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 mujahedeen war, toward the Allahoddin Orphanage. Next to me in the car sat 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 8 and 12 were lying on their backs in shavasana, arms at their sides, 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 of 2007, photographing the opium and heroin trade, prisons, mercenaries, and massacres, among other subjects that involved terrible loss or suffering. In Molly’s yoga class, I saw compassion, and I saw hope—hope that is desperately needed in a country that is increasingly unstable and violent. 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 scope.
Most of the children in the Allahoddin Orphanage have lost a father or a mother to war or illness. The country has been in a continual state of conflict for 30 years. 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 locked up again once the money is guaranteed.
Molly Howitt is a 28-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 Support for Afghanistan 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 hopelessness darkened the prisonlike environment.
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 24 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 physical contact, 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, where other staff members noticed more positive, kind, and caring behavior in the boys 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’s the first step in teaching the children to take control of their thoughts and their happiness, Molly says. She finds that if children can give themselves enough space they can move away from painful thoughts to ones that give them strength. In a place so full of suffering, the comfort this simple routine provides is immeasurable.
Aaron Huey is a photographer whose work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic, the New Yorker, and Smithsonian; www.aaronhuey.com. Excerpted from Shambhala Sun(July 2008), the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award winner in the category of spiritual coverage; www.shambhalasun.com.