In the spring of last year I drove through Kabul, Afghanistan, past rows of mortar-scarred buildings, down the Darulaman Road, a former front line in the mujahadeen war, toward the Alluhodin Orphanage. Next to me in the car was the reason for my journey: a young yoga teacher named Molly Howitt. What Molly showed me that day was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in Afghanistan. From the top tier of a bunk bed, in one of the largest and most corrupt government orphanages in Kabul, I saw a scene through the viewfinder of my camera unlike any other in that war-torn country.
Below me was a floor covered with bodies. Not dead, or dying, or starving, but perfectly at peace, calm, and present. A dozen young boys between the ages of eight and twelve were lying on their backs, arms at their sides, with palms facing upward. Some were smiling; others just lay still, their minds turned inward. Before that day, through that same viewfinder, I had seen a very different set of images.
I lived in Kabul for five months, photographing the opium and heroin trade, AIDS, prisons, mercenaries, the aftermath of a massacre of civilians by U.S. Marines, a Taliban ambush with a high number of fatalities (which nearly included myself), and several other subjects that involved terrible loss or suffering. In Molly’s yoga class I saw something different. I saw healing, I saw compassion, and I saw hope—hope that is desperately needed in a country that is increasingly unstable and violent.
Today, Afghanistan is falling back into chaos. Over the past few years the Taliban have reclaimed much of the south and east of the country, and their suicide bombings are increasing in both frequency and size. The country, which has been in a continual state of conflict for twenty-nine years, is still very much at war. And as is always the case in war, women and children bear the greatest burden.
Most of the children in the Alluhodin Orphanage have lost a father or mother to war or illness. When children enter an orphanage in Afghanistan, they find themselves in a world that is cold and violent, neglectful and punishing—a world in which they are used as props to lure in foreign donations, then literally locked up again once the money is guaranteed.
Enter Molly Howitt.
Molly is a thirty-year-old American who moved to Kabul two years ago from New Mexico. During her first weeks in the city, she was taken to the orphanage by the director of Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Services for Afghanistan (PARSA) and offered a chance to teach yoga to the children there as part of the orphanage’s vulnerable children’s program. She was shocked by the conditions: the rooms reeked of unwashed, neglected bodies, and in the winter broken windows let in the bitter cold. The most basic necessities, beyond food and a bunk, were not met. There was very little human touch, Molly says, and frustration and hopelessness darkened the prison-like environment. She was given a chance to work with the boys but saw only glimpses of the girls, who seemed to be confined to their dormitory rooms.
Molly began practicing yoga twice a week with two groups of boys, using traditional techniques in playful, simple, and interactive ways. They practiced in their dormitories, where twenty-four bare bunk beds lined the walls of each identical room. The boys took immediately to yoga with bright, energetic smiles. They were always on time and jumping with enthusiasm before class. At first they seemed to be responding to the activity, the fun, and the human touch and physical contact that Molly brought to the program, but little by little Molly noticed changes in their ability to focus. At the end of each yoga class the children were calm, centered, and content, and the changes migrated out of class into their daily life, where other staff noticed more positive, kind, and caring behavior in the students throughout the day. Slowly, Molly says, they came to understand even the more subtle aspects of yoga: controlled movements, breathing, resting, and stillness.
When Molly debriefs the children at the end of each class, she usually asks them what kind of special place they went to during shavasana. Often they describe "flying" to their homes, seeing mothers or fathers or grandparents who had died. Sometimes they go to the zoo, or to a park that may or may not really exist. It is, says Molly, the first step in teaching children to take control of their happiness and their thoughts. She finds that if they can give themselves enough space they can move away from painful thoughts to ones that give them energy and strength. In a place so full of suffering, the comfort this simple routine provides is immeasurable.
Today, the remnants of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist history are almost all gone, but the yoga of compassion can still be found in the shadows of this war-torn country. It survives in a way more powerful than the physical beauty of the grand facades destroyed at Bamiyan, and more valuable than any Buddhist statue destroyed in the Kabul museum. Compassion is alive and well in a cold, crowded, forgotten orphanage in Kabul. It is alive in the hearts and minds of a dozen children who lay still with eyes closed, palms outstretched, and smiles creeping across their faces.
(More from this photo essay HERE