SEWA, Self-Employed Womens' Association, was started in Gujarat by Mrs Ela Bhatt, a lawyer by profession. Self-employed women had no social security or health care benefits like women working for a firm. Therefore, this association was founded to give self-employed women a voice to approach the government.
This association has been awarded three major honours by the Indian Government. Recently, Ela has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities in the United States as well as many universities in Canada.
Ela and I met several years ago when she came to Canada to visit her sister who is one of my yoga students. She has maintained her personal yoga practice ever since and introduced yoga classes at the SEWA training centre.
When I came to Bihar School of Yoga, Ela asked me if I would meet with Nutan Singh, the secretary of SEWA Munger. Swami Niranjan knew some of the representatives in Munger through the Maa Dashbhuji Pariwar in Munger a Devi temple where he gives satsang every year at Navaratri.
On 14th March I went with two of the sannyasa trainees and some SEWA representatives to Jalsakra, a remote village where self-employed women were helped out of their state of poverty. The women make leaf plates using material from trees which they gather in the forest. These plates are used by the ashrams in Munger and Rikhia during the large programs which thousands of people attend.
With the help of SEWA Munger these ladies have learnt to save a little of the money they earn in order to purchase a solar panel to provide electricity in their home, for there is no electricity in the village. They were able to purchase solar panels through micro financing. They can also borrow money through micro financing at 2% interest rather than the 10% charged by money lenders. In this way micro financing brought electricity to their homes and village.
We had the opportunity to teach some basic yoga techniques such as tadasana, tiryak tadasana, kati chakrasana and dwikonasana, since their main complaint was back problems due to the work they do. They also asked how to deal with digestive complaints such as acidity. We explained kunjal kriya to them since they had just done the first three asanas of shankhaprakshalana. Afterwards we taught simple nadi shodhana and gave them a brief yoga nidra. We finished the session with kirtan which they thoroughly enjoyed.
We visited another group of ladies in Fulkiya village who make incense sticks. It was most interesting to observe and learn that these items which we use daily in the ashram are each rolled by hand.
The following day we were taken to the Maa Dashbhuji Pariwar in Munger and from there to 3rd Railway Gunti to meet families that have lived for generations on Railway property with the permission of the railroad company. However, due to a new railway line they were being forced to move. SEWA Munger has managed to get the government to award these people some land just outside Munger and agree to build them houses with proper sanitation.
Then we were taken to SEWA Shram Sugandhit Producer Company Ltd., where many women work adding scent to the incense sticks, and packaging them for shipment to ITC, India Tobacco Company, who purchase them to sell. From the factory we were taken to Mai Dariapur, an agarbhati centre where the agarbhati is graded before being sent to the factory for scenting. We taught these ladies pawanmuktasana, anti-rheumatic exercises, simple nadi shodhana and yoga nidra. The women at this centre expressed a wish to have regular yoga classes provided for them by Bihar School of Yoga.
At the SEWA Munger office, we met workers who travel to remote villages to help the villagers with health care, education for the children and other advice. Many health care workers were interested to learn yoga techniques for back problems. We taught them shavasana, spinal massage exercises, pawanmuktasana, kandharasana, supta udarakarshanasana, simple nadi shodhana and yoga nidra.
On 30th March, we returned to Jalsakra village to teach more yoga. This time more women attended. We taught them pawanmuktasana, anti-rheumatic exercises, nadi shodhana and yoga nidra. Since one of the ladies could read, we took a copy of Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha and, at Swamiji's suggestion, a copy of the book Yoga Nidra from which she could read the yoga nidra practice to them. Since it was Navaratri we finished our session with a Devi kirtan. As we were leaving they asked, "When will you come again?"
For me it was an enlightening experience to see their hunger for yoga classes and the effect of the aid provided by SEWA Munger: bringing electricity into their homes, setting up schooling for the children, health care advice and encouraging them to move out of a state of poverty and indebtedness by learning how to save a small amount of their monthly income. The memories of the eager faces and winning smiles of the women will remain with me.