiety and past of shame and secrets. How did she know I was afraid? Filled with so much terror I have not been able to sleep at night with nightmares of dying. I am supposed to be the strong one and she is supposed to be the weaker sex trafficked woman I came to help. Our roles are reversed. The Hindus believe in re-incarnation, that when our body dies, our soul returns to be born again another lifetime. The body is recycled, the soul lives forever. If all our souls live forever, then it would make sense that we have met some people in previous lifetimes, in different bodies. Maybe I have known this sex worker from a past lifetime, maybe we stood together on a battle field, two fierce warriors against all odds. Maybe she has saved my life before.
Tell her not to be afraid, we are all with her echoes in my mind. This courageous woman is giving me some of her courage and I feel it enter my body as a gift.

The women get up to leave and I am left sitting cross legged on the floor. I feel exaughsted and happy. Some fear has broken free inside me, some gift of grace has been given because I faced my fear. The woman in the orange sari is a fierce warrior. A warrior-mother for her children, facing the battlefield of life for what she loves. Love can make us capable of unimaginable bravery. I am in awe of her ability to take care of her children even in such difficult circumstances.
I wonder if my visit will change these women’s lives at all, if it will make a difference. I pray it will create some change for them just as it created change in me. I will tell the story of her courage. I will carry the message she asked me to carry to the world. “We are the same as you”. These women should be respected not shamed. I am so tired of shame.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sex Trafficking in the City of Joy


Calcutta, Jan 16th

“I couldn’t believe what they did to her. Even when animals hunt, they don’t mete out such brutality”. Six men had brutally attacked and raped a 23-year old woman on a bus in Delhi. She had been at a theater watching Life of Pi and was taking a private bus home with a male friend when she was brutally raped and assaulted with an iron rod for nearly 40 minutes. Her companion was also beaten and they were robbed and then thrown from the moving bus. Before she passed away in urgent care she told a magistrate, “The accused should not be hanged but burned to death”.

“Women under Attack” screams the headlines of the newspaper the man next to me is reading on the flight to Calcutta. I have been coming to India for seven years and I have never seen so many headlines filling newspapers about women’s rights. In the past it seemed like the country turned a blind eye to women’s issues and especially sexuality. I am flying into Calcutta to propose a women’s empowerment program for sex trafficked women in Sonagachi, the sex trafficking ghetto. As an American, I have tried not to step on too many toes since I am from a different culture and have not wanted to seem like the bad clichĂ©, the white woman coming to save all the ethnic people. It’s not like I have all the answers of course. But I do understand the problem. Beneath the cultures, different food and clothing, a woman is a woman and her sex is often suppressed and violated. Mine has been. We are all one nation of sisterhood when it comes to protecting women from sexual violence.

Before I left for Calcutta, I had lunch with upper class Indian friends at a cyber cafĂ© in Hyderabad and the Delhi rape and women’s rights were one of the main topics of conversation. My friend Sonia is a school principle and she shook her head as she took a bite of naan bread and veg curry, “There is so much we don’t see, don’t want to look at”. Three years ago, she was less interested in the subject of women’s empowerment, especially for the lower classes. As usual, I am outraged at sexual violence against women. As an American, I am more impatient than my Indian friends, I want change and justice in the world to happen now.

I am anxious about going into the sex trafficking slum. It is a great wound in the world of sexual suffering and triggers my own memories and fears from the past. I am worried if I will make it out intact. Not because it is dangerous (which it is) but because I have done activist work before that left me in deep depressions that made me sick for months. Still, I am driven to do this. A friend from home sent me a message this morning on facebook saying that I am a brave soul. Bravery is only possible in the face of fear. Courage is when we face the fears and still take action.

“Welcome to the City of Joy” the sign says as we disembark the plane and walk across the hot tarmac to the Calcutta airport. The sky is smoggy grey, smothering out the pale outlines of palm tree that stand like ghosts in the distance. I already feel like I need a shower from the thin film of dirt and sweat covering my body. In the airport toilets I grimace and try not to breath as I use a squat toilet and rinse myself with water from a bucket and plastic measuring cup. This is called “balti bath”.  As an American, I just want the comfort of toilet paper. I drag my suitcase behind me and step out of the airport into the chaos of honking horns and traffic that moves like the arteries of the human blood system. Beat up ancient yellow ambassador taxis and new white indy cars jockey for position and the blaring of horns is the only way they signal their movements. I take my life in my hands as I cross through the mayhem to get to the taxi stand across the street from the airport. Drivers and guides descend on me like raw meat in a shark tank. One grabs the handle of my roller suitcase and quickly begins walking away with it. My driver has chosen me. I follow behind him hoping he won’t try to rip me off too much on the fare now that he is holding all my belongings hostage. We get to his dented ambassador and negotiate the fare.
“Ma’am you will be very happy when you arrive hotel. You will be happy and I will be happy. 750 rupees ma’am”, he bobbles his head from side to side and smiles a huge grin exposing betel-stained teeth. That’s roughly $15 American dollars. I am tired from the flight and don’t feel like a struggle. “Ok, but 750 finished! No more rupees!” I say firmly with my best school teacher voice. I show him the address written on a scrap of paper.
“Sonagachi. Do you know?” he looks a little confused.
“Sonagachi?” he bobbles his head again.
“Yes, Sonagachi”.
He must be confused why a white woman tourist would be going to the red light district, to the sex trafficking slum. He shrugs his shoulders and throws my suitcase in the trunk and we slowly inch our way through the afternoon traffic of an overcrowded city. From the windows of the taxi I can see the parade of naked humanity. Cows, trucks painted bright colors, women in bright saris, old men in filthy rags. The taxi lurches to a dead stop in the congestion and I am privy to watching a group of teenage boys taking a bath in an open street pump. Lathering bright white soap into their black hair and dark skin. They grin wildly at me as they lather under their armpits.

I call my friend Marcia back in America from my Indian cell phone. I can hardly hear her voice with all the blaring horns around me. Marcia is working with my organization Courage to Rise on our campaign to “Stop Sexual Violence and Abuse”. We made a short documentary about her story of being sexually assaulted and her recovery of her power through yoga. “Did you hear about the college student who was drugged and carried from one frat house to another to be raped again and again?” I had not been watching American news since I landed in India a week ago. “No, but it’s the same everywhere isn’t it? It is time for us to stand up and speak out about the problem and teach other women the tools to heal”.  I shake my head and feel exaughsted at the enormity of the issue of sexual violence right under the skin of humanity. I feel tired and it gives me energy for the struggle to change.

The cab finally stop near a torn up petrol pump and the driver says, “Sonagachi”. A pretty woman with a bright yellow top that fits snugly to her breasts and bright red lipstack stares at me with indifferent black eyes. She must be one of the prostitutes, all the Indian women I have met before do not wear tight shirts and such bold makeup. I look back into her eyes and wonder where she came from, and how she became a prostitute? She is so young and beautiful and I shudder to think of a mans eyes looking at her beauty as a sexual favor to be bought and used. She is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, as the old saying goes. I get out of the cab and follow my guide down a twisting alley. It is like being swallowed by a snake, the twisting alleyways zig zag and double back on themselves, the streets not wide enough for cars. Women in traditional saris and modern western jeans and tight shirts line the streets as children play soccor in the trash and rotting vegetables. There is a lot of suffering and poverty in the City of Joy. The alleys are lined with shops selling chai, bright plastic bags of potato chips and hot fried snacks. The air is stifled here since the buildings are tall and lean in on each other, letting in only small patches of the grey smoggy sky. We find the Durbar building, and I wait to meet with Dr Jena, the head of the organization. This is the third year I have come to work with Durbar in Sonagachi. Durbar distributes condoms and health care to the sex workers and fights for their rights with the government. Prostitution is legal in Calcutta and they have a sex workers union in the communist party. Because it is legal, they have lower HIV rates than the other major sex trafficking city in India, Mumbai. Without fear of prosecution, the prostitutes get more regular check ups with doctors and use condoms. The first two years I came to teach yoga to the women who were sex trafficked as way for them to heal their bodies, minds and spirits and feel more self-esteem. Last year I brought my kalari Indian martial arts teacher Laxman to help teach the sex workers self defense. Even though the last two years had been good experiences, the women didn’t continue to practice yoga much after I left back to America. Dr Jena had suggested I create a longer lasting program for the children in the schools Durbar had created for the children of the sex workers. The idea was to train some of the women who were in sex trafficking to become yoga teachers and teach the classes to the kids in the schools. I had gone back to America and raised the money for this program. I had tried emailing Dr Jena to confirm that I was coming to teach the program but had not heard back. I have found from years of trying to get things done between America and India, that nothing seems to happen until I fly here and speak in person. So I am waiting on a hard bench in the Durbar building hallway to speak with Dr Jena and get approval for this program. Women in saris stand in the hallway laughing and chatting. They smile and wave at me and I wave back. Friendships can be formed without words. A woman comes by with a pot of chai and pours me some into a tiny clay pot. These clay pots are completely bio-degradable and make the chai taste more earthy, it is my favorite chai in India to be served in clay. I am not satisfied with the Indian portion, where is my American super-sized caffeine? I hold my clay pot out for two refills and the woman with the silver tea pot laughs at me.
After an hour in the hallway, I am ushered into Dr Jena’s office and he tells me he is glad I was able to raise the money for the project. One of the schools for the children is just outside of the city and is a hostel where they also live.
“It is too difficult for them to study here in Sonagachi. It is too noisy and their mothers have to do sex work in their homes so it is best for the children to live somewhere they can focus on studying”. I remember the first year I came, one of the woman sat in the front row of my yoga class and fixed me with an intense stare, she wanted me to see her. I sat with her after class and asked her about her life. I was filming for a documentary to tell these women’s stories to open the worlds eyes to the lives and struggle everyone wanted to ignore. Through bearing witness, we become aware of suffering and can call for change and reform.
“My husband died and I have to feed my daughter alone’ the translator explains.
“My daughter lives with my parents many hours away and I do the sex work and send the money for them to take care of her. They are ashamed of me and the work I do, they will not let me see my daughter anymore”.
Big tears began to fall from her intense eyes. I held her hand and my heart broke open with hers and we cried together. I had been a young single mother who struggled to feed my child as well. I knew the pain a mother feels for her child, the desperation to help them survive against all odds when the odds are stacked against you and your child. It is difficult enough to go hungry yourself, it is impossible to see your own child go hungry as a mother. The truth is, I too had used my body to make money when I didn't feel like I had any other options. I had carried the shame for many years until I was able to heal through yoga and begin to feel my power again as a woman in my body. I am here to do some small thing to help reach out a hand to lift another woman up from the darkness. It is part of my own ongoing healing process to try to help share with these women the yoga that helped me find my voice, feel my worth and change my life. People say, "You are doing such good work". The work i do to help others is really for my own benefit. 

Dr Jena fixes the date for me to come back and teach yoga to the children of the sex workers. I will teach the older children around 15-16 years old who have a strong interst in yoga to become teachers and lead classes to the younger children while I am gone. My organization, Courage to Rise will send monthly salary for the teachers and that will help them get out of the cycle of sex trafficking that traps generations into sex slavery here in Sonagachi. From interviewing sex trafficked women for the last 2 years here, so many of them are the children of sex workers who never had a chance to get out of this sex slum. Many were born, live and will die here. “It is easier to train the children who are not so set in their ways” Dr Jena tells me. I will also have a similar program for the adult women to transition from sex work to teaching yoga classes. It will be a 6 month program and we will see if the continue the classes after I am gone. I have high hopes this year.

Why teach them yoga rather than work to get them out of the horrible conditions they're living in altogether?
I am hoping that we can do both, help them to get out of the horrible conditions they are living in and also help them to learn and practice yoga, which helps to heal not only the body, but also the mind and the spirit. Once a woman is out of the horrible conditions of sex trafficking, she will still have to heal her Mind-Body-Spirit from the trauma, yoga heals all levels of the person.