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  • Barefoot Notes: Grassroots Yoga

    Posted on April 28, 2014 by in Compassion in Action


    Alarmel Yoga Class

    In the rising heat of March, wheat and chickpea have yielded their golden harvests. A fierce orange sun sets over the land that will be left fallow for a few months in preparation for the seeds that are to come–pearl millet, maize, sorghum, sesame. Gnarly heads of khejri trees, beloved of goats and humans, stick out from the earth everywhere. Pacific buffaloes walk home trailing clouds of dust. Men and women are a study in colour. The air is drained of moisture yet tranquil with the falling ochre leaves of neem. Underfoot are broken border shrubs of baunia whose thorns can puncture an inch through your sandals with room to spare, but overhead is the fuschia extravagance of bougainvillea. It’s that time of the year when I feel like getting a heavy motor vehicle license.

    This is Tilonia,  a small village in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan in northwestern India. I’m at Barefoot College, a pathbreaking organisation that has worked in the field of grassroots rural development for over 40 years and has evolved into a role model for such organisations and communities the world over.

    Founded by Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, it works with most of the 43 LDCs (least developed countries) in the world, engaging with people in an atmosphere of integrity and respect, drawing out and sharing skills, making the communities self-sufficient and sustainable. They work in the areas of solar electrification, clean water, education, and arts and crafts, to name a few. What is really special about this place is that everyone is a teacher and everyone a student. The term ‘barefoot’ implies that no paper qualifications are necessary and everyone is fit to contribute. Trivia: The term originated in China and referred to its village health workers.

    Together, we are setting up a yoga programme, one that will look at the needs of the community at the most basic level and offer accessible and practical tools to improve health and wellbeing in a holistic and sustainable way. We also hope to train and empower barefoot yoga teachers so that the programme can be scaled and replicated in all participating communities, thus creating an evolving body of knowledge that improves the quality of life.

    There are 6 projects under this umbrella.

    Solar Mamas Discover Yoga

    Imagine grandmothers from the remotest communities of developing countries. Enmeshed in difficult socio-economic conditions, they may never have set foot outside their village, never have learned to read or write, never have considered a role for themselves outside the prescribed ones. Yet they have much wisdom born of experience, a standing in their community, and a spark in their hearts. Imagine such grandmothers coming together for six months, learning to build, install, and maintain solar electrification systems, then returning to their homes and lighting up whole villages without outside help.

    This wild idea has shown results: Since 2008, the grandmothers have brought solar electricity to more than 40,000 households, bringing light to more than 450,000 individuals in 1,015 villages. This year our grandmothers are from Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, Philippines, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zanzibar, and Paraguay.

    Women Blossom with Yoga

    Rural women who were taught their ‘place’ in society, women who could never go to school or had to drop out, women who had never raised the odhni off their face, let alone their eyes or voices, women who worked harder than anyone and suffered the most from poverty, illness, exploitation, or abuse–these women have learned to recognise their own strength, harness their skills, share them with others, and learn new ones.

    Local women independently fabricate, install, and maintain parabolic solar cookers, recycle waste into beautiful usable objects, weave intricate rugs, sew lovely clothes and other items from fabric, craft wooden toys, and manufacture low-cost biodegradable sanitary napkins. They have carved out a livelihood while taking care of their families. They have learned how to stand up for themselves and for others who cannot yet. They want their children to have a future, a better one.

    Tilonia Wakes Up to Yoga

    A diverse yet close-knit community of men, women, and children living and studying and working together, some of them facing physical challenges, visitors from all over the world specialised in various disciplines and intent on learning more and putting their skills to good use in the world, what do they have in common?

    Around 200 people live in this new campus. Many more come in to work everyday from neighbouring villages, yet more studying or working in the other buildings in or near the old campus. Every month sees dozens, sometimes hundreds, of visitors from different parts of the world.

    Yoga Goes to School

    Out of the 550 children in Shiksha Niketan, the day school, the older ones number 200. Aged 11-14, bursting with curiosity and energy, they dream about a good future. They are fortunate to have parents who work toward their education and good teachers who themselves share their curiosity and capacity for constant learning.

    Operational for 26 years, this day school follows the government curriculum for schools, but conducts classes using the barefoot approach. Most of its teachers studied and taught at the night schools themselves.

    Children Build Bridges Faster with Yoga

    In a village called Singla 22km away from Tilonia are 40 of the sweetest, most loving of children. Aged 7 and up, many of them are orphans or come from such difficult home environments that an education seems like a fantasy.

    Every year, the people behind this bridge transition school go from home to home, village to village, educating and convincing the parents, and bringing together these children. They live, study, and are taken care of in this school for 6 months, after which they become better equipped to attend formal school. 4,000 children, 30% of them girls, have chosen to do so in the 30 years this programme has been operational.

    Nightscholars Meet Yoga

    And yet, there are children who are unable to make it to day school or bridge transition school. 7,500 of them, 80% of them girls, herding cattle or working in the fields by day, learning by solar lamp at night. Their energy seems inexhaustible, their willingness to interact and learn amazing in the face of such odds. Conventional subjects are given a fresh, locally-relevant treatment and practical knowledge is imparted in a creative, collaborative manner.

    75,000 children have passed through these nightschools, now called Solar Bridge Schools, since their inception in 1975. Although the Indian Constitution (Eighty-Sixth Amendment) Act, 2002, Article 21A Right to Education says, “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.”, and an amendment of article 51A enjoins parents or guardians to provide educational opportunities for their child or ward, the reality is that we are not there yet.

    Special Project: Menstrual Health Education for Women and Adolescent Girls

    In the course of our work with women and young girls, the need for a new wave of menstrual health education at a very basic level came up.

    Where should we begin? Who should participate in such a programme? What should we talk about?  What media shall we use? Where should we hold such sessions? How do we ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of such an initiative?

    See also
    Watch Bunker Roy’s TED talk Learning from a Barefoot Movement. This talk, as moving today as it was the day I watched it first, inspired me to write to Barefoot in the first place.

    Photos © Stella Morielli, Gisella de Mello, Kanya Kanchana, Singla bridge school teachers.  Written article and permission to republish: Kanya (Kalyani) Kanchana
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