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.


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. 

Goddess Rising: Natasha Casanova

Every week, we have the opportunity to connect and collaborate with incredible women from around the world as they do amazing things. This is our chance to share space with some amazing ladies from the health, wellness and personal development community as they follow their passion. This week, Natasha Casanova took the time to tell us about what inspires her in her business, Kathmandu Yogi, and talk to us about their upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

Natasha: I have been a yogi for over 10 years. My first teacher, and introduction to eastern philosophy, was studying under Lois Steinberg, Phd, an advanced Iyengar Yoga Instructor with over 35 years of practice under BKS Iyengar. I met Lois while completing my undergraduate degree at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in Communications in 2002. I then met and became a student of Lama Ole Nydahl, an accomplished Tibetan buddhist master who has founded over 700 lay Buddhist centers all around the globe over the last 40 years at the behest of the great H.H. 16th Gyalwa Karmapa.

In August of 2014, I founded Kathmandu Yogi, a purveyor of ethically made, limited edition meditation and yoga accessories handcrafted by artisans in Nepal. Prior to establishing Kathmandu Yogi, I worked as a marketing and communications professional in the nonprofit, arts, public relations and retail management sectors.

Website | Facebook | Instagram

Passion Yoga School: How do you use your work as a spiritual tool?

Natasha Casanova: I don’t see spirituality and work as separate things. My work is my spirituality. In fact, I think that everything we do can be spiritual. For me spirituality is realizing our own inherent potential, and I try to always keep this in mind with everything I do. The word “work” often carries a negative connotation. “Don’t work too hard.” "Take a vacation from work. " "You work too much.” We’ve all heard these statements from time to time. But work can be joyful. Work can bring benefit to both you and others if it is conscious and meaningful. I try to remember this as best I can and use meditation and daily life as my practice to do that.

PYS: The cracks are how the light gets in. Tell us how your core wounds have inspired your work.

Natasha: We all have dark stories and moments. But, I try not to focus on these and focus on the present moment, and do my best to learn from challenging experiences and not repeat the same mistakes and patterns. Of course it’s not easy to break old habits. I reflect on my behavior critically, but also try to practice compassion and patience with myself. We all have the potential to be happy and see glimpses from time to time. I look for the potential in people and situations, and view challenges as opportunities to learn and be creative

PYS: What is your worst habit and what are you doing to improve it?

Natasha: I am sensitive. Too sensitive at times, unnecessarily taking things personally. But, I’m working on it! I frequently hear my teacher’s voice saying “People behave the way they feel." I’m working on developing more patience and compassion with and for others.

PYS: What advice would you offer to other goddesses working to actualize their potential?

Natasha: Be fearless. Try to be here now and notice the potential in every new day and moment. Get to know yourself, and view yourself and others with curiosity instead of judgment. Look for qualities in others. It helps you recognize them in yourself. Take some time to reflect and be quite. Get to know your gut and then listen to it. We all know our own truth. We just have to be aware enough to notice it, and then have the confidence to trust it.

PYS: What does your daily spiritual practice look like?

Natasha: Meditation (specifically Tibetan Buddhist Meditation) is part of my daily spiritual practice. However, a spiritual practice extends beyond the formal practice and one’s time on the cushion. Spirituality can be practiced every moment. It’s possible to live life with awareness and intention. And that doesn’t mean we police ourselves at every moment. It means we become an observer. And just pay attention, without judgment. When we're not caught in a wave of emotion, we can think clearly and behave meaningfully. The goal of my spiritual practice (both on and off the cushion) is to maintain this awareness at all times. 

PYS: What secrets (past or present) have kept you from living in your truth?

Natasha: At the present, I feel that nothing is keeping me from living my truth. If I would have been asked that question even a year ago my answer may have been different. It’s taken me decades to get to know myself and my truth, and it wasn’t really until after the most dramatic and difficult moments in my life that I discovered and trusted it. We can really trust that the sun comes out after the storm. No matter how big and dramatic the storm, if we can weather it and keep our integrity we will come out victorious, stronger and more stable than ever and can serve as an inspiration for others.

As a teenager I was embarrassed of so many things and never wanted to stand out. I was first generation American, the child of Cuban parents who worked very hard to rebuild their lives after coming to U.S. with nothing. I didn’t appreciate it growing up. All I wanted was to assimilate. To be just like my classmates, many of which came from very affluent communities. I didn’t like my name, I wished my parents didn’t have accents and I wished we had a nice home and cars like they did. Now I feel ashamed that I felt like that in the first place and couldn’t see how amazing my family was.

I find that women in particular have the tendency to feel ashamed, and naturally hide it from others. Men have been some of my best teachers when it comes to owning your mistakes or shortcomings. They can be unapologetic and treat mistakes with humor. We women tend to be overly apologetic without need. Everyone makes mistakes. We can also laugh it off, as our male counterparts do.

PYS: Who inspires you?

Natasha: I fall in love all the time. There are so many inspiring godesses out there inspiring others while living their truths. My latest professional crush is Cari Rogers from Tribe Healing in Chicago. She and her business partner, Ellen, started Tribe as a response to the need for a wellness community space, a place where wellness professionals could converge, collaborate and share experience and networks, and be engaged in continuous learning. These inspiring ladies basically started a wellness incubator, an innovative and very beneficial concept, creatively and resourcefully applying a concept from the tech world to the very low tech world of wellness.

PYS: Tell us about your upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

Natasha: Kathmandu Yogi was bootstrapped and this is the first time we are publicly asking for funding. On May 1, we will launch a Kicktstarter campaign with the goal of raising $15,000 to jumpstart sustainable employment opportunities for over 100 Nepali women. We presently work with one fair trade collective and if our goal is met, we will be able to establish three new partnerships. If we meet our stretch goal of $25,000 we will be able to provide sustainable work for these women to support themselves and their families for the entire summer. And anything beyond that we will be steps closer to starting our own training institute and workshop, where women will learn business and language skills and have the support they need to start their own enterprises.

Behind The Asana: Episode 22 - Seva

Understanding yoga as “union” calls us to serve others, in selfless service - seva. When we begin to use our energy efficiently, we can begin to give back to others. On a small scale, seva can be done just in our daily lives - serving our friends, family, community selflessly - but it can also be done on a larger scale. Within the yoga community, it has been amazing to see how the social activism, but it is also important to remain conscious, and serve the community and projects through grassroots movements, so that we can avoid ahimsa.

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