Displaced younglings in Malakal learn meditation and yoga to cope with everyday distress
It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday morning in sunny Malakal. It’s mostly quiet as the inhabitants of the UN peacekeeping mission’s field office are enjoying a well-deserved rest.
At the Indian field hospital, however, the atmosphere is altogether different. It’s already teeming with activity as mobile patients jostle for breakfast and the first of two yoga classes with youth from the protection site is about to begin.
You read that correctly: the training room of the hospital has been converted into a makeshift yoga studio, lined with mindfulness-inducing mats and white bed sheets designed to put you softly into the Zone. Fortunately, space is plentiful enough to accommodate the 25 enthusiastic younglings awaiting their slice of near-Nirvana.
Already serenely seated, Lieutenant Colonel Srinivas Gokulnath, also a doctor and keen on the odd bicycle jaunt, silently beckons the chattering young boys to recollect their shattered limbs and assume their positions. One by one, the disciples trickle in till the room is full. A feather landing on the floor would have broken what feels like a magic spell.
Cross-legged with their palms facing the stained ceiling, the boys are ready for their fifteen-minute routine meditation.
“When we first started in July, I could not get them to stop giggling and chattering. Every move was followed by peals of laughter,” the yogi master explains, while he seemingly levitates ever so subtly.
A lot has changed since. On this day, not even the aforementioned imaginary falling feather, nor the invasive clicking of my camera up close and personal, cause more than a lightly batted eyelid.
Only their relaxed lips flutter slightly, as they incessantly recite a Hindi mantra, with their minds travelling to phantasmagorical galaxies far away from their earthly destitution, hardships and traumas.
These teens can do with a mental trip, as most of them have witnessed, first-hand, some of the atrocities that have taken place during the prolonged civil war in South Sudan.
“By teaching them yoga and meditation, they learn how to control their minds and their thoughts. Once they can do that, they can also control everything else,” says the bloviating guru, who at this point may possibly have summoned that particular fly, approaching from the near distance, to the top of his head, where it sits in what to a sharp but amateur eye looks like a perfectly poised Lotus position.
An admiring comment is quickly confined to my mind, where it hopefully won’t misalign any element of the universe.
An hour later the young boys are done, dusted and drinking tea, and the girls are shuffling in. They are more bashful than their male peers as they remove their traditional dresses covering the more practical pants underneath.
“Although the class was open to all youth from the beginning, only boys were signing up,” says Lieutenant Colonel Gokulnath. “We decided to form a separate girls-only group, and also provided them with workout outfits to make them feel more comfortable.”
The teenage girls soon get into the swing of things, flawlessly maneuvering complex yoga moves with feline flexibility.
The nimble agility of Catherina Kat Chan Choul belies the fact that she is here for just her third session. Still in a post-heavenly state, she is positively beaming.
“I enjoy yoga because it makes my body strong, but also because it gives me a sense of happiness,” she smiles.
So does yogi Gokulnath, as he imagines what is soon to come. In a few weeks’ time, the tables shall turn, with the current students scheduled to guide even more girls and boys to the ethereal highs of eastern practices for healthy bodies and souls.When that day arrives, nobody will be surprised if the good doctor himself takes a back seat, quite possibly planting his lycra-clad bottom firmly on his beloved bicycle saddle.