Finding Om: A Children's Book That Represents South Asian Experiences

Recently, Yoga International had the opportunity to speak with Yoga Medicine® teacher, public health physician, and first-time children’s author Rashmi S. Bismark about her book Finding Om, due out in May 2020 and currently available for pre-order. Rashmi’s career in medicine and public health has shaped her deep appreciation for the interwoven relationship between mindful, caring awareness and holistic health. In her own words, “Developing a wholesome relationship with ourselves and others sits at the heart of well-being.” It is this connection she brings to life in her poignant new book for children ages three and up.

Finding Om depicts the story of Anu, an American girl of Indian and African ancestry, and the special relationship she has with her Appuppa (maternal grandfather). Through their bond, she learns about the mantra om, which not only connects her to herself and the world around her, but is also a part of her heritage. Through Anu, the reader is invited into an accessible illustration of how meditation works, from which any child could start their own practice (or at least feel inspired to).

Though Finding Om is meant for all children, one of Rashmi’s overarching intentions for this book was for children of color to feel seen and heard and know that yoga “belongs to them too.” In addition to this, she says, Finding Om gives kids of all backgrounds a glimpse into how some children with South Asian heritage may be exploring their practice at home, “within the setting of their family’s own culture and belief systems.” 

In our interview below, she shares more about what you can expect from this book, including how she hopes it will be of benefit.

Can you tell us about Anu, the protagonist of Finding Om, and the special relationship she has with her grandfather, Appuppa? I am especially curious about what their relationship reveals about how mantra is traditionally passed down in families.

Anu is based on my oldest daughter, Ananya. The story follows her exploration of the mantra om with my father, her Appuppa. Appuppa means “maternal grandfather” in the South Indian language of Malayalam, from Kerala.

Much like many grandfathers, my dad was adored and his wisdom was cherished—whether he was trying to explain the chemistry of water, how to hit the best serve in tennis, or sharing a story from our great epics. For my girls, he was not only a beloved grandpa. He was also this wonderful, wise connection to a part of their heritage. They loved learning from him about time-honored traditions from India.

I can’t speak for all South Asian families, but my mother shares that elders in her family were the ones who passed down stories and traditions when she was growing up too. Often parents might be busy with work and other household duties, and so the older generations step in. It creates this natural time for intergenerational bonding while allowing for the unfolding of precious wisdom.

Did you have that experience growing up as a child of immigrants in America? 

No, I didn’t have my grandparents nearby. There was a heavier weight upon my parents to help me build a relationship with our culture. My father was that bridge when it came to learning about our spiritual traditions. Even when I was given other mantras later on by other teachers, my dad was very instrumental in helping me uncover their meanings and applications. Now that he has passed, my memories with him continue to inspire the ways I keep exploring and honoring these practices.

What’s your hope for the child who picks up this book? Especially for the children who see themselves in Anu, a girl of Indian and African descent?

More than anything, my hope is that this book might help a child to simply get a little curious about themselves and the ways in which they experience life. I hope they will consider opening into the wonder of what might happen as they dare to explore their own inner universe just for the fun of it.

Perhaps they might remember connections to a sense of natural belonging within their innately wise presence. Maybe they’ll let themselves linger there in that caring awareness, allowing insight to arise, and possibly even feel inspired to embody the magnificence they already are.

I hope Finding Om reminds children of color and diverse backgrounds that all of the mainstream mindfulness and yoga practices they might be learning at school belong to them too.

When creating this book, as much as I wanted to illustrate the universal messages of yoga and mindfulness philosophies, it was also very important for me to create something of cultural relevance for kids growing up in the South Asian diaspora that all children could celebrate. The South Asian diaspora itself is so diverse. There are families across the globe integrating elements of South Asian culture and dharmic traditions in their own meaningful ways. I hope Finding Om reminds children of color and diverse backgrounds that all of the mainstream mindfulness and yoga practices they might be learning at school belong to them too.

I think as adults we tend to overcomplicate meditation practices and make them overly goal-oriented, whereas in this book we’re pulled into a spirit of innocent discovery. Is your intention to reach adults, too, to help them see this practice through the eyes of a child perhaps?

Absolutely. I wrote this book for me as much as I wrote it for my kids. Children have been and continue to be my greatest teachers. I am always amazed by what they share when given the safe space to get curious and express themselves.

When my daughters talk about meditation, they don’t get caught up in their interpretations. They are less concerned about following a particular method or “doing it right.” The process is so clear and simple, and an interconnected sense of love always seems to sit at the center. For them, connecting in this way to their natural peace and aliveness is less about solving a problem or self-improvement. It is all about getting a little curious, listening with awareness, and resting into the felt sense of their underlying “awesomeness,” as they put it.

That’s not to say these practices aren’t also ways to heal and manage our daily stresses. As they’ve gotten older, my kids have been able to notice when they’ve drifted from that alignment within themselves. We know as adults that drifting is a natural experience for all of us at any age. 

One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “It's okay not to know all the answers. … It's an interesting feeling isn't it, this feeling of not knowing?" This seems particularly relevant now as many of the social crises we face, interpersonally and environmentally, hinge on a fear of the unknown. Can you speak to this?

My family loves this page in the book too. Life is always in transition, and there is a lot we don’t even know that we don’t know. How do we stay with it all—with what we think we do know and all of the uncertainty—while continuing to move forward? 

Maybe the best reflection comes from Ananya herself. She shares, “I love this part of the book because it’s a relief to remember I don’t have to know it all, and that I probably will never actually know it all, because there is just so much to know. It might be annoying at first, but I can ask for help from others. I know I can learn new things when I’m more calm. And maybe it’s okay and a little fun to have some stuff be mysteries we haven’t figured out yet. It leaves more things to dream about.”

It certainly is a relief in many ways to remember we don’t always have to know all the answers. It makes room for a little curiosity, caring, and playfulness to arise, tapping right into that quality of “beginner’s mind” Zen teachers speak so eloquently about that kids are really natural at.

The book is also beautiful. Were you involved in the illustration process at all? 

Thank you so much. The illustrations in Finding Om are by Morgan Huff, a wonderful children’s book illustrator.

I outlined much of what I wanted the illustrations to express, particularly since the book features my mixed family. From Anu’s kinky curls to paintings on the walls to my father’s love for Kathakali—a traditional dance form from Kerala—I wanted the art, color scheme, textures, and little extras to portray cultural elements in ways that felt authentic. Thankfully, Morgan was so open to all of it. There is so much in this book that captures the meld of America, India, and Zimbabwe that is our family.

I feel so fortunate to have published with a smaller publishing house where I could be my own art director of sorts and have a lot of say in the process. [Finding Om will be published by Mango & Marigold Press, which was founded in 2003 to close the diversity gap in children’s literature by representing South Asian experiences.]

Is there anything else you'd like to share about the book?

While my clinical career is focused on helping adults remember strengths of innate awareness through mindfulness-based interventions, I hope to use Finding Om as a medium to remind children of their naturally wise, loving, and powerful presence.

Pre-order the book here.

Photography: Mango and Marigold Press

Related Topics

About the teacher

Kathryn is an associate editor, yoga teacher, and writer at Yoga International. She views yoga as a healing... Read more

Related