Using Yoga Principles to Inspire Action Against Sex Trafficking

Posted on November 28, 2012, by Louisa Mardirossian, Half the Sky Movement

In early October, 26-year-old California native Emilee Benner received a call from her sister in Colorado, urging her to watch a new documentary that had just premiered on PBS — Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Over the next two nights Emilee watched the film, and on the third night, she changed the course of her life.

“My sister and I lived in India together when I was 19 to train to become yoga teachers, so it’s special place to us… After I watched the movie, [which includes a segment on forced prostitution in India,] I called her and we talked about it, and decided that we had the same feelings,” Emilee said. “She found the Global Seva Challenge through Off the Mat Into the World, and we immediately signed up.”

Emilee in her day job as a doula and infant massage instructor.

The Global Seva Challenge is raising money this year for six organizations that assist survivors of sex trafficking in India, including Apne Aap (Delhi), Kolkata Sanved (Kolkata), and Clean Himalaya (Rishikesh), but the ultimate goal is to raise awareness about the industry as a global issue.

The challenge has been sponsored by Off the Mat Into the World (OTM) since 2007. OTM teaches its participants to take their yoga “off the mat,” and bring its principles and power “into the world” to inspire activism and conscious social change. The challenge focuses on a different issue and location each year, raising awareness and funds to combat worldwide problems and support local communities. In the past, the Seva Challenge has raised more than $2 million to support projects in Cambodia, Uganda, South Africa and Haiti.

Emilee explained the connection between yoga and activism, saying, “When you practice yoga, you’re training your body, getting healthy and clearing your mind. I can tap into my compassion and sense of service so much more easily from a clear-hearted space that comes from a yoga community.”

As a community ambassador, Emilee’s objective (as well as her sister's) is to raise $20,000 by the end of December that will go to the partner nonprofits. If she reaches her goal, she will get to join the founders of these organizations in India to engage in leadership training programs, so that she may better educate and engage her local communities.

While Emilee has only recently joined the campaign, others have been actively raising money since the beginning of the year. The yogi explained that she has cleared her schedule almost entirely, and has made this her primary focus. Recently, she recorded herself explaining what sex trafficking is and asking viewers to donate in support of her cause. She sent the video to 1,200 of her Facebook friends, and requested that they watch it and circulate it among their networks. So far, she has reached almost a quarter of her goal.

New to the charity world, Emilee is figuring out her plan as she goes. Throughout the next month, she hopes to host screenings and fundraising events, as well as travel to Los Angeles in an effort to reach out to various businesses.

“I've been helping women and children since I was a teenager, primarily through the birth world as a doula and infant massage instructor, but I had never been given any real education or thought about global women’s oppression — the Half the Sky movie did just that,” Emilee said. The most profound message that she took away from the film was simple: “The oppression of women can stop and so it must.”

Click here to donate to Emilee Benner’s campaign, or watch her video on YouTube.

To learn more about the Global Seva Challenge 2012, visit the Off the Mat Into the World website, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

For updates on Emilee's journey and fundraising process, visit her blog.