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Indian Colonel creates yoga movement in Malakal one step at a time

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Colonel Anupam Tuteja from India leading one of his last yoga sessions in Malakal.

The dark room at the Indian hospital in Malakal feels a universe apart from the usual hustle and bustle of a UN peacekeeping mission. Lit by candles, bathing in soft music and the soothing scents of mint and eucalyptus, this promises to be a treat.

Attempting not to disturb the good vibes that everyone gathered here seems to be engulfed in, this newcomer tiptoes to her mat. Bending and bowing joints and limbs into painful obedience, I fall over, more than once. The other twenty or so participants do not.

That may be because this motley lot of military, police, national staff, humanitarians and others serving or working together with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan have participated in several of the approximately 250 yoga sessions undertaken here over the last year.

 “Yoga has intangible benefits, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. There is no better place than a high-pressure environment like Malakal to help people get a form of release that enables them to cope positively with their daily situations.”

Thus speaks Doctor Yogi, whom we should probably call Colonel Anupam Tuteja, the commanding officer of the peacekeeping mission’s medical facilities in Malakal, where he oversees and coordinates the work of 64 doctors, nurses and paramedics. Yet somehow, he has found the time to initiate an ever so gentle yoga revolution.

The calm, soft-spoken colonel joined the army 27 years ago, urged by his peers at the medical colleague of the armed forces in India.

“This is my second peacekeeping mission after a stint in Lebanon, where I was a senior medical officer with the battalion,” he says. “I am glad I got a second opportunity because here I have had a chance to do something that I was not able to do in Lebanon: to interact socially with everyone through yoga.”

Anupam explains how he, when he arrived in Malakal, tried to find a way to engage with everyone and share a bit of Indian culture with his new colleagues.

“Yoga is big in India, so when I came to this mission, I asked if we could start sessions here. I’m always pleased to see how well it has picked up. It’s also encouraging to see South Sudanese people, like the former governor and our national staff, joining in,” he says.

Regional Human Rights Coordinator Christian Mikala recalls how Indian religious holidays, church services and visits to the “mandir” (temple) always end with an additional, crowd-pleasing bonanza of delectable feasts. He attributes these culinary highlights, and a lot more, to the smiling yogi.

“Anupam has leadership qualities afforded only to a few people and the mission here is a lot better for it. In him, many have found a friend, some a confidant, and others a motivator,” Mr. Mikala says. “Because of his relatable personality, he has made yoga acceptable to people who weren’t even aware how “flexible” their bodies were. Me as well!”

As the world recently celebrated the fifth International Day of Yoga, Anupam has brought together more than a hundred practitioners in Malakal for a commemorative session. Joining them for a second time, it’s my turn to giggle at some newcomers, their occasional loss of balance and confusion as they try to make sense of intriguing twists and turns.

Today’s session is also somewhat nostalgic as Anupam has reached the end of his tour of duty in South Sudan.

He speaks fondly about his time here, his highlights, his work and his contributions towards achieving the mandate of the peacekeeping mission. However, it is his reflections on the joyous camaraderie that bring out a smile and make his eyes twinkle.

“Before I came to Malakal, my wife used to say, ‘Anupam, you don’t have any friends.’ Now she says, ‘you have more friends than your sons!’ All the friends I’ve made here, that’s what I’ll miss and remember the most.”

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