Home #Hwoodtimes Feeding the Unhoused Through Yoga: Saku’s Journey

Feeding the Unhoused Through Yoga: Saku’s Journey

By Ali Mushtaq

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/9/21 – Saku is an acclaimed performance artist, musician, and belly dancer based in the Los Angeles area. In addition to her performance repertoire, she is also a known yogini, a master of yoga and tantra. We asked her about her recent involvement with Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit that focuses on feeding unhoused populations throughout LA.

Currently, working with the organization, she puts on one-hour yoga classes that are donation-based and funds go toward supplies to feed unhoused communities. This is our conversation.

What got you into performance? What types of performances do you do?  Also, mention your MFA.

I’ve been performing music and dance since I was a little kid. When I was small, I studied piano and ballet, and then drums and electric bass in high school. Later on, I went to the California Institute of the Arts for my BFA in Multi-focus Percussion Performance, and I learned a variety of percussion and drums thanks to their amazing World Music department (orchestral, South Asian, African, Latin, drumset).  At Calarts, I got into Balinese dance, which then inspired interest in me to study Bharata Natyam classical dance of South India. Then I went on to get my MM Commercial Music:  Composition from CSULA. Later on, I got into Bellydance and eventually fusion dance between Bharata Natyam and Bellydance. I haven’t played drums since the pandemic hit, but I was playing drums in various projects before… mostly Afro-beat, reggae, funk, and jazz.  My music projects that I produced myself are under the name Saltation Ignite.

What got you into yoga? How long have you been teaching yoga?

I came from a very dysfunctional family and had a variety of trauma as a kid. I stumbled into a yoga class when I was at Calarts and instantly found it soothing and wanted more of it. Later on, when I was a school teacher, I started taking classes and eventually got into a daily morning practice before I went to work that helped me take on the day. I found it to be perfect cross-training for dance as well.  Most people come into yoga for a workout (the asanas practice). As you get deeper into it, you start learning about the other limbs and aspects of yoga that help you become a better person. For example, the Yamas (1st limb of yoga) state that we must be non-violent and compassionate toward other beings, live in your truth, don’t steal from others, channel your energy in productive proper ways (not be a slave to your sexual urges), and not be greedy and hoard resources. I find that the Yamas have helped me to wake up to what is going on in the world and find my part in it to help others.  I am vegan to be compassionate to other animals. I recognize that Black Lives Matter and cannot deny the TRUTH that they are being murdered and abused by the police at a disproportionate rate. I try to channel my energy towards projects like Food Not Bombs as well as my music and dance, and when I see that there are CEOs out there collecting billions while their own full-time employees are living in poverty, I recognize that things must be improved so that all of us can live a better life. The Niyamas (2nd limb of yoga) state that one must practice cleanliness, practice being contentment, discipline oneself to achieve goals even when not feeling like it, self-reflect and continue spiritually develop yourself, and surrender to a higher power, remembering that we’re all a part of a bigger picture. How can one not become a better person from the 2nd limb alone?  There is so much healing magic in yoga.  I have been teaching yoga for 11 years.

Why did you decide to put on yoga classes during the pandemic?

I was quarantined alone and feeling very lonely, depressed, and in a real funk. I was eating junk food and watching Netflix.  NASA let me go indefinitely, but then brought me back to resume my yoga classes on Zoom, which picked me up a little and I was able to have my income back. Finally, I decided it was time to really dig myself out somehow. I imagined there must be other lonely people also in a funk, and I now had this Zoom account and still had my job, so why not use it to help others who must be in the same funk I’m in? I put it out there that I’m in a funk, I need to jump-start my yoga practice, and if anybody wants to join me, they are welcome to join me on Zoom for some free yoga.  No worries about money, just join me, and let’s try to feel better together and cultivate some good vibes while we’re in this pandemic. How did you get into Food Not Bombs? How long have you been working with homeless communities? 

I was with Food Not Bombs very briefly in OC over 20 years ago with my punk rocker friends. I have always wanted to feed houseless communities for a while and had been invited to various organizations over the years, but I was never on board with supporting the cruel factory farming system to feed people.  I did not want to feed unhealthy bologna sandwiches or meat-based instant ramen noodles that caused animals suffering to make them. When my friend Sunny started this DTLA chapter of Food Not Bombs in December of 2019, I jumped on right away, as now this was the opportunity to be able to feed people sustainable healthy vegan cruelty-free food regularly with friends, which I have always been passionate about. We feed vegetables, fruits, vegan protein, carbs, and water in all of our lunches.

When we went into quarantine in March, our chapter of Food Not Bombs was barely a couple of months old. We had been feeding roughly 50 meals, every other week. I started wondering who was feeding the houseless. I contacted the other two organizers at the time. One lived with old people, and the other one was black. Covid was hitting black and native people the hardest, and I wanted them to be safe.  South Asian Covid mortality rates were very low. I even heard about very old Indian people getting Covid and all surviving. So those two stayed in quarantine at the time, and I decided to try to restart our chapter. I decided I would not go to the hospital to add to the burden there and would do my best to tough it out at home. I am already a vegan yogini and consider myself strong, so I figured that I might have the best chances of bouncing back if I ever did get it.  I told myself I would eat as clean as possible and maintain my fitness the best I could, so if I got Covid, I would tough it out at home. I reached out and found other volunteers who also did not live with old people, I sewed masks for us (they weren’t available in shops yet), made our own hand sanitizer at home (it was impossible to find shopping at the time), and we restarted our Food Not Bombs chapter’s food service.

From there, I figured that maybe some of my yoga students could help, as some were still working. I put the word out that my classes are FREE and accessible to anybody with a phone or laptop for everybody to keep our immune systems and spirits up during this pandemic, but if anybody was able to swing it, donations would go towards our now weekly visits to Skid Row to feed the houseless. People jumped on and I got support to get all the food and supplies paid for.  As things reopened, I slightly switched my format from free to “donation-based”, but I still never turn away people from a lack of funds. All are welcome, and I love my diverse classes of different ages, genders, body types, colors, orientations, cultures, financial situations, etc..  we’re in there practicing happiness and health together. I know that there are plenty of expensive yoga classes in other parts of LA that are not accessible to people with less money in different communities. Yoga should be an accessible healing modality for everybody, not only rich people. I have always been passionate about getting yoga to people who are suffering and really need it. Poverty is a big reason for depression alone, and I have always believed that yoga needs to be accessible for all, rather than a luxury only for people who can afford it.

Before the pandemic, most of the yoga teachers’ salaries went towards paying studio rental fees. But now donations, that students can decide on for themselves individually, go toward helping to feed others instead, and nobody has to sit in traffic to get to yoga anymore. Many yoga studios take a huge cut of the teacher’s salary as well, and most big gyms only give instructors anywhere between $12-20 a class, while making them spend their own money to drive all over town teaching classes. But now with this format, yoga is accessible to all who need it, people with funds to spare help to feed the houseless with their donations, and no yoga teacher is exploited by a big corporation. Some real magic has come from this unfortunate pandemic.

I did not expect this to grow as much as it did…  people were bored at home in the pandemic, and they wanted to help. After our first lunch service, we decided to boost it from 50 meals every other week to 100 meals EVERY week. It warms my heart to learn that so many people care about feeding the houseless today and that now they can do this while attending my classes. I feel that this has turned into a very beautiful thing.

We are now all practicing Karma Yoga together, the path of action through service to others.

Tell us about your first experience feeding the homeless.

During my first visit to India, the poverty I saw slammed me hard. Little kids, carrying other severely disabled kids on their backs with makeshift backpacks, begging for food, people getting into fights over bread, the number of people, and the desperation. It was so different from Sri Lanka. I’d never seen that before in my life. My brother and I got into a routine, that every time we got into a restaurant or any opportunity where food was around, we stuffed our pockets and my purse with as much bread as possible, and when we would leave and the people rushed us as we went to the car, we would put bread in every hand, including all the hands in the car window before we would leave. Skid Row is very different from New Delhi, but at the end of the day, we should all be taking care of each other and nobody should be houseless and hungry. I am still blown away from my visit to Cuba a few years ago. That was the only place in the world I’d ever been to that had no rich and poor people, no class differences, no poverty, no houseless people, and basically no crime. A woman can walk down the street in her hoochiest outfit at any time of the night and enjoy her night in peace.

Is there anything else you want our readers to know?

I’ve unfortunately come across too many people who believe that yoga is a luxury only for rich fit white people, and this is not true. We must remember that yoga comes from India and that it is for everybody, not only skinny, fit, rich, and/or white people, like many magazines and ads would lead one to believe. Yoga is currently going through a movement of being decolonized, and I’m hoping to see more representation of different body types, genders, cultures, ages, etc represented. Asanas are only one out of the eight limbs of yoga. There is so much more. Yoga practice is work but is also soothing magic for people suffering from depression and anxiety, and I can’t recommend it enough. The asanas ease the depression, and the pranayama (breath work, another limb of yoga) relieves the anxiety. Happiness and having a peaceful mind are not destinations for one day in the future, they are a PRACTICE, and it takes time to develop these skills. You can have all the success and riches in the world and still suffer from depression and anxiety. But yoga makes you practice maintaining happiness and peace. Anybody from the richest person in the world, to the poorest person in New Delhi, can practice peace of mind and happiness. Material things and people will come and go in this lifetime, but your practice in improving your mental health and “happiness muscles” will drastically determine your quality of life, no matter what material things or people you have in your life. One more thing we must maintain for a quality of life is our spines, and we work them as well in my yoga classes.

How can our readers attend your classes?

You can see my website at www.sakudevi.com.

Please message me on Instagram:  @sakudevi

Here is her contact information for other inquiries:

FB:  @sakuntaladance , @dtlafoodnotbombs , and @saltationignite

IG:  @sakudevi and @foodnotbombsdtla