By Nienke Moolenaar
The Nepali Yoga Women Trust is harnessing the power of hatha yoga to empower marginalised women in the Himalayan nation, says Nienke Moolenaar
Hidden amid the Himalayas, in the centre of Nepal, lies the village of Pokhara. The name Pokhara is derived from the word Pokhari, which means lakes. Of all the beautiful lakes of Pokhara, Fewa is the largest and most popular. Big and small settlements surround the lake, and some more are scattered on the mountains nearby. Pilgrims are attracted to Pokhara for its sacred Hindu and Buddhist sites. Trekkers are drawn to it for its mountains. Add to this the serenity and the overall energy of this birthland of the Buddha and you have the perfect place imaginable for the practice of yoga. Devika Gurung (34) sensed the potential and started her yoga studio there in 2000. This was shortly after she discovered the bliss of yoga in her own life.
Devika was born in a remote village in the Annapurna mountain region and was one of six children. Circumstances forced her to leave school at the age of 15 to support her family. She spent three years doing manual labour, which included time at a construction site and a carpet manufacturing unit, till she met two Australian yoga teachers who introduced her
|The seven women who are currently at the centre spend their days learning English, yoga, holistic therapies, self-healing techniques and handicraft-making.|
to the ancient Indian discipline. For three months, she watched as they practiced hatha yoga for several hours a day at a Buddhist monastery in Pokhara. After learning the basics of yoga from them, Devika continued her yoga studies in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. A few years later, with financial help from her Dutch godparents, whom she met at the same Buddhist monastery, she established her own yoga centre in Pokhara.
Nepal has a colourful culture thanks to its delicious cuisine and joyful folk music. However, the country’s wonderful spirit is marred by ethnic unrest and gender discrimination which, it must be pointed out, goes against the law of the land which gives equal rights to Nepali men and women. Having experienced this discrimination personally, Devika was determined to make a difference.
Warming their hearths by knitting woollies Through yoga, she evolved into a strong-willed woman who wanted to selflessly give what she had learnt. With Emma Despres of the United Kingdom, who had visited Pokhara earlier that year to do voluntary work, she founded the Nepali Yoga Women Trust (NYWT) in 2007. Emma had stumbled upon Devika’s studio and the connection had been immediate. As the days had rolled on, they had discovered common ground that helped them create the NYWT, which focuses on empowering abused and abandoned women by helping them acquire new skills.
NYWT’s initiatives assume importance in the light of the state of Nepali women from low-income households. Gender discrimination begins at a very young age, particularly in rural areas where old religious and cultural traditions hold sway. Girls are fed less and expected to work more than their brothers. The boys’ education is also given preference over that of girls who are married at an average age of 16. Around 50 per cent of these young brides become mothers by the time they turn 20. A married woman holds the lowest position in her husband’s family. She is judged primarily on the basis of her ability to produce male children and her capacity for hard work.
Given the conservative mores, the women have neither the choice to take up a part-time job nor a say in the allocation of household income, which ultimately makes it nearly impossible for them to be meaningfully independent of their husbands. Ninety-three per cent of Nepal is rural. This factor continues to hold the waves of change at bay.
“The women work very hard, and they are also expected to take care of the family,” explains Devika. Women in Nepal are forced to confirm to stereotypical roles that confine them to the household and place them at the receiving end of much physical, psychological and sexual abuse. The few women who work in the informal sector are mistreated and paid lower wages than men.
While Nepali women silently carry the weight of their society on their backs, they find themselves bound to lives that are harmful to their well-being.
NYWT supports women who want to reject the roles society thrusts upon them. These women are hungry to learn and willing to strive for their independence and their example has the potential to change the way women are viewed and treated in Nepal. “The harsh social conditions many Nepali women face do not define them. In life, we move forward through positive thinking. It is only then that we are able to create change,” says Devika, who believes that acquisition of new skills is key to self-transformation. “The more skills they develop, the more opportunities they will have,” she explains. The seven women who are currently at the centre spend their days learning English, yoga, holistic therapies, self-healing techniques and handicraft-making. These activities are aimed at engineering inner-transformation in these women. The sale of their handicrafts, for instance, allows them to have a monthly salary, which in turn, ensures economic independence. The women are, with the money they make, able to meet their personal needs and educate their children. Over time with some hand-holding, Devika has seen women become self-sufficient, confident and less reliant on others.
|Nienke Moolenaar has been travelling in India and Nepal since November 2010, and will continue to do so for some time to come. Her writings and photography can be found on
Since NYWT opened shop, Devika spends the peak tourist season (autumn and spring) teaching hatha yoga at the centre, and heads to the north of India to upgrade her skills in the slack season (winter and summer). Emma invited Devika to the UK for the first time in 2007. She has since travelled to Europe to give yoga and spiritual workshops that raise awareness and funds for NYWT. The donated money sustains training of women at the centre, pays the salaries, rent and helps support abandoned women. This summer, she has France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States on her itinerary.
Devika, a strong believer in karma, sees yoga as a means of finding inner harmony and balance. “Yoga helps one develop creativity and live a fulfilled life,” she says. “Being poor has nothing to do with money. When you look into these women’s eyes, you can see that they are rich.”
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