Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mindful India visits Gabriel Project Mumbai

By Dina Wyshogrod and Rachelle Oseran, Minful India

I am special!  You are special!  We are all special!” roared the grinning children at the end of their yoga class.        

Now, had this just been an exercise in self-esteem for kids, that might have been enough, or, as is written in the Passover Hagaddah, dayenu. 

Meditation with Batia Hofstadter and the children of the Kalwa Slums
But here’s what was really special:   

Chanting right along with the little ones was a bunch of Israeli and Jewish tourists, participants in what has become an annual sightseeing adventure called Mindful India.  And all this was taking place right smack in the teeming slums of Mumbai, courtesy of an amazing program called GabrielProject Mumbai (GPM).

Mindful India is the creation of Dr. Dina Wyshogrod, clinical psychologist and mindfulness expert, and Rachelle Oseran, mindful birthing instructor and yoga teacher.  Since 2009, we have been bringing English-speaking Israelis and like-minded Jewish travelers from around the world to India for a unique experience combining sightseeing, mindfulness, and social action.  We aim for our participants to come away from our trips with indelible memories of India’s architectural and artistic beauty, its majestic panoramas, its spiritual richness, and the warmth and charm of its people.  And, in particular, we hope they will be as inspired as we are, by the growing number of initiatives seeking to propel India steadily forward into a future which guarantees all its citizens equal access to knowledge and education, economic and personal security, and equality and justice. 

This year, our search for just such a local empowerment project led us to the Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) in the heart of Mumbai’s Kalva district, and to its visionary leader, Jacob Sztokman.   Jacob was determined to do something for adults and kids whose lives, otherwise, are full of acute poverty-related challenges.  His vision of providing education, healthcare and nourishment for body, mind and soul to this most vulnerable sector of society dovetails with the spirit of mindfulness and the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, spurring us to open our hearts and minds to the suffering of others in order to create a better world.   GPM, therefore, was a perfect match for the spirit of our Mindful India trip, and Jacob and his staff were most accommodating in setting up our visit. 

Walking to GPM was a jaw-dropping experience of making our way through acres of waste and debris of every description in every direction.  And while we’d known we’d be seeing some tough stuff, this beggared belief.  I actually hesitate to write these last sentences for fear of turning off some readers.  And that would be a shame, because our visit to Kalva and to GPM was anything but a turn-off.  In fact, it was a highlight of our visit to India. 

For in the midst of filth and poverty, we found an oasis of health, of care, of hope, of possibility.

We discovered the ShravanMedical Clinic, the first of its kind in the Kalva slum.  It services thousands of vulnerable children and their families through burgeoning inoculation programs, health care initiatives, and malnutrition prevention projects.  Sadly, the clinic is named in memory of Shravan Shah, a beautiful, bright, promising 11 year old boy who suddenly fell ill and died before proper diagnosis and treatment could be administered.  He had dreamed of being a doctor. Now his name graces the clinic that saves others’ lives.   

We learned about a cooking project that feeds kids what is often their only hot meal of the day, an enterprise that also empowers the cooks to develop their own catering projects for local events. 

We visited the Sundara SoapProject, an oasis of cleanliness and purity in the midst of that endless garbage dump.  Sundara means “beauty” and this beautiful empowerment project allows local women to build their own cottage industry by purifying and recycling used soap donated by area luxury hotels into new soap bars.  Some of these bars are given to the children along with instructions on hand washing and basic hygiene, teachings that they then can share with their families.  Other bars are processed into a slightly up-scale version with the addition of natural ingredients such as neem, turmeric and eucalyptus and sold to raise funds for the project.    

Deep breathing before a full day of learning
Whenever we visit programs such as GPM, we are on the lookout for how we can be personally involved in their mission in addition to donating funds.  Having learned about the Sundara project while preparing for our trip, we were inspired to collect our own partially used soap bars at each hotel we stayed at along the way and contribute our modest collection to their efforts.  It was a small gesture, to be sure, but it kept their mission uppermost in our minds throughout our travels and enhanced the connection we felt when we actually saw the project in action.  Bringing those recycled soaps home as souvenirs and sharing the story behind them with friends and family reminds us to appreciate the so-called simple things in life and not take anything for granted. 

Another highlight of the visit was meeting and interacting with the children in their classrooms.  We thrilled at their wide-eyed enthusiasm as they recited the days of the week in English, and were moved by the opportunity to teach and practice yoga with them.  It was particularly poignant that we, from the West, were bringing these powerful ancient Indian practices home to India’s own children, so that they might draw on them to bolster their inner resources and cope more effectively with the challenges they face.             

Each experience reinforced the realization of how interconnected we all are, that whenever you give, you also receive.  We came to the slums of Mumbai with the “notion” of the poverty of their existence.  Certainly nobody is downplaying that reality.  However, the kids and workers we met at GPM shared with us the richness of their smiles and the bounty of their optimism, that spark of hope and life that GPM is doing its utmost to fan into a blaze of glorious possibility.  As those little bodies swayed and teetered, finding their balance in “tree pose”, their skinny arms, soaring like branches toward the heavens reminded us that, with the right encouragement and resources, each one of us can indeed reach for the stars.    

So yes:  I am special!”
   “You are special!”
   “We are all special!
And:      “GPM:  You are indeed special!”

Dina Wyshogrod, PhD is a licensed clinical and medical psychologist, and Founder and Director of MBSR-ISRAEL, The Israeli Center for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.  A native New Yorker, Dina has lived in Jerusalem, Israel since 1991.
Rachelle Oseran is a Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) teacher, a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and teacher trainer, and a certified yoga instructor. Originally from Zimbabwe, she has lived in Jerusalem, Israel, since 1976.

Together, Dina and Rachelle co-lead annual Mindful India trips (