Usually Friday mornings will find me buried under a pile of quilts, mouth wide open and with no intentions of leaving bed until past noon. I take my Friday sleep-ins very seriously. But not today. I was up by 6.30am and bright-eyed and ready to set out of the house by 7.15. The reason behind this unusual burst of energy was the SmartMeditation workshop that I was volunteering for.
SmartLife is an incredible Dubai-based organization that designs creative projects to support blue-collar workers in many different ways. Dubai is home to thousands of Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and various other nationalities that leave home with big dreams and small pockets in search of a better future – for themselves and their families. Many sell off their lands (their only asset) to make this move or trade their homes with agents in exchange for visas and have harrowing stories of deception and betrayal to tell. While here, they reside in labor camps and work under challenging conditions, especially during the 50 degree summers and earn about a 1000 Dhs a month. Most of this is sent back as remittances to families who depend on this meager income to run their homes.
Their programmes are all about giving these individuals, which it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say, have built this city of gleaming skyscrapers and shiny malls, a break. They also provide them with tools and skills that are life changing and enrich them mentally, physically and emotionally.
One such project is the SmartMeditation workshop. Every few weeks, a group of blue-collar workers will be invited and facilitators will teach them basic yoga and meditation. I was volunteering today at the Chicago Men’s Labor Camp to help out with a group of 11 ladies who work as cleaners in schools around Dubai.
I had never been to a labor camp before and so was a very curious observer. My fellow volunteer, Dina, meets me at the dusty street corner and walks me to the camp. We are greeted at the entrance by a security guard who leads us up the stairs to the room where the workshop is going to take place. I am told that they had to get special permission to hold a female’s workshop at a men’s labour camp – there are very strict rules regarding this.
The camp is bustling with activity, I see the men busy in their chores – for them Friday isn’t a day for snoozing – it’s the only time when they can catch up on laundry, cook meals, clean up their spaces and most important of all; chat with families back home.
Dina and me set up the room, which has bright sunlight streaming in and looks like it is originally a computer lab. We roll out the colorful yoga mats and arrange the refreshments. Dina makes sure the air conditioning is working and then we are ready to receive the ladies. While we wait, another volunteer tells us stories of some of these women, stories of leaving young children behind with aunts, uncles, grandparents. Stories of domestic abuse and triumphant tales of ensuring their sons and daughters made it to college, through a mothers’ hard-earned income of 950 Dhs per month. I couldn’t imagine the choices that these women had to make and the pressures that they lived under – every day.
Mid-conversation we are informed the ladies are here. Soon the door opens and they stream in, beaming their holiday smiles and wearing their fitness outfits. Everyone takes their place on the mats and those who can’t sit on the floor, ease themselves into chairs. I learn that they are a mix of Indian, Sri Lankan and Ugandan – but all understand English, which makes everything run smoothly.
The workshop facilitators start the workshop with general chitchat to make everybody feel comfortable. Once the ladies are settled, she explains the purpose of these workshops. “Breathing, is everything” she tilts her head and explains wisely – giving the example of a kite’s string which must be taut and stable in order to soar – similarly our minds must be calm and steady to see clearly, and breathing is key to this.
Dina and me try to follow the exercises as best as we can but I am more captivated by the expressions. Most of them have never been exposed to yoga or meditation before and it is fascinating to see how completely absorbed they are in the exercises and explanations. One of them also shows incredible flexibility, twisting herself like pretzel, and I think to myself, “That’s a future yogini right there.”
The workshops follow a fixed module, teaching the basics of yoga – steps that can be applied by the ladies even in their own rooms, or breathing exercises that can be done from the comfort of their beds. The goal, according to SmartLife, is “To focus on giving a healthy well being tool, bringing, peace, calmness and internal happiness through regular practice. Its a stress buster, practiced every day, which will deviate their mind from indulging in alcohol, smoking or quarrelling with friends.”
I see this “internal happiness” just by the end of the 2 hours. Towards the completion of the workshop, the facilitators introduce laughter therapy. For first-timers it can be a bizarre experience to witness, but is a common and popular yoga exercise in India. The facilitators lead them into deliberate laughter, at first forced, but because of how hilarious the situation is, it soon turns into genuine, spontaneous and uncontrollable giggles. Within minutes, everyone has collapsed onto the floor, one lady rolling around and it is pretty much uproar after that. Since we are running out of time, the facilitators tries unsuccessfully to bring in some composure but clearly, we’re just having too much of a good time. Finally, 10 minutes later, everyone sits up and manages to keep a straight face, and the workshop ends with more breathing and meditation.
I give out refreshments to the women who are grinning and looking tremendously happy. I ask them about their experience, and they tell me that they haven’t laughed this hard in ages. They also say that they feel like all their stresses have evaporated and they’re ready to face the world again. We stream back into the corridors, down the stairs and out of the camp, in a single file and lead the ladies to their bus, everyone exchanging phone numbers and chatting excitedly. As I watch them grinning and waving at me from the bus, I’m amazed at what a little bit of exercise and well-being practice can do!
The ripples of volunteering at the workshop continue into my own life as I’ve started to incorporate some of the practices learnt on Friday into my own daily routine – and I’m just as awed once again by their simplicity but powerful effectiveness every time.
SmartLife organizes these workshops a few times each month and it’s extremely rewarding to volunteer and witness the happiness that the workers get from them. They also have many other programmes, each one carefully designed to touch every aspect of the workers’ lives, enriching and empowering them in sustainable ways. Find out more about SmartLife’s inspiring work at www.smartlifefoundation.org.