Author Archives: thenamas

women's empowerment circle at Govardhan EcoVillage in rural India

Women’s Empowerment: In India and the U.S.

The Namaste Counsel is hosting a WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT RETREAT with Sita Devi Dasi, September 21 and 22. The retreat will focus on sisterly sangha and soaking up the prana in serene Wimberley. Sita Devi Dasi heads the Women’s Empowerment program at Radhanath Swami’s Govardhan Eco Village. The eco-village is an award-winning 100-acre spiritual sanctuary in rural India. The following summarizes her thoughts about women’s empowerment.

The Need for Women’s Empowerment in India

Govardhan Eco Village in India
Govardhan Eco Village

Women’s Empowerment is the need of the hour in today’s world. Not just in India, but all over the world. Obstacles that affect women in India, are many, Sita says. Gender inequality, male domination, institutionalized inequalities, inadequate education and even schoolhouses. In the end, limited job opportunities.

As a result, women need that extra support and encouragement. Therefore, women’s empowerment is often about women coming together. Women helping each other financially, emotionally and socially. In the cities, the women at least have better opportunities, a support system and access to a viable education. However, rural women are the most underprivileged and neglected. Usually, they are not literate. Consequently, there is a greater need in rural communities for women’s empowerment programs.

Women’s Empowerment in the West: Me Too

women's rights are human rights

There is a need for women’s empowerment in the U.S., too. At first glance, women appear more privileged, and have greater resources and opportunities in the States. However, emotionally and socially, women are still exploited. The #MeToo movement calls it out. There is mental, physical and sexual exploitation which American women face at the hands of the opposite sex. Women are not given the merited respect or dignity. In the workplace, they often have to outperform their male counterparts, and then are victimized by sexual harassment. 

This greatly undermines a woman’s confidence and self esteem. She feels lost and discouraged. Therefore, it’s about time for women to come together, support and speak out for each other. Give one another mental and emotional support to fight together and command respect and dignity. 

Women’s Empowerment: Spiritual Too

Govardhan Eco Village in India
Govardhan Eco Village

Furthermore, women, when spiritually enlivened and realized, can become the true leaders and role models of society.

As a case in point, consider Tulsi Gabbard. This 2020 U.S. Presidential candidate served honorably in the military. She was raised in, and continues to lead, a highly spiritual life. All the while, maintaining a high degree of femininity. 

We can all benefit from spiritual women’s empowerment.

Realize one’s true spiritual potential. Use one’s feminine power to come together and create a powerful force that can bring transformation in the world today. Women can support and pacify each other like no other man can ever think of doing. Instead of wasting one’s time competing with men, women should come together, strengthen our true feminine qualities and work productively.

Govardhan Eco Villag
Govardhan Eco Village

All scriptures in the world speak about the exalted position of the woman. Great saints and seers emphasized this.

But, still, women today struggle to get dignity and honor.

Worse, there is a growing trend of crimes against women. Rapes and assaults are common news in every newspaper. This is due to the moral and spiritual degradation. Western culture focuses on exploitation and sense enjoyment. Hence, men see women as objects, and not as people.

The need is to awaken and educate women spiritually. Then, women can impact society and hopefully bring forth a generation of men who respect all women and not see them as objects for enjoyment.

Sita’s Women’s Empowerment Program in India 

Womens empowerment at Govardhan EcoVillage in India
Womens empowerment program teaches sewing at Govardhan EcoVillage

A trained dentist, Sita launched her first free dental clinic six years ago. She was part of the community living and working at Govardhan EcoVillage, several hours outside of Mumbai. Here, she saw the dire need for dentistry— and more. 

Sita met with the village women who were all farmers. First, she chatted with them. She listened to their stories. As a result, she realized that they needed so much help. Both financially and socially. They were a very neglected section of the society. These rural women had minimum means, and resources. She was inspired to make a difference in their lives. That’s how the Women’s Empowerment and Skill Development Program connected to the Govardhan EcoVillage was launched.

Another important aspect was to teach them income-producing skills. Among the areas that took off were sewing, handicrafts, incense and candle making.

Next, Sita established self help groups in each village. Groups of 10 women opened joint bank accounts. More importantly, they learned the importance of saving money, and helping each other financially.

One Village’s Success Story 

Womens empowerment at Govardhan EcoVillage in India
Women’s Empowerment Group painting handcrafted items — most had never before held a pen, pencil or paintbrush

The women of Dhusal Pada village are relegated to work in the fields, and stay at home. The first year, Sita’s program taught them to paint terracotta lamps. Most, were holding brushes for the first time, as they had never gone to school. With practice, they painted with such expertise that their work was so appreciated — and purchased. Now, they have a steady source of income from their handcrafts. 

That has made a great difference among the men of the village, to boot. The men now respect the females as earning members of the home. More importantly, the women feel more confident and encouraged.

While Sita has invested her time and energy with this program for the last six years, she’s also reaping many benefits.  She says she feels blessed and privileged to be part of the women’s empowerment movement. Moreover, she considers she has benefitted far more than them. Now, she has a higher purpose in her life. What’s more, she feels closer to her soul, and God. Sita recalls Mahatma Gandhi’s words. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Power in Unity

Womens empowerment at Govardhan EcoVillage in India
Items made by Women’s Empowerment Group at Govardhan EcoVillage

Americans can reach across the ocean and help empower these women in India. Sita invites Westerners to visit the rural women of India. Connect with these ladies.  Sit with them. Sing with them. Dance together. Encourage them by making them feel valued and appreciated. By doing this you too will feel valued. Perhaps, you, too, will find the real purpose of life.

If traveling to India isn’t on your agenda, support Sita’s initiatives. There will be at least two “trunk shows” in the Austin/Hill Country area September 20-22. Contact Deborah for viewings of the women’s hand crafted items.

Finally, Sita will be coming to Wimberley for a women’s empowerment boost in Texas. Contact Deborah for details, or book the Women’s Empowerment Retreat at The Namaste Getaway September 21 and 22.

“The next generation of women should understand the real power of women. I see them as the leaders of the future. They have the potential to achieve so much, but I feel that can only happen if the women come together in women’s circles and leadership circles. Women gain maximum strength from each other and also the worst enemy of a woman can again be a woman because we let a man come in between. So let us recognize our strength and that lies in our unity.” — Sita Devi Dasi

The Healer

As a child, they kiss your boo boo 

And it feels better.

When your ice cream cone falls to the ground 

You feel bad.

In school, when you score a 100,

A big smile, and feeling of pride, fills you up.

But, when Johnny calls you “funny face,” you hurt. 

Your mother’s spaghetti, or your dad’s grilled cheese, warm your tummy,

And give you a sense of completeness.

When you have a dry cough, a hot chocolate or honey with warm lemon juice is more soothing that anything from the pharmacy.

I am a warrior. I am a natural woman. I am a healer. 

The best heart surgeon cannot cure a broken heart. 

The man in the white coat with an office plastered with diplomas cannot strengthen your soul.

The “brilliant” MD cannot feed your ego what it has been lacking. 

The google search for cures doesn’t fulfill your quest for inner knowledge.

I am a warrior. I am a natural woman. I am a healer. 

The healer uses presence and balance to fill emotional holes.

The healer listens to the words…the silence…and the body…

With sensitivity.  Loving kindness. Non-judgement. 

The healer taps into the powers of the earth to minimize pain and dis-ease.

The healer allows tears to flow to wash away pain.

The healer respects and recognizes our planet’s power to heal,

The healer embraces one’s own powers to heal.

Dhanvantari, deity for Ayurveda

Om Namo Bhagavate Maha Sudarshana Vasudevaya Dhanvantaray

berries and cherries, best for low glycemic diets

Diabetics: Try Yoga with Low Glycemic Diet

yoga for blood sugar management

Like me, Dr. Mehmet Oz recommends a low glycemic diet, for blood sugar management. And, yoga.

“We are a nation in a diabetes crisis,” says Dr. Oz. “Over the course of my career, I’ve watched patients who were destined for diabetes completely rewrite their fate by losing weight and getting in shape,” he states. Dr. Oz and I recognize yoga as a holistic method to mend mind, body and spirit.

“Add diabetes prevention to the ancient art’s long list of health perks. Studies show that yoga increases the rate at which glucose moves from the blood into our cells. It also reduces levels of stress hormones, which can cause an accumulation of abdominal fat and interfere with the secretion of insulin.”

Case in point: me. Diabetes killed my mom. My aunt, uncle and grandmother were diabetic. Then, one day after re-reading my mom’s article in a diabetes magazine about her beginning insulin, I got the call.  It was my turn. Never mind that my weight was normal. Didn’t matter that I’d been watching sugar intake my entire life.  Ka-bam. The preachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda were clear.  We are all unique. We must find balance through diligent lifestyle management. Finding, and following, our own wellness regimen. Our dinacharya.

Fortunately, a great Ayurvedic doctor coached me. Way beyond a low glycemic diet. Today, I’m 61 years old. My vitals are perfect. I take zero meds.  

My blood sugar management approach goes far beyond drugs and calories. That’s why I created a therapeutic workshop series, The Sugar Drop, focused on blood sugar management. A low glycemic diet is just one component of my workshops. While extremely important, it’s not that simple. Which is why I’ll delve into that a bit, here.

Low Glycemic Diet — Not Always Fruit-friendly

Most people equate fruit with low calories and good health. An apple a day may seemingly keep the doctor away. However, for those of us with insulin resistance, or compromised production of insulin, we have to be careful with fruit. 

low glycemic fruits

For example, my personalized Ayurvedic diet, allows me to eat fruit only in the mornings. Furthermore, I don’t mix fruit with non-fruit. As a result, no smoothies.  No snacks of fruit and nuts. Nor, apples in my salads, or berries in my yogurt. Just a small serving of fresh fruit, ideally on an empty stomach.

Moreover, the types of fruit for those with blood sugar issues is critical. To me, fruit is fructose (sugar) packaged in different sizes, shapes, colors and degrees of sweetness. Among the worst offenders: bananas. I haven’t had one in a decade.  Fortunately, not all fruit are as sweet as bananas.  Bottom line: I opt for a low-glycemic diet–and an Ayurvedic approach molded to my needs.

Low Glycemic Diet: Index Vs. Load

Dr. Andrew Weil explains the importance of a low-glycemic diet. 

“The glycemic index ranks carbohydrate foods on the basis of how they affect blood sugar (glucose). This is important for many people because eating a lot of foods that rank high on the glycemic index will produce spikes in blood sugar that can lead over time to loss of sensitivity to insulin, the hormone needed to allow blood sugar to enter cells for use as fuel. When using the glycemic index as a guide to food choices, you also have to consider “glycemic load,” a measure of how many grams of carbohydrate a normal serving contains.” He gives examples of carrots and beets which have high glycemic indices, but low loads. 

berries and cherries, best for low glycemic diets

Hence, lemons, limes, berries and cherries are “good” fruits. The glycemic index for strawberries and blueberries are in the 40s. On the other hand, the glycemic index for fresh tart cherries is just 22. The load for strawberries and limes are equal. As low as you can go. One. Tart cherries are just a tad higher. Three. 

cherries for low glycemic diets

So, following a low glycemic diet approach, cherries are a winner to avoid sugar spikes. But now, studies are indicating that fresh cherries, and even tart cherry juice, can help regulate blood sugar. (Caveat: In my coaching, I place all juices and dried fruits in the same category. Do not consume.)

Moreover, my acupuncturist wants me to eat cherries, and other deep red foods like beets, to “build blood.” Similarly, my Ayurvedic doctor recommends pomegranates, which are also deep red in color.

Studies with Cherries

tart cherries for blood sugar management

A team of research nutritionists summarized findings* from around the world.  

“Consumption of cherries decreased markers for oxidative stress in 8/10 studies; inflammation in 11/16; exercise-induced muscle soreness and loss of strength in 8/9; blood pressure in 5/7; arthritis in 5/5, and improved sleep in 4/4. Cherries also decreased hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C), Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and triglycerides/high-density lipoprotein (TG/HDL) in diabetic women, and VLDL and TG/HDL in obese participants. Similarly, tart cherry juice and one of its main polyphenols known as chlorogenic acid inhibited enzymes α glucosidase and dipeptidyl peptidase-4 which are involved in promoting diabetes …there exists evidence to suggest that cherry consumption may promote healthy glucose regulation.”

If that’s hard to understand, Dr. Oz makes it simple. He raves about cherries. The famous TV personality advocates cherries to address pain, inflammation and sleep disorders. Even more impressive, he says cherries can reduce your risk of heart disease. Finally, Dr. Oz says cherries remind him of his boyhood. His grandfather had a cherry farm in Turkey, and they made cherry juice. Turkey, by the way, is the world’s largest producer of cherries. 

Cherryland USA

In the U.S., sweet cherries tend to be harvested in the Northwest. Conversely, tart cherries are primarily found in Michigan. However, Door County, Wisconsin at one time was called “Cherryland USA.”  Currently, Door County produces 8-15 million pounds of Montmorency cherries, annually, across 2,500 acres. 

I visited Door County last month, hoping to pick a few fresh tart cherries in the fields. Instead, I had a tour of the packaging plant at Sequist Orchards. Dale Sequist runs the largest cherry orchard in Wisconsin. His great-grandfather immigrated to Wisconsin from Sweden in search of religious freedom.  Ended up a cherry farmer.

“It didn’t take him long to realize this area was good for planting. He paid six cents a tree. All of a sudden, he had more cherries than he knew what to do with.”

The Sequists now harvest tart cherries on nearly 1,000 acres. To diversity, 30 acres are dedicated to apples and pears. Another 15 acres are for sweet cherries.

Fully embracing growth and technology, they no longer sell just simple cherries. The family now produces 75 different hand-poured specialty food items, including tart cherry juice. The others, most of which are not appropriate for diabetics include salsa, barbecue sauce, honey mustard and poppyseed salad dressing. All made with cherries.

“God has blessed us here, and I want to give him credit.”

* “A Review of the Health Benefits of Cherries” March 2018 issue of Nutrients

Authentic Yogasanas

It’s not everyday that you see beautiful yogasanas in a museum. That’s why I did a double take at the Albert Hall museum in Jaipur. There is a great collection of sculpted clay yogasanas (postures). 

padmasana-mayurasana-peacock pose in ancient clay sculptures at Albert Hall, Jaipur, India
Lotus and Peacock Yogasanas

Albert Hall is named for a former Prince of Wales. It is the oldest state-run museum in Jaipur, and one of the oldest in Rajasthan. It “became a centre for imparting knowledge of history of civilizations, inspiring traditional Indian arts, crafts and architectural forms…”

The museum dates back to 1887. Of course artifacts far precede the opening of the facility.

Authentic and Everlasting Yogasanas   

cobra pose at the Albert Hall sculpture display, Jaipur, India
cobra pose, bhujangasana

The display of yogasanas features some of the modern-day common poses. At the same time, most are not part of your typical Western yoga class. Beyond the cobra pose, the other yogasanas can require years and years of practice to master. Together with patience.

Cowherd Yogasana at Jaipur's Albert Hall
gorakshasana-cowherd-pose

According to the museum exhibit, yogasanas lead to the higher goals of yoga.

Namely, to control and govern the “erratic Ego to restrain it from generating worldly desires and to aid the mind to concentrate within itself. Yogic postures and meditation help in achieving these objectives for physical health and spiritual evolution.”

The featured yogasanas, “exquisitely sculpted and painted 19th century clay models, are on display here. Their provenance is probably Krishnagar, West Bengal, where the art has survived and flourishes to this day. The figures show a range of postures (Asanas) by different Hindu sects.”

What’s more, taking a close look at these small sculptures, one can ascertain which lineage they represent. In particular, from their forehead markings.

Four Different Hindu Sects

adhomukh-nirguna clay model at Albert Hall, Jaipur

First, are the Shaiv. As the name indicates, they are worshipers of Lord Shiva. This lineage traditionally wear the burnt sienna-colored rudraksha beads. Most notably are the colored tilak (markings) on their foreheads. They paint three horizontal lines above the eyebrows. 

Next are those that honor Vishnu. Again, the name refers to Lord Vishnu. These are the Vaishnavs. They trace yellowish tilak in two vertical lines at the forehead. The parallel lines narrow down and connect at the bridge of the nose.  

Different from the Shaiv, Kanphata are ascetics that venerate Lord Shiva. Their traditions meld different practices. For example, bits of Buddhism, yoga and alchemy. As such, they are recognized by their gauged ears. Often, the earlobes are plugged with metal or wood. Plus, they may insert pieces of bone in their hair. While their heyday was between the 12th and 15th Centuries, there are still followers today. 

Lastly, the Nirguna are Vedantists, followers of Shankaracharya. This sage was born in Southern India, in the state of Kerala, around 780 CE.

In any case, the exhibit confirms the legacy of yogasanas among the different Hindu sects. And, the benefits that, even today, its practitioners recognize.

Pushkar, India has 52 ghats surrounding a lake

Feeling Blissful in Pushkar, India

Pushkar-temple

Recipe for feeling blissful in India. Start with a small town. Next, be sure it’s sacred. Far from an airport. No railroad station. Temples and ghats (ceremonial bathing spots) everywhere. Finally, for the icing on the cake: no alcohol or meat anywhere in town.

I knew Pushkar would be a special, place. But I had no idea that I’d feel so blissful here. Especially since my first two weeks in India were hectic, running from one place to another. Buses. Planes. No sleep. Maybe my Pushkar hostel boosted by blissfulness by being away from the center of town, surrounded by green crops and trees.

Pushkar was a charmer. I felt blissful here. As did others. 

I chatted with a New Yorker at a Pushkar outdoor cafe. She seemed super blissful, despite the jet lag. She arrived in India and headed straight to Pushkar. This was not her first, or even second, time here. She knew what she liked. Pushkar. Hence, she came here as soon as she could.

She said that Pushkar has a special energy. Hence, she was in no hurry to go anywhere else in India. 

Feeling Blissful with Baba

Cave temple in Pushkar, India

While much of India moves at lighting speed, Pushkar has a slow flow vibe. You can easily chill at a cafe. At a temple. A ghat. Your guest home. Or, in the marketplace. 

My high five for being blissful was a visit with the potato baba, about eight kilometers outside of Pushkar. 

Aloo Baba has survived eating only potatoes, for 25 years. His ashram is, in part, in a cave.  Way off the beaten path. It’s a good guess that American women rarely visit with the Baba. While he spoke no English, and there were about eight other men seated on the ground around him, I felt pure bliss in his presence.  

Aside from feeling blissful with the Aloo Baba, another area where mylevel of bliss was extremely high was at the Jain Mandir (temple).

Pushkar-temple

Perhaps the abundance of bliss in this town is a result of the holiness? Or, the fact that there’s a temple almost at every corner. It’s a place for pilgrimages and there are temples galore here. 400.  And, the last census counted about 250 households.

Whether it’s admiring the temples from the outside, or watching the devotion from inside, the sacredness fills the town. Or, does it diffuse outward from the center of the town. The lake. This is where blissfulness — and holiness — is even more evident. Pushkar Sarovar (lake) surrounded by 52 ghats. Not for splashing around, the ghats facilitate immersing oneself for a spiritual cleanse. 

The Holiness of Pushkar

Pushkar, India has 52 ghats surrounding a lake

In Varanasi, the ghats are like a string of pearls on the shore of the Ganges River. In Pushkar, the ghats are 52 beads of different shapes and sizes that surround the lake. I was definitely blissful hanging around one of the ghats, getting blessed, and hearing stories about the legends of Pushkar. 

“Vishnu made tapasya (a commitment to an austere spiritual life) here for a long time. Then, water came out of his body to form a lake. Originally it was much bigger. But during Kali Yuga (the age of darkness) it shrunk,” an elderly Brahmin explained to me.  Additionally, he said that one of the three mountains in Pushkar, visible from most anywhere, is called Nag Parvati (Lord Shiva’s wife and mother of Ganesha). He tells me it’s in the shape of a sleeping cobra (nag).

Feeling blissful near Pushkar, India, at sunset

“Vishnu was sleeping and then meditating, and a lotus flower came out of his belly. That’s how Brahma (the supreme God of creation) was born. Said ‘tap, tap, tap.’ And Brahma meditated for 60,000 years on the lotus flower. Vishnu said to Brahma, ‘what’s the purpose of meditation?’ Brahma said, ‘I come from the lotus and I want to make a new universe.’ So one lotus flower became Brahma, and from the heaven he threw the lotus and wherever it falls, this is your place.” 

Surely, that’s why this lovely city it called Pushkar. Pushpa means lotus flower. Kar is a symbol for hand, or, doing/making/causing. Like Kar-ma.

Thereupon, “Brahma said, ‘I am born here, and want to make a puja’ (fire ceremony). But ceremonies require the spouse, and Savitri was late.” Like most women, the Brahmin laughs. So, what was he to do? Find another wife.”

What’s more, Indra, the rain god, or god of the sky, was also at the puja. Brahma enlisted him to find him his next consort. 

temple off the beaten path in Pushkar, India

“A gopi gave grass three times yielding a cow each time.”  While Gayatri is the name of one of the best known mantras,  it literally means three cows. Furthermore, according to legend, Gayatri was the consort sent down from the heavens by Indra, to fill in in Savitri’s absence. 

But, alas.  

“Brahma’s son, Narada, brought Savitri down from the heavens. Savitri said you can only do a puja here.”  

In the end, better late then never. Enraged that he wasn’t going to wait for her, she put a curse on Brahma so that others would no longer worship him. In reality, this is one of the few Brahma temples in India. 

Unquestionably, the woman had the upper hand.

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

An American Swami: And My Journey to His Home

temple deities in India

There may be a thousand people crammed in a large temple hall. If this were the U.S., it would likely be against fire code. But we are in Mumbai, India. With 26,000 people per square kilometer. This is an oasis of spirituality. A temple filled with love, gratitude, and flowers. A golden altar houses glorious deities, whose dressings and adornments change, daily. Lavish paintings and tapestries line the walls and ceilings. Many correlate to passages in the ancient scriptures. Gold-plated carvings, as intricate as the Italian renaissance palaces, grace the room. All eyes turn to the swami. An American Swami.

An Oasis of Peace and Love Built by an American Swami

ceiling at ISKCON Chowpatty Mumbai temple

This is a Krishna temple, filled with Indian men. Most are dressed in white. There are some tangerine-robed brahmacharyas. Every now and then, you spot someone in Western dress. One middle-aged gentleman sports an H&M bag. 

Despite the many men here, this is definitely a safe place for women of all ages. From grannies to toddlers. Most wear saris. To a lesser extent, younger women wear traditional long dress shirts over baggy pants, or leggings. The salwar kameez.

Radhanath Swami, an American swami in India

Three video cameras point at the American Swami. When he enters, many prostrate themselves in front of him as a sign of respect. Obeisances. The humble swami begins with Sanskrit chants. Then, he gives a lecture on the “Srimad Bhagavatan,” in the lingua franca of English. He drops in Sanskrit words frequently. But, his English reflects his American mid-western roots. The packed room of devotees applauds the swami generously when he’s done.  

It’s a bit incongruous.

At first glance, the man in charge here appears to be an Indian man, in his element. Indeed, he’s in his element. But, he hails from the suburbs of Chicago (like me). Furthermore, the American Swami is of Jewish ancestry (as am I). Thousands of devotees lovingly call this man Radhanath Swami.

Not unlike many of his Vietnam-war generation, he was disenchanted. At age 18, he hitchhiked throughout Europe and Asia. With little more than a harmonica in his pocket. His mission: find truth. Destination: India. He met many a guru before he found the real deal. Srila Prabhupada. That was almost 50 years ago. Now, Radhanath Swami is the sharer of truth. He has written a best-selling book, turned into a screenplay. More importantly, the American Swami has made an indelible mark in India. In the spiritual community and beyond.  

The American Swami’s Wide Reaching Charitable Endeavors

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

This American Swami fostered a long list of charitable initiatives. There’s the Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Vrindavan. Sandipani Muni school for 1,500 underprivileged girls in Vrindavan. Mobile eye and dental clinics. Plus, a program serving 1.3 million lunches a day in India. Additionally, he established an award winning eco-village. That initiative includes a rural women’s empowerment program, and systems to boost agricultural outcomes for 900 previously near-starving farmers. 

Today, in Mumbai, however, the attention is all focused on the beauty of the temple adorned in flowers of all different hues. In the morning, women sit on the floor in a large room. They form small group surrounding baskets. We pluck petals off the flowers.  One group is working on marigold-colored flowers. Another, crimson. Others, garden-fresh white blossoms. In my group, I am the only foreigner. We are young, and old. Of diverse socio-economic strata. We have many different mother tongues (there are 22 “constitutional” languages in India).

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

In the main sanctuary, there is more diversity. The room is about the size of a basketball court, including the sidelines. Here, are the men. Children and some women, too. All are one. All focus on the same repetitive task. Plucking petals. Periodically, a few men with tilak on their foreheads bring out bushels of new, intact, flowers, and they pick up the color-separated baskets of soft feathery petals.

The plucking, in itself, is a bit of a meditation. But, the reason behind this is not revealed until Radhanath Swami returns to his microphone in the evening. In the meantime, we all dutifully perform the petal plucking. 

Our senses are satiated. We are surrounded by the sweet aroma of the flowers. The touch of the soft petals, and sturdier stems, against our fingers. And, a radiant array of colors surrounds us.   In all, more than 2,300 pounds of flowers. Marigolds. Chrysanthemums. Roses from Vrindavan. Jasmines from Coimbatore.

A Ton of Flowers in a Sanctuary

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

This is the Mumbai Flower Festival. Also the brainchild of the American-born swami.

In the evening ceremony, devotees squeeze into the sanctuary. We line up at least an hour in advance to get prime spots on the floor, eye to eye with Radhanath Swami. Everyone sits knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder. We are the lucky ones. The overflow watches from a large screen in the patio, below. Around the world, others tune in on a live stream.

The evening includes chanting led by Radhanath Swami. Behind me, are recording artists Gaura Vani and Jahnavi Harrison. They provide beautiful subtle background instrumentation and vocals.  Periodically, we all join in the chanting.  

Then, it’s time for the reveal. What, in fact, are we all doing here?

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

Radhanath Swami explains that we, humans, are like the flowers. All different colors.  Some from Mumbai. Others from Southern India. Still others, from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. We are different sizes, scents, and senses.  Alone, or with our own, we are beautiful. But, when we are all together, mixed like potpourri, it’s an amazing sight. And feeling. Incredible touch on our hair…arms…clothing. There is, perhaps, nothing more beautiful than this. Unity in diversity. Beauty in diversity. Power in diversity. 

A Sea of Multi-colored Petals — The American Swami’s Analogy for Beauty in Diversity

At this point, from the altar, men overturn the individual oversized baskets of petals onto the deities. First, they are bathed in white petals. Then, yellow petals. Next, purple. One color, after another, we see the layers floating on top of the deities. After about two or three dozen huge baskets of uni-colored petals raining onto the deities, we see a slight meshing of colors. Subtle dark red peaking through the oranges. Flecks of white or yellow, underneath or between.

The crowd is in ecstasy. But, the high point is yet to come. 

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

Soon, we see a confetti of multi-colored petals. The deities themselves are completely hidden by all the beautiful colored flower parts. Petals form mountains atop the deities. Mountains keep growing, like layers of snow. A landslide is pending. There are so many layers upon layers of different colored flowers. Gold upon orange. Scarlet upon vermillion.  Color-less among the vivid. 

When there are no more petals to pour onto the Mount Everest looking deities, the fun begins. Think Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street. Petals. Not beads. Devotion and spirituality. Not spirits.   

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

The mounds of delicate flowers are strewn upon the gazers. We are covered with orange. Pink. White. So many beautiful colors. All together. The confetti of petals. The diversity of our world. Of individuals. When all the petals make their way into the central area, atop the hundreds of fellow worshipers, all become kids. Spry folks bend down and scoop up the piles of petals by our feet. We let the petals fall like rain on those around us. Friends toss handfuls on each others’ heads. Or lightly spray their faces with the multi-colored blessed petals.

“The flower festival is like being on drugs in the 60s. But you’re not,” says Gaura Vani, the musician. In fact, Gaura Vani left the Hollywood scene to re-dedicate his life to Radhanath Swami and the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.

The Petals Remain with us Forever

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

Five months later, Mark, who works in the financial industry in Chicago, says the petals are still with him. “The pockets of my kurta have an unlimited supply of potpourri. It’s magical.” Lauren, a comedian living in Los Angeles, too, carries the remnants with her nearly half a year later. “Just found ANOTHER flower petal from Mumbai in my purse,” she notes with a laugh.

Just as Mardi Gras may be unforgettable to many, the Mumbai Flower Festival, concepted by a Jewish-turned-Vaishnava man who threw away his blue jeans in favor of an orange robe, is like nothing else. We are all in a state of light-headedness. Bliss. Devotion. Awe. Despite our countries of origin, race, religion, we are flying high. Equal. Respecting one another. And, as is the norm for followers of the ISKCON traditions, drug- and alcohol-free.         

India is a land of spirituality. Siddharta Gautama, the buddha, left India for Asia where he was (and is) considered a Supreme Being. Likewise, many yogis left India to create large followings in the West. Srila Prabhupada, left India, with only a few dollars in his pocket, and created an enormous legacy for spirituality, around the world. But, sometimes it needs a boon in the west to gain more momentum in the homeland. Srila Prabhupada’s work in other lands has only strengthened the following in India. Likewise, it took a kid from Chicago to bring back, replant and nourish the 5000-year-old learnings from India. 

And, thanks to modern-day technology, everyone can connect in the learnings and experiences.

gutsy yoga

Yoga and GI Disorders aka Gutsy Yoga

Gutsy Yoga. That’s the name of my signature workshops that explores yoga and GI disorders, helping people deal with digestive issues. (Note: A GUTSY YOGA workshop will take place at The Namaste Getaway Saturday, June 15.  Contact Deborah to register, or for details.)

I developed Gutsy Yoga, in part, because of my personal health history. And, my solution: Yoga and GI disorders. As an adolescent, I had all the testing done. Diagnosis:  irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  Then, as a young adult, I experienced flare ups whenever I went out to dinner with a certain set of people. Can’t say for sure if the trigger was the food, overeating, conversation, or company.

Yoga and GI Disorders: A Personal Story

Govind Das turned to yoga for his GI disorders

My worst experiences were while I was living and working, undocumented, in Mexico City, Once, in my true style, I endured severe pain until my class ended. I put my books and tapes in my backpack, and waited for a bus to take me to the nearest hospital ER. In Mexico, I practiced breathwork between sips of manzanilla tea, ideally at a beach or poolside. Not because I wanted to swim or sunbathe, but because I’d learned early on that many of our physical problems are emotional.

Unlike my Sarah Bernhardt sister, I held everything inside, causing havoc on my innards.

In retrospect, I have my tummy to thank for bringing me to the lotus pose. Once I had an established practice, my pains were few and far between. The last time I had too much pain to endure my asana practice, was the morning of my father’s burial. Never one to say ‘no,’ I carried most the responsibilities on my shoulders — and in my belly.

So, I understand the connection between the brain and the belly, and yoga and GI disorders. That’s why as a yoga therapist, I want others to make the connection between the different branches of yoga, the body and the brain and use the branches of yoga to heal their dis-eases.

The Story of Another Guy’s Yoga and GI Disorders

Govind Das is what some may call a Celebri-Yogi. He headlines at all Bhakti Fests, owns a popular yoga studio in Santa Monica, and has recorded CDs with his wife Radha.

This guy is the epitome of a calm, cool, collected, yogi. So I was curious when I heard that his path to yoga was similar to mine. Govind Das’ complications were severe. He suffered from ulcerative colitis and IBS, with some diagnosing the cause as the incurable Crohn’s. His antidote was a trifecta: yoga, bhakti and Ayurveda.

“Here I was, in my 20s… my body wasn’t working. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.” Govind Das recalls, “I had a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety. I felt there was so much more. My birthright is to be healthy and well. My spiritual self had been awakened, but I didn’t know how to express that. So, I walked into my first yoga class, ever, at 24. I walked out and I knew that yoga was going to be my avenue … my tool for healing.”

He was in a rut, but his inner wisdom knew the way out. As he delved deeper into yoga, he experienced teachers, Krishna Das, Jai Uttal and Ram Dass, all of whom led him toward Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), who ultimately would become his guru.

Neem Karoli BabaGovind Das Turned to Yoga for Digestive Relief

“Everything was pointing to him,” recalls Govind Das. “Neem Karoli Baba said, ‘Suffering is Great.’ Our suffering, our challenges, push us to evolve. Illness. Financial struggles. They are not mistakes. There are no mistakes. If we see them as gifts, they are opportunities to grow.”

Govind Das‘ physical ailments were his opportunity for spiritual development.  “From that place of acceptance, we can start to put new routines in our life that produce karmic roots. We have to have a deep faith in that law. From that faith, our healing can take place.”

The bhakti embodiment of love and unity were appealing to him. Of course the road between a first yoga class and becoming a bhakta (devotee) is long. Likewise, overcoming years of ill health are not overturned like magic. After a certain period of time, his symptoms started to recede, and a new digestive system manifested. He took on a new identity, a new name, and a new view of life.

“It was mental, emotional and spiritual. It took a radical shift of my being, for that new being to take root in my body.” He learned to “Relax and feel your way into the journey. Let yourself flow into a vast ocean of love … A field of unified energy. Let it be a tool … An opportunity to come back to your essence.”

Govind Das Turned to Ayurveda for Digestive Relief

Thus, Govind Das turned to Ayurveda, which goes to the root of the problem and works to find the missing internal balance. His anxiety and fear, for example, are indicators of excess vata, as is IBS.  Moreover, he heeded his Ayurvedic doctor’s challenging Rx.

“I grew up eating tremendous amounts of white sugar and white bread. The large intestine is where it all ends up,” says Govind Das. So he adopted a more yogic and Ayurvedic way of eating based on whole, organic, unprocessed foods. Basically, ensuring there was more prana (life force) entering his body, and less tamassic or rajassic (aggravating) foods.

Swami Vishnu-Devananda

Swami Vishnu-Devananda

“My Ayurvedic doctor put me on a kitchari (mung beans with rice) diet for two years. It was 75 percent of my diet. The taste of kitchari is completely satisfying to the tastebuds. (Before,) I spent so much time wasting energy and time, thinking about what I was going to eat.  Mung dal is (the goddess) Lakshmi herself. Those yellow mung dal are golden. They’re very easy on the digestive system, balancing to pitta and vata.”

As is always the case with yoga therapy and Ayurveda, you need to constantly monitor your lifestyle. Nothing in life is constant, hence, imbalances can still arise.

“I consider myself healed, but it’s something I have to continually manage. The flare-ups in the past would last for years. Now, I know what I need to do. I believe so much of digestive stuff is related to emotional aspects of our lives. I think if anybody has digestive things going on, it’d be worth looking at that. Where is fear present in my life? Worry? Anxiety?”

Swami Vishnu-Devananda, who is responsible for bringing Sivananda Yoga to the western world, in one of his books, acknowledges the strong link between the emotions and the body. “Every emotion takes its toll on the body. The constant tension put on the mind owing to unnecessary worries and anxieties takes away more energy than physical tension. However one tries to relax the mind, one cannot completely remove all tensions and worries from the mind unless one goes to spiritual relaxation.”

varanasi-sunrise-Ganges

Spiritual Varanasi, India

In my last article, I spoke about finding thousands of Ganeshas in Varanasi. Unexpectedly. Beyond the Ganeshas, almost everywhere in Varanasi spirituality was overflowing.

Pre-dawn puja on the Ganges at Varanasi

“It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth of the population are priests of that church.*”

varanasi-sunrise-Ganges

Just as I relished morning arati in Vrindavan, I woke up early each day in Varanasi. Here, mangala arati was on the holy Ganges.

“The Ganges itself and every individual drop of water in it are temples.*” 

Bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India

Before arati started, I strolled along the sand. In the pre-dawn hours, people carefully disrobed and blessed themselves by bathing in the river. Despite the fact that people, especially men, took dips into the Ganges under daylight, it seemed more sanctified prior to the first morning rays.

“All India flocks thither on pilgrimage…*”

The mangala prayer services in the two ever-so-holy towns of Vrindavan and Varanasi were very different. In Vrindavan, it was at ISKCON temple. Prayer was filled with music and devotion to the deities. It appeared as if the vast majority of Vrindavan attendees were local residents. Both Indian and non-Indian.

Morning arati at Ganges in Varanasi, India

Varanasi arati, however, attracted visitors. Albeit primarily visitors of Indian ancestry. Second, prayers in Varanasi didn’t begin at 4:15 a.m. like Vrindavan’s arati. It was much closer to the actual sunrise in Varanasi. Around 6:30 a.m. Furthermore, I didn’t notice deities in Varanasi. It was more of a fire ceremony.

Morning arati at the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Vrindavan, after the main prayers, women and men formed different circles to circumambulate around a tulsi plant. In Varanasi, many stayed to listen to ragas, live, on stage. Next, it was yoga time. Men sat on lines of red carpet. The women clustered together under a canopy. The practice included 30 minutes of pranayama. Then, 20 minutes of asanas. Rather than closing with savasana, each session ended with laughter yoga.

Varanasi-sunset arati on the Ganges

Evening arati was just as magical as the morning’s in Varanasi. I opted out of the touristy river boat barge views of the ceremony, to sit alongside hundreds, or thousands, of Indians at the waterfront. The white smoke, set against the black night sky was beautiful. So was chanting among the enormous crowd of worshippers.

“Where this eternal light intersects the earth, it is known as Kashi.”**

Evening arati on the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Varanasi, morning and evening arati were like bookeends. In between, I strolled around the innumerable sacred temples. Some, were in a near state of ruins. Others, were hiding behind buildings, or tunnels. Surprisingly, the most visited, Kashi Vishwanath, was hiding behind untold heaps of construction. And, a maze of visitors in queue. Most likely, waiting at least an hour to approach the sacred space. The endless string of people inched toward the temple, barefoot, as slow as turtles.

Once past the security guards and magnetometers, we were rushed through the ancient golden temple. Certainly to ensure that as many people as possible could pass through this holiest of sites dedicated to Lord Shiva.

“Benares is the sacredest of sacred cities. The moment you step across the sharply-defined line which separates it from the rest of the globe, you stand upon ineffably and unspeakably holy ground.*”

Being herded through the masses to catch a mini-darshan didn’t exactly get me to a state of blissful spirituality. Being one of just a handful of people at an ancient temple in Varanasi, did. Set amid grey rubble was a pristine orange pagoda-like temple.

“The journey to sacred places is the most common way that people travel in India.”**

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple. According to one local guide, “This is one of the oldest and unique temple of Varanasi as it is made up of woods. It is also called as the replica of Pasupatinath temple (Kathmandu, Nepal).” Constructed by a former King of Nepal, it is a most peaceful spiritual place.

All in all, Varanasi made an impact on me. Definitely a place I’d like to return.

*excerpts from Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator,”  Chapter 50

** quotes from Diana L. Eck, author of “Bananas: City of Light”

Surrounded by Ganesha in Varanasi

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

Saving the best for last on my spiritual tour of Northern India was Varanasi. AKA Kashi (city of light) and Benares. Hindus flock here for spiritual cleansing. Plus, this part of the Ganges is the preferred site for cremation and/or releasing ashes. While popular among foreigners, spying on sacred burial rites wasn’t my cup of tea. Rather, a highlight for me was finding thousands of images of Ganesha and other deities.  All in one small room.

After a lovely mangala arati (morning prayer ceremony), followed by ragas and yoga at the Ganges, I was in a state of bliss. I let my intuition guide me to a storefront (the only one I entered in all Varanasi). This was no shopping spree. It was a spiritual infusion.

In all, I spent more than an hour with brothers for whom their lives evolve around Ganesha, and other deities. 

Ashok and Vijay are two of 10 Murtikar siblings. Appropriately, Murtikar means statue maker. Not just any statue, but sacred ones. For generations, the Murtikar men have been carving images of Ganesha, Saraswati and Shiva out of stone. 

Ashok is one of the elders. He has a wonderfully calming demeanor.

Carving Deities as Meditation

carved deities in Varanasi, India

Ashok followed in his father’s footsteps, carving deities, large and small. 

“All time, I sit with papa. Sometimes, I broke (the stone). ‘Again.’” His father would gently encourage him, just like an American dad may say to his child learning to ride a bike.

Creating gods out of stone is a form of meditation for Ashok.  He has such a gentle nature and mannerisms. You can almost visualize how he delicately carves deities with utmost respect and devotion. Not all of what Ashok creates are rooted in his father’s teachings. Some evolve from his dreams.  

“Working, working, working. Stone is the energy. Nature. Mountain.  It’s power.  Prana. Shakti.” 

You can feel his mindfulness in his presence, and in his speech. There is a grace that permeates the space. While Ashok oozes a meditative calm, the younger Vijay is different. He’s focused on Ganesha. He prefers paper to stone. And, he works at lightning pace.

Drawing Ganesha as Meditation

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

I’m enthralled with the back room where Ashok takes me. It’s behind the showroom. It looks like a library. Seems full of Vijay’s treasures. There are shelves, floor to ceiling, stashed with drawing pads. Piles of the loose drawings or sketchpads fill the floor. It’s hard to imagine how many drawings are in this one room. 

All are Vijay’s work. Furthermore, all the drawing books are filled with sketches of Ganesha. The overcomer of obstacles. I was mesmerized by the idea that one person would spend their life drawing only images of the elephant god with twisted trunk.

A good percentage of the drawings are monochromatic. Yet, others feature bold colors in geometric shapes.

Ganesha is Happiness

I was in a meditative state, sitting on the floor, rummaging through his deities. This was the most comprehensive collection I could imagine of the iconic elephant on top of a mouse. I was in awe of Vijay’s unparalleled production of Ganeshas. In fact, the marathon Ganesha artist said at times he draws Ganesha for “51, 54, 56 hours non-stop.”

 a marathon ganesha maker in Varanasi, India

“Ganesha is the honor of God. Ganesha is the good brain, giving good luck…happiness always.”

Apparently, he wasn’t as interested in the stonework of multiple generations of Murtikar men.  Most of all, his mother was a great influence. “Your mother is your first, first and first teacher.” 

Nonetheless, he credits both parents for his affinity toward Ganesha. “I see Ganesha everywhere…my parents always worshipped in front of the Lord Ganesha before starting any work on any new sculpture,” he told another newspaper.

“I make a lot of exhibitions.” Actually, three times he was invited by the government to display the elephant deities in a museum in the holy city of Dharmasala (where the Dalai Lama resides). His art has also been shown in Thailand and the United States. The man with Ganesha in his heart may draw 100 images before he selects just the right one for an exhibit.

Not only is he prolific, he’s protected by a higher source. Or, rather, his Ganeshas are protected.  Actually, one of his drawing books is badly worn away from critters. The edges of dozens of pages are frayed. Yet, Vijay smiles as he says no mouse has never touched the images of Ganesha.

His personal collection of Ganesha and other deities, on paper and stone, he estimates at more than 51,000.

Art is Spiritual

Deity makers in Varanasi, India

“Art is the way of the life. Hidden beauty. Spiritual height,” for Vijay. It also seems to be his drug. It powers him. Gives him his spiritual and physical well being. Regardless of what fuels him, he notes that there are messages in his paintings. Sometimes, painting to the sound of tabla drumming, helps reveal messages. “All my paintings have a story.”

One Ganesha, he explains, relates to our body. The five elements, like auras, against a full sky.

First off, colors all have meaning. 

“There is depth in light. All religions love white,” which he equates to sweetness. Black and white, too, is important. Red stands for equality. Because we all bleed the same color. Green is happiness. Orange is luck. Not surprisingly, blue represents water and sky.

Moreover, the thought behind the art is extremely important. 

Finally, he vocalizes his own sense of meditation through art. “I’m never disturbed. I’m an artist.”

Read more about spiritual India, including words of wisdom from Men in Orange.

Ahimsa in India: Wildlife Sanctuaries

Travel, to me, is about learning and sharing. Karma yoga (self-less service) has been integral to my trips the last ten years. The yamas and niyamas also surface when I travel. No cruises or resorts. I enjoy home stays, and support ethical tourism.  Likewise, when I shop, I prefer to buy from artisans or non-profits.

Travel, to me, is about learning and sharing. Karma yoga (self-less service) has been integral to my trips the last ten years. The yamas and niyamas also surface when I travel. No cruises or resorts. I enjoy home stays, and support ethical tourism.  Likewise, when I shop, I prefer to buy from artisans or non-profits. On my last trip, I sought out examples of ahimsa in India.

Among my greatest memories were visits with non-profits displaying ahimsa in India. I learned firsthand about societal needs. Plus, I witnessed the operations and enterprises of those dedicated to make a difference.

One day, we had the choice of shopping, relaxing, or visiting an elephant sanctuary. I opted for the elephant sanctuary. Easy choice. Especially after I discovered it was part of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s India itinerary.

Canada’s PM has always been one of my favorite politicians.  He can rock some very challenging asanas. More importantly, married to a yoga instructor, he reflects yogic principles, such as ahimsa. Do no harm to any living being. 

Wildlife SOS in Mathura is a great example of ahimsa in India. Himsa (violence), unfortunately, has been common in India for centuries, when it comes to some animals. The essence of ahimsa isn’t reserved for humans. So hearing and seeing the vestiges of the animal abuse was disheartening. Hopefully, people will recognize how animals are tortured in the name of tourism, religion, or traditions, and help put the A in A-himsa.  

Ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

Wildlife SOS opened its elephant sanctuary in 2010 in response to the dire need to protect, rescue and rehabilitate elephants in India. Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, is 60 kilometers northwest of Agra. About 8 million tourists head to Agra’s Taj Mahal, yearly. However, highly linked to the tourism industry, are slave-like conditions of beautiful animals. 

Our Wildlife SOS guide, appropriately named Siva, made it clear that elephants should not be toys or photo opps for tourists. Ahimsa. Siva shared that big businesses, including hotels, often circumvent the laws. Just to put wild animals on display in an unnatural, harmful manner.

Thanks in part to Wildlife SOS, the Indian government enacted laws to protect the animals. Ahimsa in India. However, laws can’t erase the damage done…to the wildlife and eco-system. Nor can laws can’t reverse cultural attitudes and practices overnight.

Hence, the role of Wildlife SOS goes beyond rescuing and rehabilitating the animals. Wildlife SOS lobbies government to protect the animals. At the same time, public awareness is essential to stop abusive animal trades.

Animals are Sentient Social Beings

ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

Himsa is obvious when you see the tools of the trade for the elephant “masters.” Torture is routinely inflicted on the elephants to force them to follow man’s orders. This is against the rules of nature, Siva suggested. No animal that weighs thousands of pounds should be subservient to a 140-pound man.  

Beyond the methods of torture use on the animals, they are separated from everything that’s normal for them. Elephants are long migratory animals. In fact, the roaming contributes to proper gene flow. Aside from the fact that these elephants are brought to some of the largest cities in the world, their natural habitats are now almost non-existent. Humans have encroached on the elephants’ eco-systems and patterns. At one point in time, “The whole of India was for elephants,” says Siva. “Now, it’s just patches.” Stark patches. Himsa. Consider that six out of every seven elephants in India are now captive.

Regrettably, once elephants have a taste of captivity, they cannot be released back into the wild. They no longer can fend for themselves.  Moreover, elephants are social animals. In captivity they are isolated.  

“It’s like a slavery industry,” adds Siva. “These are wild animals. They should never be in the human world.  We are trying to give them as much space as possible (at Wildlife SOS).”

Himsa vs. Ahimsa in India

All the 21 elephants at the Mathura Wildlife SOS sanctuary were in critical state when they arrived. Emaciated. Wounded. Physically and emotionally. 

Wildlife SOS dispenses veterinary care, proper diet, and positive attention. Additionally, the staff encourages the socialization between the elephants. Several of the elephants are partnered with their best buddies. 

Before and after pictures of the elephants display the realities. Appalling. Inhumane.

One case. Raju was in chains for 50 years. He passed through 27 owners. “He was a skeleton when he came to us,” Siva says. 

Another example. Asha had joint and leg injuries as a result of carrying tourists up steep inclines on hot pavement.

Still another. Phookali was a “begging elephant” for many decades. When rescued, she was blind, and could barely stand. 

And yet another. Kalpana was eating the dirt and mud when Wildlife SOS transported her to their animal hospital. She was blind and dehydrated. The Wildlife SOS ambulance, the first of its kind in India, included watermelons, pumpkins and sugarcane to immediately nurse her back to health. 

11 Sanctuaries Across India

In 1995, Wildlife SOS began to rescue dancing bears – and their owners. In 1998, the 400-year-old practice was banned. The non-profit recognized that livelihoods passed down from one generation to the next were lost. As a result, Wildlife SOS re-trains the bear owners, and even supports them to launch new businesses. 

Today, India is free of dancing bears. Wildlife SOS has 11 centers. Among them, six are for bears, two for elephants and one for leopards. The organization also rescues, rehabilitates and attempts to release back into the wild, hundreds of primates and thousands of reptiles.

Wildlife SOS, with a 501c3 designation, welcomes donations. Visitors in India can shop at their cafes and gift shops. Better yet, volunteer for several weeks at a time.