Adi Shakti's story of the heartbreak of humanitarian service

...the following is an excerpt from Resilience Through Yoga and Meditation, a book Adi co-authored with Denita Austin and other global yoga leaders. It is available at Amazon here. 

I am a blessed soul.  I have been given opportunities, hand over fist, to expand my consciousness, connect with my sisters all over the globe, and to actively pursue stillness in the nosiest of places.  I am a yoga student and teacher, committing my life to expanding my capacity for bliss, to healing the traumas of this life and others, and to supporting others in that same journey.  


In a few short years, I have traveled back and forth from India, Thailand, Cambodia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, the US, and more.  I have led groups of inspired philanthropists and yoga practitioners into corners of the globe that needed love, presence, and financial support.  I watched my efforts positively impact others, a dream, at 24, for a young professional in the nonprofit field.  I felt that my spiritual practice was growing, and that my capacity for responsibility, work, and service was infinitely expanding.  But then, there was a shift.  I would like to share my story, to illustrate how I arrived where I am, in my process of awakening.

Costa Rica 2011

The sun slowly begins to rise and the howler monkey calls shatter the stillness of dawn.  The loud morning ritual, accompanied by a steamy early morning tropical downpour, is my jungle alarm clock.  I am in Puerto Viejo, Talamanca, Costa Rica, an Afro Caribbean beach town that has recently become a magnet for backpackers, hippies, healers, and peace seekers from every corner of the Earth.  Italians, Argentines, Chinese, Canadians, Israelis, Frenchmen, Americans, and more, mostly speaking English or Spanish as the language of commerce.  The beaches are gorgeous, the jungle is full of wildlife, and the Rasta surfer men attract women from all over the globe to engage in wild partying nights of who knows what.


Upon leaving the coast and heading inland, the “real” Costa Rica is found.  Banana and pineapple plantations, large families living in small houses, children in tattered hand-me-down clothes, and farm workers earning 2$ an hour for their hard labor while enduring the many dangers of commercial agriculture.  I was contracted by a nonprofit to start an English and Enrichment program for this community.  At 22, I entered the community with an S on my chest with high hopes of saving the world.  Starting work at the local elementary school, I was frustrated and confused that the Director of the school was not receptive to my save-the-world attitude (Gasp!).  About a month or two into the project, once I spoke Spanish and was able to understand the children, I found myself having second thoughts about the meaning of what I was doing.  Who am I to assume that English is an intrinsic good?  Was my time and energy just an imperialistic effort to convert the native people into ‘better’, ‘easier to deal with’ workers for the people who are already oppressing them? This hit me hard.  Really hard.

Let me be clear, Costa Rica has identified learning English as a value.  Tourism is one of the top sources of income for the country, and an English speaking Costa Rican will most likely make more money in their life than one who only speaks Spanish. The public school system requires that the high school students pass a very challenging English competency exam to gain their diploma.  The majority of the elementary schools have English teachers, but the Limon province has typically been left behind by the Costa Rican government (a topic worth researching for an interested party).  They lack the funds to offer preparatory English classes for the elementary  school children.  

Many of my children share rooms and beds with their siblings.  Many of their parents can’t afford the $300 to buy the necessities to send them to school.  None of the parents can afford cars, few can afford bicycles for their children.  Many of their parents are illiterate.  My kids were so happy all the same. 

It was a constant battle for me to consciously check my intentions as to why I was teaching them my language.  Are my intentions to help my children live happier, more fulfilling lives?  Or are they to help my children understand that it is important to always want more, strive for more, have more, be more?  To be happier and more fulfilled, is a common human goal.  To be constantly hungry for more, is the projection of my American made, tortured brain’s struggle with inadequacy.  I did not want to push this onto my children.  Imposing the ‘grass is greener’ complex in no way helps me fulfill my goal of making them happier and more at peace human beings.

Due to my inner struggle, and outer conflict with the director at the school, I moved the program to a private center in the same community.  It is a completely voluntary program for the children.  I was there with them after school, every day.  Those who wanted to learn English and engage in the other activities I offer (yoga, art, etc) were welcome to come and play.  This allowed me to create the program more in line with my ideals, without the hoop jumping of the Costa Rican school bureaucracy. 


This experience was a struggle in keeping a constant check on my intentions.  I developed this program to fulfill a need for the community, but I must fulfill their need, not my idea of their need.  My advice for grassroots soldiers?  Empower the community leaders to be the initiators of the shift.  To be of any good to any community, you must come in wide open and ready to listen.  From that place, you can use your knowledge and experience to create a model that will work for them and with them.  


After the program was established, I moved back to my hometown, Indianapolis, Indiana to work for a company specializing in conscious international travel and global service. 

India 2013


India.  Sweet mother India.  I was heading back for my third time this year, though that was never my intention, and there are few things I crave more than the vibrant colors, foreign smiles, and polite namastes.  I journeyed with a group of 20 practitioners, who were able to meet their goal, into the red light districts of Kolkata. Collectively, the initiative raised over one million dollars to support the work of various organizations working to protect young women in Kolkata from the brutal sex trafficking industry. 


The vivid memory of the Bow bazar drop-in center will haunt me for as long as I live. Bow bazar is one of the many red-light districts sprinkled across Kolkata.  We journeyed from our air conditioned tour bus into the depths of the district, walking past brothel after brothel, seeing the vacant faces of the young women I had only dared to read about.  Their bright lips and skeptical eyes scream panic and indifference in the way that extreme contrast weaves its way throughout all of India.  I felt as though I was on a movie set, and I have never felt so removed from my own experience.


From the men smoking their cigarettes, glaring at me in a way that made me want to jump out of my skin, to the emaciated dogs hungrily grazing the piles and piles of filth lining the streets – I was removed. Then, we approached the center.


Typically, children stay in the room with their mothers while they are forced to commit unspeakable actions.  I have read that it is the equivalent of $1 for sex with a condom, and $2 for sex without.  The youngest of the girls would have been locked up in the brothels we passed, raped nearly 30 times a day by the same men that will go home to their powerless wives.  These drop in centers have a noble purpose, to give the children of the women a relatively safe place to go while their mothers are working.


As we approached the center, we went through an alley and were escorted into the room by what appeared to be a security guard.  We then entered a 15X15 room packed full of young children on the floor with their school work.  We sat and listened as the children went around the room introducing themselves to us in English, and I looked to my right to see one of our passengers allowing the tears to fall down her face.  They offered us a Bollywood dance, putting the entirety of their tiny hearts into expressing themselves through the music, and I remember the faces of pride as we offered them applause as they finished.


Of the thirty children in the room, I recall only three of them being girls.  Looking around, I couldn’t help but wonder in terror.  Where are all the little girls?


This was just one of the many afternoons I spent in Kolkata.  Most of the time, I was dancing, laughing, and learning with young girls who have recently been rescued from the industry.  There are several facilities that house and protect the girls, so that their pimps are not able to steal them back into the underworld.  The majority of the funds raised supported these centers, basically orphanages, for the vulnerable girls. 


Playing with the girls, I would be in a moment of joy, connecting with their beautiful innocence in a pure and loving way.  Suddenly, my mind would be interrupted by the thoughts of what has happened to this child and the pain and loneliness they must feel. There are no words.
In Yoga, we are taught that we are one.  Sitting in the comfort of my living room, I was able to make these girls separate, those girls, in that far off country, with those strange and foreign circumstances.  There is something that washes over you as you hold THAT girl to your chest.  You are ignited, furious, peaceful, wounded, and healed.  I am still working on processing this experience.  There are so many complexities in this line of work.  I want to connect, to heal, to understand, and to love women from all across the world.  At the same time, I want to connect, to heal, to understand and to love myself.  Svadyaya, or self-inquiry, is a continued practice for me in my work abroad.  I must work from a divine place in my heart and resist the ego-driven attachment to outcomes that haunts my dreams.  I am still learning, and every day I am thankful to those wise and beautiful women I encounter out in the world who laugh at me lovingly, as a I stumble through their culture and do my best to learn, love, and heal.

Diversity


I believe in living on purpose.  I have had the privilege and joy of teaching, living, traveling and serving in many corners of our majestic planet.  This is what empowered me.  I wanted the rich variety of culture, art, food, nature, mountains, beaches, architecture, and more. Variety and diversity inspired me.  I felt that I was learning, expanding, growing.  Every new step on fresh soil was a symbol of my freedom. Every time the plane hit the ground in a new country, I was filled with excitement, gratitude, and awe.  Yes, I have been granted this gift in seeing the world and expanding my awareness, but it comes with its share of trauma, loss, and burden.
I cried alone in my hotel room after playing with young girls recently rescued from prostitution rings in India.  I was physically sick after spending a day in the torture camps and counting skulls in Cambodia.  I was tearful as I sat before a little girl in Guatemala and told her that she was beautiful, smart, special, and powerful.  I wondered if that was the best thing to do as her parents were unable to put her into school or meet the hygiene requirements of the local programs.  Was I providing false hope?  In Ecuador, I watched in horror as we scooped oil from the surface of the Earth with our hands.  I felt sick and powerless knowing that I would inevitably head back to the United States to fill up my car and continue to exploit the Earth.  In Costa Rica, I traveled deep into the village of Dururpe, where I met with community leaders to discuss what they needed to support the health and culture of the BriBri tribe.

Absence of Home


One of my first deeply rooted spiritual conflicts was in the disappearance of ‘home’.  After living in Latin America for several years of my life, traveling to India a handful of times, leading groups of Westerners into horrifically heart wrenching zones of human rights violations and more, I can’t walk into my Grandpa’s kitchen in Clermont, Indiana as the same charming Indiana girl.  Things have shifted.  I am not the same in my head or heart, and my family, friends, and even husband can’t begin to grasp the extent of the pain I have witnessed or fully understand my world view.  I come home and I sit with my friends and family, listening to them talk of politics, movies, sports, music, T.V. shows and I feel drowned in indifference.  It’s hard.  Very hard.


I’m not home out in the world, either.  In Costa Rica, I am a Gringa.  In India, I am a spiritual tourist.  In New York, I am there for a weekend long conference.  It is difficult to feel fully seen.  Sometimes I wish I could go back.  I wish that I didn’t see the Amazon forest floor poisoned by petroleum mining from the gas and other products that I mindlessly enjoy.  I wish I didn’t hold that little 8 year old girl to my heart, knowing that she had just recently been rescued from an environment where she had been raped 20 plus times a day for pennies on the dollar.  I wish I hadn’t spent so much time living in the jungle, where I see what intentional conscious living could look like and the work that is involved in truly unleashing my potential for greatness. 
I was working so very hard.  My life was a continuous stream of airports, hotels, buses,  computer screens, and conferences.  It wasn’t possible for me to separate the suffering of those we met from my own suffering, and I was incurring more and more trauma as I moved throughout the world.  I heard myself selling my work and using it as a tool to build my ego.  I became ashamed.  Abroad, I was a foreigner.  At home, there was no way for me to meaningfully express the experiences that I was having abroad. Those that I grew up with and that loved me seemed so far away.  Travel does that.


I was in an identity crisis.  I was watching all of my greatest dreams manifest before me, much earlier than I had expected.  I was trusted with large sums of money to make a big difference.  I was traveling to exotic locations and serving as a leader for other women.  I was becoming the world changer that I had dreamed of being since I was a little girl.  But there was an emptiness.  Still.


In an effort to re-assert my freedom and commitment to the path, I moved back to Costa Rica. Our little jungle town is full of exotic wildlife, incredible beaches, and warm soothing Caribbean waters.  We have a wellness community here unlike anything I have ever experienced in the world.  Every moment is an invitation for awareness.  We keep each other accountable in how we spend our time, the economies that we participate in, how we make our money, and how we treat our bodies.  It is incredible, heaven.  But I was still feeling lost.


I had set my life up in a way that my external surroundings matched exactly what I wanted.  I live in paradise.  I make my money as a full time yoga teacher and conscious entrepreneur.  I travel here and there as I please.  I don’t have an alarm clock.  I live in a place of extreme beauty and have incredible friends that support me.  I have an incredibly supportive and loving husband who cares for me deeply.  I had the courage to follow my heart and create the life of my dreams.  And still empty. 

The Spiritual Path


I believe that there is a state of expansion and working towards the light where you become consumed by the dark.  Your shadow surfaces, and as you shine more light into your soul, you have no choice but to love yourself in your shame.  It is not easy work.  I am in the process of confronting my own shadow, of finding my own unshakable home and connection to God within myself, and this is where I am in my teachings to my students.  I can only offer what I have experienced myself, and I offer my programs as an opportunity to begin these deeper inquiries into the source of our suffering.


In 2015, it became clear to me that my work was to dive directly into my own healing, rather than unsuccessfully working to heal myself through changing others. I know that international service will always be a part of my work, but it needs to manifest from a place of wholeness within my own heart. Reaching outward to fill an inner gap is not the path, and my career shifted. I began a Yoga Teacher Training and Self Empowerment Course here in Costa Rica that allows me to support other women in working towards wholeness. We work together as a community to heal our own hearts, so that we can become clearer about our own life’s work. This clarity brings a significant transition in our lifestyle, and after we fumble through this transition - we are in an empowered state of living. We can offer to the world from a place of divine inspiration, rather than a confused muddled attempt to heal ourselves through unconscious service to others. 


With deep spiritual inquiry, we begin to understand the potential of our own vital life force energy.  Are we using this energy to promote our deepest purpose?  Are we fulfilling our duties in this life to the best of our ability. We begin take responsibility for our internal condition.  Beginning to ask ourselves these questions can lead to a bit of a spiritual crisis, and only those willing to evaluate their life’s journey in a profound way should begin this work.
We do deep work here.  During teacher training, many students connect at a soul level with their teachers, fellow students, and with themselves.  There is a shift that happens when people come together with a goal like spiritual transformation, and it can be difficult to integrate into your previously normal life once you return home.  It is difficult to share the experience that you had with the people you love, and this could create a challenge for you to work through. 
People often ask me if yoga is in conflict with their religion.  I think that yoga can fit harmoniously within any faith, with one catch.  If you believe that your dance with God is the only path to peace, you will be forced to surrender this, as you walk down the path of Yoga.  If you are prepared to welcome everything into your heart as a reflection of the divine, then this could be a path for you.  The most important thing that you learn as you evolve along your spiritual journey is that we are all one.  We live in an existence where we are all a manifestation of the same divinity, and it is only our human confusion and illusion of separateness that breeds pain, isolation, and suffering. 


As you turn towards the light, you will begin to integrate spiritual truths.  You will inherently be challenged by this truth, and it can be a challenge to integrate new levels of awareness into your previous way of being.  This is why it is so very important to have a Sangha, or spiritual community, and a teacher that can guide and support you as you face roadblocks.  You are not alone, and you may be doing the best thing that you will ever do for yourself.  Just be aware.  Once you turn towards the light, there is no going back!

Practice and Resilience


The more that I travel, the more that everything looks the same.  I see God consistently behind it all.  The deeper that I dive into my spiritual practice, the more that I see the common denominator in all places.  Physical beauty, cultural beauty, you name it.  It is all of the same essence.  The work is inward.  I needed to create my dream life to recognize this, yet again.  I’m certain that there is nothing else that I could possibly ask for in this material world.  God has supported me fully in providing all of my needs so that I can focus on the spiritual realm.  What a gift. 


So I sit.  I pray.  I meditate.  I try to shed the layers of my personality that separate me from others.  I practice.  I teach.  The joy washes over me, and then it leaves.  It comes again, and then I am left hungry, angry, isolated, frustrated.  And then, the light comes back.  It is my work to build this light within my own soul.  To dwell in a state of knowing, abundance, and bliss.  Adjusting the physical world is not enough.  


It is said that as women we are the crystals of the planet. We absorb all of the negativity, the pain, the isolation of the injustices. It is then our work to filter that energy through our own energetic system to restore harmony in our own lives and around the world. A daily spiritual practice is our commitment to consistent renewal. We take what we absorb throughout our lives and commit to moving it through us. We must commit to taking our external lessons as tools for inner personal transformation. The work is internal. The change is internal. The freedom is internal. 

Bliss is an inside job.