yoga with Deborah Charnes of The Namaste Counsel

Yogi Bhajan: Yoga for a Meditative, Neutral, Intuitive Mind

The meditative mind is the neutral mind that runs your destiny. There are three ways to conduct your destiny. Through the law of karma-action and reaction you can tune into the magnetic field of the Earth and just float with it as a freeloader, or your life can be run by that magnetic, attractive creative, meditative Neutral Mind. That way you do very well. —Yogi Bhajan

paschim namaskarasana reverse prayerGurucharan Singh Khalsa, PhD, rubs elbows with geniuses like Yakir Aharonov. He’s a psychotherapist, and professor at MIT, with a penchant for quantum physics. At the core of all his passions are the teachings of Yogi Bhajan.  He collaborated with the Kundalini spiritual guru on many a publication, thus becoming one of the leading teachers of this form of yoga. So much so that Gurucharan Singh Khalsa was international director of training for Kundalini Yoga for 40 years.  He recently led weekend workshops at Yoga Yoga in Austin. His primary topic was how yoga can build your intuitive senses, something I was taught by one of my first spiritual leaders many years ago.

Your system of intuition is the source of your happiness. It is the source of your victory. It is the source that can make you invincible. —Yogi Bhajan

“Most instincts are pretty useful,” he says. Think running away from a bear, or, dropping a hot plate. The third chakra, is the foundation of instinct, he explains, and it often shows up with somatic feelings of the body.  For example, recall the way you felt the first time you laid eyes on your partner. Conversely, think back to when you spot someone who just doesn’t seem to jive with you.

kapalabhati ego eradicator breath of fire, as taught by Yogi Bhajan“We want to have strong instincts,” he adds. And one of the staples of Kundalini Yoga, breath of fire, is helpful in that area. Interestingly enough, that technique of breathwork, kapalabhati, was part of my twice daily routine where I studied with the swami who suggested intuitive powers are built through a sincere, steady practice. While I’m not running on intuitive overdrive, I recognize that my gut feelings have strengthened significantly since I became a devoted yoga practitioner.  

“Breath of fire is very useful in aligning with instincts,” says Dr. Singh Khalsa.  But, he pointedly differentiates between instincts and intuition. “If you have instinct, intelligence and intuition, you can reduce your errors.”  

Wise choices bring about a balance in life, he explains. Yoga, of course, is all about bringing balance to the body, mind and spirit. Furthermore, yogis traditionally adhere to an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle, and minimize use of prescription drugs. Dr. Singh Khalsa asserts that consuming any kind of drug will alter one’s instincts. As such, drugs can pollute your ability to hone your instincts. In the Ayurvedic world, we talk about leading a pure sattvic life, avoiding what are rajassic or tamassic. Mood alterers, alcohol is very tamassic, whereas caffeine is rajassic. Think uppers and downers. Both bring about problems.  Driving while intoxicated is a perfect example that Dr. Singh Khalsa uses to paint the picture of how substances can alter your mind. In some instances, causing fatalities.

When you are in the state of the neutral mind, the soul is like a chandelier switched on over you. Communication of the soul is just that light; you are lit up by it. —Yogi Bhajan 

dhyana mudra tibetan meditation mudraKundalini, as taught by Yogi Bhajan, represents a capacity for awareness.  Just as the snake represents your kundalini rising, a snake sheds its skin to grow. You’re shedding skin, expanding. Making the infinite more intimate. Bringing about a birth of consciousness at the heart center, he says. However, if you’re purely instinctual, you may shut everything out…and be lonely. Beliefs have their own immune system. A lot of people never believe anything. Additionally, he says “bias is often from self-dialogue.”

Possibly, that’s why one of my favorite yoga practices is chanting, especially group chanting, or sankirtan, which to me is so powerful. In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, mantras are just as much a part of the yoga experience as is breath or body work,. While my yogic foundations are not from Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini lineage, chanting was integral to my yogic formation.   I incorporate chanting, or mantras, in my personal practice at least once, daily. When needed, I’ve called upon mantra meditation for hours at a time. 

Man without intuitive mind is a car without brakes. An intuitive mind cannot be achieved without a meditative mind.The meditative mind is a process to the intuitive mind. —Yogi Bhajan

Finally, Dr. Singh Khalsa notes that nothing is perfect. “We all face decisions, and each has an impact.” Even a “wise decision” can get you in trouble, as it did for Nelson Mandela. Not that the “trouble” didn’t have a positive outcome, in the end. But you have to have self-forgiveness. And above all, patience.

 

spiritual practices of Bhakti and kirtan

Bhakti and Self-Love Spiritual Practices

The topic of spiritual practices is by guest author, Pranada Comtois. Her book, Wise-Love: Bhakti and the Search for the Soul of Consciousness is newly published.

The Magic of Bhakti’s Self Love Spiritual Practices

Wise Love: Bhakti and Self-LoveWe are driven for love and by love. We must feel loved to feel whole. But do you feel lovable or loved? Sometimes? All the time? Almost never?

You may have a life companion, family, and friends and not feel loved or worthy of love. Or you may be a loner without significant relationships but feel lovable and loved.

Loving relationships can go a long way in confirming our worth, countering negative self talk, and making us feel lovable. But they aren’t what make us feel lovable. If we don’t love ourselves – truly, deeply, fully, and with clarity – we won’t feel loved.

Even if we surround ourselves with a community of loving people we may still feel unworthy of love. After all, those who purportedly love us can make us feel unloved or unlovable. Their style of relating to us, as well as their own needs and shortcomings, combined with our misperceptions and misconceptions can create untenable situations.

Neither can our inner lack of love be resolved by affirmations, creative visualizations, mindfulness, or meditation. We can look ourselves in the mirror in the morning and repeat, “I love you. You’re worthy of love” and still feel unlovable. That’s because we often miss the distinction between mundane love of the false self and divine love of the genuine self.

Only in realizing my real self can I experience real love because I’m not the body, mind, or emotions — or the illusory identities associated with this temporary frame I inhabit. Love of the body-mind won’t make me feel whole and satisfied. I require love for myself as a spiritual being.

And how can I love our self unless I know my self?

Spiritual Practices Can Uncover Our True Self

spiritual practices of Bhakti and Self Love

But, not all practices simultaneous endow us with self love. This is the promise of bhakti’s divine love, or wise-love.

As a spark of spirit, a unit of consciousness, we are a most beloved subject of love. We must be loved to be whole, and we are givers-lovers. Feeling unlovable or unloved is only an imagined state of mind without truth in reality. When we wake to our eternal self we awaken to our enduring nature as lovers who are supremely lovable.

The ancient Bhagavata, the sequel to the Bhagavad Gita, says, “Sometimes we suffer because we see a tiger in a dream or a snake in a vision, but actually there is neither a tiger nor a snake. Thus we create some situation in a subtle form and suffer the consequences. These sufferings cannot be mitigated unless we are awakened from our dream.” (Bhag. 4.29.35)

Credible and Daily Spiritual Practices Break the Deep Dream  That Grips Us

Spiritual practices of Bhakti and Self Love: Radha and KrishnaWhen we awaken and see the self, we naturally see the Source from where we are generated, just as when I see a spark of fire, I will also see the fire-source. As a spark of our Divine Other, our nature reflects his. As he is a lover, we are lovers. As he is lovable, we are lovable. We don’t need the confirmation of the world, or current relationships, to validate the existential truth of our lovability; we experience it when we awaken to the self.

And more, just as our Divine Other cannot be moved by conditional love, the love of this world cannot fill us. We must have the most exalted, pure love, or wise-love: the unconditional love the self knows for itself and its Source.

We easily progress in the art of self awakening by bhakti’s simple method of hearing about and chanting about our Divine Friend. In kirtan or japa (solitary chanting with prayer beads), we can chant the sacred great mantra, the maha-mantra Hare Krishna.

Kirtan is the beginning of an amazing journey to the self and wise-love. By associating with our Infallible Lover, our infallible lovability is reflected to us and our love fully reciprocated. The magic of bhakti reveals the lover and her lovability, the Beloved, and their mutual wise-love. Even the beginning experiences of this relationship can alleviate, forever, our feelings of being unloved or unlovable.

About the Guest Author

Pranada Comtois is a devoted pilgrim and teacher. Her writing sheds light on bhakti’s wisdom school of heartfulness. She shares her love for spiritual practices with a focus on how to culture wise-love in our lives and relationships. She hopes others can experience the inherent, unbounded joy of the self. The wisdom of her teaching and spiritual practices grows from living 20 years as a contemplative in bhakti ashrams.

For more on Bhakti, click on the Kirtan and Bhakti button at The Namaste Counsel archives

the purpose of yoga: awareness

The Purpose of Yoga

the purpose of yogaAs a yoga instructor and yoga therapist, I often hear excuses for people not wanting to try yoga. One of the most common, is “I’m not flexible enough.” Of course, to me, that’s just a self-imposed barrier. People with a wide array of physical impediments can practice yoga. And, just last week, one of my students was 96-years-old. No. He didn’t have the flexibility of a 26-year-old. But that’s not the purpose of yoga. 

I like to think of yoga as generating increased balance, flexibility and strength. But, not just the physical aspects of those characteristics. The purpose of yoga is to unite, or create a balance between one’s mind, body and spirit. Additionally, when our attitudes are inflexible, we tend to have more negative physical outcomes. Finally, in addition to having strong muscles, don’t we all want a stronger mind and spirit? One of my teachers, long ago, said that with continued dedication to yoga, one should have a much higher degree of intuition. Listen to the gut (or heart) rather than being over-analytical. 

Periodically, I ask my students to share what got them into their first yoga class, or, what they like most about yoga. There are always so many different responses which I relish hearing. For some, the purpose of yoga may be a specific physical concern. For example, high blood pressure, stress relief, back problems or chronic pain.

Following are testimonials from two of my students that attest to the physical improvements achieved with yoga. 

The purpose of yoga, first the physical

the purpose of yoga:beyond the physical“I stumbled into yoga. Within three to four months, my chronic hip pain improved, and I feel great. I love it.”

“It was eye opening how out of shape I was. Now, I can’t imagine life without it.”

Those are the common threads in our society. In an age where it is normal to be overstressed, many of us are looking for the fountain of youth. Others may want to fit into skinny jeans. Possibly the lion’s share enter yoga to ease some sort of physical discomfort. Although they may take their first dip with yoga for the physical benefits, the non-physical purpose of yoga shines through after a while. 

Many of us older yogis recognize that the deepest benefits of yoga have nothing to do with mastering a challenging pose.

Several of my students beautiful express the purpose of yoga, for themselves.

The purpose of yoga, next, the mind and soul

the purpose of yoga: awareness“I was going through hard times. I needed to slow down my thoughts. Yoga is so freeing and life changing.”

“The breathing was hard for me when I first started. The more I try, the more I find I use in in my other life challenges.”

“As the mother of four, for 17 years, I always put others first. After my first yoga class, I was hooked.” 

“As an artist, I do yoga because it’s visually very beautiful.”

Those last four statements reflect how one’s spirit —and life— is touched through yoga. To sum it up, the purpose of yoga is to reach and heal the inner self. Interestingly enough, while yoga can be a way to nurture oneself, and an act of self-care, it is also an act of freeing oneself of the ego.

Saul David Raye is a yogi that teaches all over the world. I’ve been fortunate to have attended a few intensives with him. He says, “The whole practice of yoga is to move away from the ego.” 

The purpose of yoga, to set aside the ego

the purpose of yoga: selflessness Yet, he asserts, if he put a sign on the door saying, “ego-releasing class,” chances are the room would be empty.

Raye adds, “We’re good at practice. What we do we become.” However, the examples he gives are not about quieting the mind, but worrying and eating. 

“We play ego games. ‘Oh she’s evil. He’s a jerk.’ The ego wants to take credit for everything.”

“What we do, we become,” says Raye. “We spend most of our waking time at work, so we become — or identify ourselves — as an accountant, or a landscaper, or an engineer.  Rather than looking into our hearts to say, I’m a lover of the color blue, or respectful of all living beings.” 

“Overriding the practice of our life has to be the heart,” says Raye. “It can’t be ego. We’re all trying to get rid of this ‘I’ that’s choking us.”

How to put the ego in its place

  • Beyond the Kundalini “ego eradicator” exercise, there are many ways to keep your ego at bay.
  • Whether you meditate, or just sink in a quieting pose for several minutes a day can help.
  • Surround yourself with positive minded people (sangha).
  • Find teachers who can help you to expand your consciousness.
  • Try chanting or japa (mala beads) meditation. Incorporate breath work in your routine.
  • Focus on breath work first thing in the morning to clear your mind and invigorate you.
  • Likewise, in the evening, avoid what Raye calls the “cable neurotic network” (CNN). Turn off all lights and electronic devices. Just focus on your breath to calm and settle you before you go to sleep. And, hey, counting sheep isn’t too bad, either.
  • Finally, remember the sutras. Read another yogi’s Sutras Simplified here
Seva_YogaforSight

Seva Unites Yogis Worldwide for the Gift of Sight

Yoga is a very introspective practice. As such, in my personal practice, I tend to keep my eyes closed. In my group classes, when indoors, I lower the lights.  However, imagine going through life in total darkness. As a young child, I remember visiting a relative. He was completely sightless. He lived alone. Within his studio apartment, he could fend for himself. But, I always wondered how he managed beyond his front door. He had no guide dog. No close family or friends. That lasting impression is why I’m endorsing Seva Foundation’s Fifth Annual Yoga for Sight

Yoga for Sight Unites Yogis Worldwide

Seva_YogaforSightMy childhood memories of one blind man’s challenges remain. They have, in part, spurred me to do my own seva (self-less service) for the Berkeley-based Seva Foundation.  The fundraising promotion takes place in April. Around the world, yoga studios and instructors will encourage students to reflect upon the sense of sight. As such, I will be mentioning this worthy charity during my group classes. Additionally, when you book two private sessions* with me, I will donate the full amount of the second class to Seva.

“We tend to take for granted the things that are always there for us, and sight is one of those things,” said Andy Sharkey, Donor Engagement at Seva. “Through yoga we can open up to seeing people’s struggles and understanding them.”

Seva_YogaforSightYoga guides you to connect your body and your mind. It should also teach you to be more respectful and considerate of others. My yoga foundations teach that seva, or karma yoga, is just as important as our breathwork or sun salutations. I try to practice seva in many ways.

For many years, I’ve recognized Seva’s contributions. Since 1978, Seva has worked with local communities to help people live healthier more productive, happy lives. Vision is a precious gift that Seva has given to across the globe.  In fact, Seva, very cost-effectively, has provided critical eye care to 4 million in underserved communities. 

“Nowhere do I know of another group of people who have come so far in their efforts to deliver high quantity, low cost, conscious and compassionate service to their fellow beings,” said Ram Dass, Seva co-founder and honorary lifetime board member.  

Seva_YogaforSightFor example, Seva’s programs have reduced the cost of cataract surgery to just $50, making eye care available to the global poor. Additionally, Seva services include training, technology and techniques for local doctors and community outreach personnel to provide services regardless of one’s ability to pay.

This past year, alone, Seva provided vital eye care services to 1.3 million people in 21 countries. Nearly 70,000 had their eyesight restored, more than 118,000 received medical treatments, and 106,00 received eye glasses.

I invite you to participate in Yoga for Sight with me. Or donate directly. Here are more reasons why your dollar will go so far with Seva.

Seva’s Vision: a World Free of Blindness

  • 36 million people in the world are blind. That number is projected to triple by 2050. Given access to appropriate eye care, 75 percent of them could see again. 
  • Globally, 19 million children are visually impaired or blind. Lack of vision often blocks them from an adequate education and prevents them from escaping poverty. 
  • More than half of sight-impaired people are women and girls. Seva seeks to provide outreach and education, community screenings, transportation, and affordable care to women and girls.
  • Restoring sight is one of the most effective ways to relieve suffering and reduce poverty.
  • The World Bank ranked a 15-minute cataract surgery as one of the most cost-effective health interventions for low and middle income countries.
  • Most eye care treatments change lives right away. 
  • Medication for eye infections prevents decades of blindness and suffering. 
  • Moreover, high-quality eye care creates an immediate and lasting impact.
  • Seva’s long-time partner in India, the Aravind Eye Care System, exemplifies how cost recovery can be turned into financial self-sufficiency. That model is being used around the globe.

seva foundationThere are multiple ways you can contribute.

1) Register for a Yoga for Sight charitable session*, before April 15, with The Namaste Counsel.

2) Find a studio conducting special events for Seva.

3) Donate directly.

Embrace Spirituality with Radhanath Swami in India

Embrace Spirituality: Journey to Divine India

Embrace Spirituality in India with Deborah Charnes of The Namaste Counsel and Radhanath Swamiby Deborah Charnes

I’ve always been enthralled with India. In 2011, I spent a month there. That wasn’t enough. In the last few years, I wrote about many tours to India, all with people I know and respect. There wasn’t a one that didn’t pull at my soul. So, how can you choose between so many wonderful options to embrace spirituality?   Now I’m ready to open my heart to embrace spirituality through Embrace the Grace: Sacred Journey to Divine India

If you want to embrace spirituality, join me on a very intimate tour.  January 19-31, 2019. I’ll be both a participant, and the resident yoga teacher.  

Here’s why I chose to embrace spirituality on this Sacred Journey to Divine India. 

Embrace Local Culture and Hospitality

Embrace Spirituality with Shivani and Shivangi in IndiaFirst, Embrace the Grace allows participants to experience the depths of India. See the real India. Through your eyes. But also through the lens of your heart and soul.

Large chain hotels and oversized tour buses turn me off. One of my fondest experiences in India was what should have been a short road trip. It was 14 hours. My tuk tuk driver spoke no English. But I understood him.  When he offered me a chai, that meant we were stranded.  I showed little grace when I  got to my “resort” after wading through mud with my suitcase. Yet, the next morning I recognized the journey was unforgettable. 

Furthermore, Embrace the Grace is led by two women that I have known for several years. They are positive, vibrant, spirited twins that want to share their love for the culture and spirituality of their homeland. As part of the tour, participants visit the twins’ parents in their Delhi home.

Embrace Spirituality with Shivani and Shivangi in India

“Spending time with family is one of the most important elements in the trip because it gives people the warmth of being genuinely loved and personally cared,” says Shivani one of the twins.

“100 percent of people/friends we talk to or meet are struggling/looking for some personal attention, happiness and solace…when our friends have stayed or spent time with our parents, they experienced the true joy, love, gratitude, experiencing the need of making immense sacrifices for a higher principle. It is very eye opening for them to feel the need of selflessly caring for someone without any expectations or rewards. People in the west are more into Give and Take; Use and Throw, what is in there for Me? But when they experience someone opening their doors to welcoming them with genuine feelings, their hearts are transformed.” 

Embrace Spirituality–Regardless of Your Religious Affiliation 

India is a highly spiritual land — for people of all faiths. Embrace the Grace takes you to a majestic Baha’i temple and the mosque complex of Qutar Minar. Among sacred Hindu sites are, Vrindavan/Mathura and the Yamuna River. 

“We will explore yoga’s timeless philosophy which can be applied to all religions and belief systems, bringing us all to a place of unity within diversity,” explains Shivani.

Embrace Spirituality with Radhanath Swami in IndiaOne of the magnets for me is four days at the International Bhakti Yoga Retreat. Bhakti is the branch of yoga I can’t live without. I travel every year to Bhakti festivals. In 2019, I’ll go a bit further. What better place for Bhakti than an award winning eco retreat center in India inspired by Radhanath Swami.   

Radhanath Swami is a native Chicagoan, like me. I’ve written a number of articles based on his workshops.  His extraordinary autobiography, “The Journey Home,” about his becoming a Swami in India, reads like an Indiana  Jones story. Not surprisingly, it was made into a feature film

One of last year’s attendees called the twins’ tour a once-in-a-lifetime trip. She was “humbled to experience Radhanath Swami’s daily classes for hours, followed by dancing in bliss in kirtans. The amount of spiritual growth that came from this trip was unparalleled.” 

Embrace Seva or Karma Yoga

Food For Life Vrindavan

Moreover, Karma Yoga is essential for me. It was engrained in me many years ago. Karma Yoga, or seva, is selfless service. Giving, expecting nothing in return. However, I still get so much in return. In fact, for the last eight years, I’ve practiced karma yoga in Mexico and Central America. That’s one of the things that turns me on about this trip.

Embrace the Grace includes three seva opportunities. One is at a school. Another, a hospital. The third is a free meal program. All are non-profits I whole-heartedly support.  

Sandipani Muni School in Vrindavan provides free education, books, supplies and uniforms for underprivileged girls. Educating the families and communities on the merit of education versus child marriage is also part of the school’s role, since only one in 100 girls in rural India completes school.   

For 25 years, Food For Life Vrindavan  has focused on providing free meals, education and skill training and medical help to thousands of young girls.  School children are fed clean, nutritious meals, free of charge, and there are also programs to serve needy families, widows and the blind. 

The third entity for service will be the Bhaktivedanta hospital in Mumbai. Its aim is to provide high quality holistic medical and spiritual health care to people, regardless of their financial situation. Among the free services offered, Bhaktivedanta conducts health care screening of more than 12,000 children annually. A mobile eye camp served 45,564 patients and performed 4,650 cataract surgeries in one year, alone. In rural communities, 200 hospital health camps screened 50,000 people and treated 10,000.

Embrace Spirituality via Colorful Customs

Embrace The Grace features a beautiful celebration at which hundreds gather to pluck petals from 2,300 pounds of flowers. 

Radhanath Swami explains that people from around the world are “sitting around the same little baskets of flowers, plucking petals, irrespective of what status, caste, sex or economic bracket we came from. Despite our incredibly amazing differences we are one in our love for God, in our compassion for each other, and in our appreciation for each other.”

In the evening the petals are showered upon temple deities as the crowds sing devotional music (kirtan). Then, for the finale, guests deluge each other with the flower petals. 

Embrace Transformation

Taj Mahal on the agenda to embrace spirituality on Sacred Journey to Divine India

“This is going to be very intimate and transformative,” says Shivani. While there may be hundreds at the festival and the retreat, this spiritual tour will be for a very small group. 

The twins will share their knowledge and passion, non-stop. Plus, morning sessions of breathwork, meditation and hatha yoga can be tailored for the participants needs and preferences. 

“We will have fun, long-lasting relationships/friendships and simultaneously explore the true wealth and potential that lies within all of us. This journey is meant to expose us to a newer dimension of reality beyond the myriad of roles that we play in our day-to-day lives. This journey will provide us with a strong foundational rhythm that connects us beyond the mind, the materialism, and the distractions.”

Embrace a Superb ROI

yoga with Deborah Charnes of The Namaste CounselFinally, this all inclusive trip costs what some pay for airfare, alone. It’s so affordable because it’s built upon seva. You get airfare, meals, accommodations, ground and regional air transportation, two full-time guides, plenty of workshops, and hatha and Bhakti yoga for about $1,500.

Plus, there’s plenty of time to save up your money. This incredible journey designed to awaken you to embrace spirituality isn’t until January of 2019, but spaces are almost full.  

Weigh the benefits of a ski trip in the mountains, museum hopping or sunning on the beach, versus a spiritual tour.  This is a no brainer.  Embrace spirituality. Transform your heart, and your life. The value is immeasurable.

In closing, Shivani says, “You will dive deep into the culture and lifestyle of the path of yoga that guides us towards God through love, devotion, prayers and meditation.”

Local Food movement at http://argusfarmstop.com

NON-VIOLENCE: LOCAL FOOD. FARM TO TABLE 

Honoring Ahimsa (Non-Violence) and Mindful Eating

Today, most Americans are disconnected from what may be one of the most natural parts of life: planting and harvesting. Local food. People tend to surf the internet, or stroll through unending lines of shelves in a big box store, to find their favorite food products. All this has a detrimental impact on our health, and the environment. We are committing himsa (violence), most often mindlessly. Yogis are taught to be mindful, and ahimsa (non-violence) is our first commandment. 

Before the advent of all the jet, TV or Internet, people were closer to nature. The connection between harvest and sustenance was clear. One ate what was available on their own, or  surrounding, lands. As Gandhi urged, progress starts with one’s self. “Be the change.”  When it comes to mindful eating, we must honor and respect what we consume. Likewise, we should refrain from needless slaying and torture of animals, and destroying of our environment, all of which are examples of himsa

I recently spent a few days in Ann Arbor, in part, to learn about its vegan-friendly, mindful farm to table movement. Michigan is a major agricultural state. In fact, it is the second most diverse state for farming, after California. Plus, there is a resurgence in getting back to the farm to table basics. Real food. Slow food. Local food. Non-violence. 

Local Food

 A Michigan non-profit is encouraging local food for many reasons.

Local Food movement at http://argusfarmstop.com—First, more than a million acres of U.S. farmland is lost each year due to residential and commercial development.

—Second, a typical American meal travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to your table, or car seat.

—Third, conventional food distribution uses at least four times more fuel than local and regional systems.

— Fourth, each dollar spent at independent local businesses returns three times more money to your community.

—Plus, if every Michigan household spent $10 per week on local food, $1.6 billion would be added to the state’s economy.

Ann Arbor Farm to Table Restaurants

Local Food at Argus Farm StopIn Ann Arbor, and neighboring Ypsilanti, there are a number of farm to table establishments. 

Brandon Johns opened Grange Kitchen and Bar in 2009. “We are essentially a true local restaurant. We spend 90 cents on the dollar on local food. In the dead of winter we fall down to about 70 percent. There’s a ton of greenhouses here that extend our seasons. It’s amazing what Michigan produces because of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. It’s not just cars.”

Travis Schuster is head chef at Ollie of Ypsilanti.  He believes in putting money back into the community by supporting local farmers. 

“My main goal with Ollie is to make locally and sustainably sourced food accessible to the entire community. I think that people respond positively to our sourcing practices because they want to feel that they are making a responsible decision when they chose to dine at Ollie. I hope that they are choosing to dine with us because they realize that we are taking their dollars and putting them right back into our community: whether it’s our staff who all live within walking distance of the restaurant, the farmers in our community, or the producers and artisans that are helping to shape and fortify sustainable Michigan foodways.”

Furthermore, Travis knows the farmers. He says the younger farmers tend to be well educated and idealistic. “There’s kind of a disconnect with the previous generation. The young farmers have longer-term goals. Not just the money.”

Local Food at Argus Farm Stop

Lisa McDonald is the owner of a bakery and TeaHaus. She agrees with Travis’ statement about the new breed of farmers. She has hired several farmers in their off season.  One, had a degree in philosophy.  

Lisa not only hires local farmers, but she buys from them. She recognizes the many hurdles small farm owners encounter. “It’s very expensive for small farmers to get the certified organic label. And, just because it’s stamped organic doesn’t mean they are. I’d rather know the small farmer. You know their practices, and what they’re selling.”

As Lisa mentions the hurdles local farmers have to go through, Brandon says it’s nearly impossible for small businesses to get national marks of approval. Case in point, USDA requires producers to have a dedicated bathroom for the USDA inspectors. While bureaucracy is working against these small businesses, the University of Michigan, is on the local food band wagon. The UM Campus Farm was established in 2012. The initiative is part of a plan to source food locally, or sustainably, by 2025. In addition to providing food for campus dining, the UM farm sells its produce at Argus Farm Stop, year-round. 

Ann Arbor Farm to Table Supporters and Suppliers

Local Food at Argus Farm StopArgus is a business enterprise that was established to support local farmers, 12 months a year. Kathy Sample opened Argus*, a unique direct-to-consumer farmers’ market, inside an abandoned gas station. She’s well aware of the challenges small farmers have today, and recognizes that most can’t make sufficient profits at the markets. Her business was launched to boost the local economy and give local farmers a practical way to survive and thrive.

More than 75 local farmers drop off their fresh crops. Kathy and her crew manage everything so that the farmers can get back to their lands. The farmers set their own prices, and the store only takes a 20 percent share. Since Argus is in business to help the farmers, a comfortable coffee house inside the Farm Stop is what keeps Argus afloat. And, twice weekly, the local food bank picks up food that hasn’t sold, so that it can be consumed by needy families.

Argus Farm Stop for Local Food in Ann Arbor“We started (in 2014) because we saw 93 percent of our local farms were gone. We thought what if we started a real grocery store…and nice coffee bar,” Kathy recalls. “We hope to impact the agricultural community…The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 57. Most are telling their kids to get a job at GM. There’s a lot of reasons why we need to help farmers find a better way.”

As her fellow farm to table mindful restaurateurs noted, USDA doesn’t support small farmers. “Most slaughterhouses are gross and inaccessible for small farms. The big houses wrote the rules…same for eggs. We need to see a resurgence of small processing plants that do it humanely. If you’re going to eat meat you should care about how it got onto your plate.”

Everything is geared to industrialized farming, she says. American farm land just isn’t making enough profits. “The only way a young person can get land is if their parents give them money. Or getting people to loan you land.” And yet, there’s a continuing interest by the younger generation of idealists in the heartland. 

Mindful Sourcing Beyond Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti

Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are great examples of the slow, local food movement in Washtenaw County. There are 14 farmers’ markets, although most are not year round. Additionally, there are 18 farms that allow public access to pick and take home produce like blueberries, apples and pumpkins. Considering the county population is under 359,000, that’s a pretty good score card. 

Local Food at Argus Farm Stop

Most of us are aware of Flint, Michigan. Though not for their local food initiative. In addition to your traditional farmers’ markets, Flint has a mobile unit to take produce to underserved neighborhoods. Of course, like any local food campaign, it’s a win-win situation. Producers get more income to continue their hard work, and consumers get better quality fresh food at fair prices without the middle man taking all the profits. 

Surprisingly, Detroit has become a world leader in urban agriculture.  Wayne County, of which Detroit is a part, has 29 farmers’ markets, 1,400 community gardens and urban farms in the area. In fact, the Eastern market is one of the oldest in the U.S. and has helped to buoy the growth of others in Wayne County. In some respects, Detroit is just going back to its pre-automotive roots.  

For example, one co-op  began six years ago. Seven participating Detroit farmers refrain from using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and their soil is free of contaminants. In 2016, the co-op supplied more than 10,000 pounds of produce to local families. 

In the meantime, the Michigan Farmers Market Association, now represents 140 farmers markets and 220 farmers. Residents can pay with SNAP and WIC. 

Finally, as Kathy says about the local food movement, “A rising tide floats all boats. It’s got to happen.”

*All images on this page were taken at Argus Farm Stop.

Plant-Based Eating: Then and Now

When Pizza Was King

Plant-based diets, then (salad) and now (everything)By the time I got to college, I was already a committed vegetarian. However, I knew nothing about nutritious plant-based eating, nor how to forage for wholesome meatless options on campus.

In my entire dorm, there were just a handful of us vegetarian or kosher dairy folks. Fortunately, my dorm had peanut butter, Grapenuts and salads. Then, there was Garcia’s. They delivered whole wheat crusted pizza, even at odd hours. Frances Moore Lappe, one of the leading pro-vegetarian authors of the day, said cheese and wheat were good combinations. Done deal.

That was basically it. Choices were bare. But, I stuck it out. 

That was the 80s. When I moved to San Antonio in 1998, there wasn’t a single vegetarian restaurant in town. Now, we have terrific vegetarian, vegan and veg gluten-free dining spots. A sign of the times. People want healthy — and tasty — food options. Plus, consumers recognize it’s not only better for your body, but for the planet.

Times They Are A Changing

My alma mater was Champaign/Urbana, Illinois, three hours south of Chicago. Recently, I was invited to an eating spree in another Big Ten towns.  Plant-based students the universities and community colleges in that area have it pretty good. Same for their parents, teachers or anyone in the area that just wants a good meat-less meal.

There are 300 food businesses in a fairly small geographic area near the University of Michigan. Plenty have options for the plant-based or plant-preferred community.  In fact, Huffington Post placed this college town on the country’s top ten vegetarian cities. And, Animal Equality voted Ann Arbor among the Top 10 Vegan-Friendly Small Cities. 

All Vegetarian

Deborah Charnes at Seva in Ann ArborSeva was the lone bird back in the day that I was a student at UI. The all-veg diner opened more than 40 years ago. They cater to everyone, not just the PETA plant-based peeps. 

My cousin, David, Goldberg has lived in the Ann Arbor area for what seems like forever. He knows Seva well.  He says the food is far from dull. “Seva stands out because they amaze with great flavors and textures, and presentation.  While I’m not vegetarian or vegan, I feel no sense of loss there.”

Consider starting off with a parsnip chowder which was featured in Vegetarian Times. Taste the tempura-battered cauliflower or gluten-free bruschetta topped with a vegan basil cashew pesto. For entrees, how can you beat pumpkin manicotti? Some diners say Seva’s Pad Thai is among the best, with our without the eggs. Top off your meal by choosing from vegan gluten-free ice cream in three flavors: volcano salt vanilla, coffee and maple bourbon.

Earthen Jar is another favorite of David’s. When he picks up a carry-out order, he can’t resist noshing on the way home. Earthen Jar is all vegetarian (and kosher) Indian food with banana pudding that David says is a real winner. While Earthen Jar was the first kosher place in town, Vedge Cafe is a new kosher vegetarian small shop. Owned by a vegetarian registered dietitian, she makes seitan salami, turkey and corned beef plant-based alternatives. Sandwiches include a vegan Reuben, caramelized onion with cremini mushroom and tomato-mayo. Plus, Vedge offers a vegan gluten-free soup that changes every day, and several hearty salad options. 

The Vegan Trifecta

Detroit Street Filling Station plant-based platterThe Lunchroom, The Lunch Room Bakery & Cafe and Detroit Street Filling Station  evolved after two community organizers opened a food truck. 

They offer comfort foods like cinnamon buns, pepperoni pizza and chili cheese tater tots. In addition to trying to build a better planet though plant-based foods, they are avid supporters of the Youth Justice Program.  Beyond monetary contributions the vegan restauranteurs make, many of their employees have been assisted by the non-profit which seeks to ensure human dignity and full participation in the community of people who had been incarcerated as youth. And, this is one of the few dining establishments where employees get health care benefits, including paid time off if they’re sick. Most other restaurants subtly encourage sick staff to come to work so they don’t lose out on a day’s pay. Of course that just doesn’t make sense in the food industry.

The owners see the shift to plant-based eating moving quickly. Joel Panozzo says, “We’re at least broadening peoples consciousness of what vegan food is. Nowhere on our menu does it say vegan. We’re just trying to provide the option so people can make more meal choices. I think more restaurants we will cater even more to these communities as they become larger.”

Go East

vegan mediterranean foodAll studies confirm Americans go overboard with meat on their plates.

On average, consumption of protein in the U.S. is double that of people in other countries. Which is why I’ve always preferred Middle Eastern or Asian cuisines.

Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti residents or visitors can get plenty of vegetarian or vegan foods at ethnic eateries. There’s Jerusalem Cafe, Moroccan Casablanca, Eyse’s Turkish home-style cooking or the previously mentioned Earthen Jar, to name a few. 

But, what I find especially encouraging is mainstream establishments that understand people don’t always want to have a cow.

Plant-based Main Platters

Ollie's head chef, Travis, serves plant-based foodsTravis Schuster is the head chef at Ollie in Ypsilanti. 

“I use animal products less as main events, and more like seasoning in my personal diet,” he said, which is how meats tend to be used in other countries. 

Schuster acknowledges the trend in healthy living. About a quarter of his guests are vegetarian or vegan, and everyone can appreciate good plant-based food that’s served up right.  

“I believe that many of our patrons are health conscious. Omnivores do frequently order vegetarian and vegan dishes.”

Ollie does a stellar job at serving tasty and healthy vegan and gluten-free dishes. A large number of the brunch dishes are vegetarian, or can be veganized. The dinner menu includes a tartine made with roasted sweet potato spread, charred broccoli and cauliflower tossed in tahini vinaigrette with fried shallots and toasted squash seeds which was out of this world. Schuster whips up a sweet potato burger with pickled beets, caramelized onion vegan aioli, cashew spread and farm greens.

“My main goal with Ollie is to make locally and sustainably sourced food accessible to the entire community. Overall, I think that people respond positively to our sourcing practices because they want to feel that they are making a responsible decision when they chose to dine at Ollie over a less environmentally/community conscious establishment. We are taking their dollars and putting them right back into our community: whether it’s our staff who all live within walking distance of the restaurant, the farmers in our community, or the producers and artisans that are helping to shape and fortify sustainable Michigan foodways.”

Go West—To California

Fred's in Ann Arbor serves up primarily plant-based organic foodsLikewise, one of the newest eateries is big on healthy dishes, that just happen to be meat-less.

Fred’s opened this year, near the UM campus. This eatery is influenced by the small health food cafes in California. In the trendier West, and at Fred’s, veggie, vegan and gluten-free options are plentiful. Furthermore, everything is organic. Colorful smoothies. Green matcha cappuccino. And super foods. Plant-based power protein bowls are made with delicacies like acai, almond butter, berries, seeds and cacao.   

To sum up the trend in healthy and more plant-based foods, Ollie’s head chef notes the rise in vegan dining options. 

“There is hope. People vote with their dollar.”

ahimsa: preserve the life of a happy cow

Preserving Ahimsa: A Road Warrior’s Guide

Ahimsa for the Warrior in You

ahimsa via a sattvic dietDuring my 15 years working for one agency, we called ourselves “road warriors.” Beginning 35 years ago, I was trained to have a bag packed and ready to go for last minute, business trips.  At airports, and in the sky, I ate popcorn or nuts. Oftentimes, I opted for nothing. I’ll never forget my first business trip to Texas. My client ordered ribs and I-can’t-recall-what-other-animal-part for a dozen guests. I found the courage to tell the wait staff to bring me a salad. Shock. Deep in the heart of cattle country came a Northerner following Ahimsa  (do no harm to anyone/thing). For me, that means no animal on any plate. 

Traveling in Southern India was uplifting for many reasons. Among them, signs everywhere indicated “pure veg” food and drink. In Israel, where milk and meat don’t mesh, it was pretty easy to find parve (neutral) vegan dishes. In smaller Mexican villages, I seek out humble street food, or freshly juiced drinks sold in plastic bags. All, made before my eyes, and to my specifications. But, in this “rich” land of whoppers and nuggets, our poor food choices too often reflect mindlessness rather than mindfulness.

Warrior 1: Acknowledge America’s Heartland Isn’t All Heart

As a vegetarian road warrior, I criss-crossed the country. Among my stops were America’s heartland.  Iowa. Kansas. North Carolina. Those were some of the places where my caloric intake was lower than normal.

Iowa is a pork industry state. The Iowa Pork Producers Association boasts, “At any one time, there are approximately 20 million pigs being raised in Iowa.” These are not your “Green Acres” Arnold Ziffel hogs that lounge in the living room. Rather, they are part of the killing industry that is propelled by Americans’ lack of mindfulness when it comes to eating. 

happy cows in Austria: ahimsaKansas has about 300 dairy “farms.” While traditionally yogis have consumed milk, butter and cheese, many are now vegan as a result of the increasingly inhumane dairies. One of my first yoga masters was from Austria. She spoke about the happy cows that nourished her in her childhood, which were a far cry from those in today’s profit-centric industries.

Meanwhile, North Carolina is the kiss of death for chickens.  About 6.5 billion pounds of these birds were packaged here last year. While Indian “pure veg” diets do not consume eggs, in the U.S., most vegetarians do. So, it’s important to understand that the egg-producing industry is no better than the broiler business.  The North Carolina Egg Association acknowledges, “We have approximately 9 million birds which lay about 7 ½ million eggs a day.” Again, nothing like the eggs that your neighbor has in the backyard.  Many claim the treatment of chickens in the U.S. is the dirtiest and cruelest of the food producing industries. 

Warrior 2:  Build Your Own Nest

baby chickWhen I first said no to meat, in the 1970s, the most common term to describe us may have been “rare bird.” There was minimal acceptance of people with special diets in my home state of Illinois. Even the airlines, back when they served food, sometimes handed me a tray with celery and carrot sticks. 

As a result, the warrior within has learned to shut out a bit of that culture clash to focus inward. That includes providing for myself.  When it comes to my extended trips out of the country, I pack quinoa, flax, protein powders, even dehydrated vegetables. Stateside, if I don’t already know where Whole Foods is, Siri can steer me. For quickie trips, I pack power or protein snacks.

To make it a bit tougher for me than my fellow vegetarian yogis, I refrain from all animal products, gluten, and high glycemic foods. And, I balance my doshas following other dietary rules, including the timing of my meals.

You can scour the terminals looking for something that fits your restrictions, and equally important, looks appetizing. From one city to the next, names change but there’s still the same unhealthy and non-veg conforming food choices. 

For my fellow rare birds that take their trail mixes on planes, here are a few of my finds in the vegan desert of airports. 

Warrior 3: Encourage Ahimsa in Your Purchases

Supply and demand. Fortunately, things are changing, and vegetarian options are becoming more common. But at airports, it’s still hard to choose healthy vegetarian options. Yes, there’s plenty of pizza, pretzels and pastries. Although those foods may be vegetarian, are they reflective of ahimsa to yourself, animals and the planet?

Make a difference, dollar by dollar. Buy plant-based healthy options, and vendors will provide more of those products. 

Global, Yet Local: Slow, Natural Foods 

dolmas at Zingerman's at Detroit airport

On a recent trip, armed with my low-glycemic power bars, one word — Zingerman’s —alerted me to a possible upcoming snack attack. Scanning the Detroit airport directory I had a hunch there was a treat for my belly and taste buds.

Zingerman’s is like the holy grail to folks in Ann Arbor. This Michigan-based “community of businesses” has a collection of top-notch culinary enterprises ranging from Zingerman’s Creamery to a Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant.

Founded as a traditional Jewish deli, 35 years ago, Zingerman’s is way past corned beef on rye or lox and bagels. All their brands seek to serve authentic global flavors, using local, slow and natural foods. 

Zingerman’s is a sit-down outpost smack dab in the center of the airport, under the names Plum Garden and Zingerman’s Coffee Company. You can mix and match items from the coffee shop, deli or store. There’s a bevy of healthy, tasty-looking food options to satisfy the pickiest of travelers. 

salads at Zingerman's at Detroit airportFor plant-preferred eaters, imagine the most scrumptious looking chocolate banana bread loaves from Zingerman’s Bakery’s to sweet chili peanuts and cinnamon almonds from Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory.  Refrigerated quick serve dishes include a Mediterranean bento bowl, dolmas, hummus with veggies, yogurt parfaits, wraps, and more. 

The deli counter serves hot scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes, organic steel cut oatmeal and a French toast casserole that looked out of this world.  There are half a dozen vegan, G-F, lower-card salads.  Brussels sprout shavings with colorful extras like cranberries and slivered almonds. Kale salad.  A Texas caviar with beans, corns, peas and quinoa. An Asian stir-fry salad chock full of tofu and broccoli.   

Latin American Food 

quinoa vs rice

Frances Moore Lappe’s 1972 best seller, “Diet for a Small Planet,” fueled an early wave of vegetarianism in the U.S. She discussed how traditional foods, as eaten today in many countries, do not rely on the large pieces of animal carcasses served at every meal. Since I read her book in college, I’ve been gung ho on rice and beans. At home, I skip the rice in favor of quinoa. On the road, I’ll give in to the rice. 

At the Mexico City airport, there are a gazillion places for your rice and beans dishes, served up in all different ways. However, with any Mexican food, you have to be sure they don’t use lard in the beans, or chips. And, sometimes the rice and/or sauces are made with Knorr bouillon. So ask. When I was young, lard seemed to be in all the beans. Nowadays, it rarely is. 

Traditional (Miami) Cuban rice and beans are not made with any animal products. You can’t beat Miami International Airport’s La Carreta for black bean soup, rice and plantain chips (mariquitas).   

The San Antonio airport’s Frutería serves rice and bean dishes, but I recommend their smoothies and green drinks. My favorite, custom-made, is a cleansing juice with nopales

But bottom line, play it safe. Honor ahimsa. As my grandmother insisted, take a piece of fruit along for the ride.

Rivas, Nicaragua

KARMA YOGA IN CENTRAL AMERICA

Karma Yoga, or Seva 

swami sivananda: example of Karma YogaMy Sivananda Yoga roots ingrained in me the importance of karma yoga. Some call it seva. Both expressions mean selfless service. Helping others, mankind, or nature, expecting nothing in return.

It’s easy for me to perform service. What’s hard is to not expect anything in return. I’m not talking about monetary remuneration, or an IRS break. But, inherently, when I — or most people, try to do good deeds, we are rewarded a blast of contentment. Not that we necessarily do the deeds to feel good, but we can’t erase the fact that we will reap some benefits. 

For the last five years, I’ve been doing karma yoga in Mexico and Central America. The more I give back, the more I get.  

Education is Not a Given

Ocean Academy Yoga, BelizeThis year, I was in Belize for six weeks. I led yoga and meditation at a non-profit high school.

Before the school was built, the majority of kids on this small island could not study beyond grade school. For those who did, they had to buy uniforms, books and supplies. Plus, they had to be able to afford transportation. No cars when they turned 16. In fact, there were no or paved roads on the island. These island kids had to take a 45-minute ferry to the mainland, then either walk, take a bus, or taxi to school. And in reverse, to go home each day.

I designed 90-minute workshops for the kids. While I expected nothing in return, being a part of the institution that made a difference in more than half the island’s youth was a big paycheck for me.  

Nicaragua

flooded road to Playa HermosaFor two years in a row, I was on the coast of Nicaragua when the worst storms in history passed through. 

I was one of about 100 people that took 4-wheel-drive vehicles down rivers and across streams. We headed to remote areas. Our charge was to clean the beaches and bring food, water and even tin roofs to marginal areas. The townspeople hadn’t had running water or electricity for several days.

Our 30-kilometer trip, along with our clean-up time, was close to four hours in our caravan.  Some of us were on edge due to the tedious trudging through muddy roads, crammed 20 to a truck. Yet, we could learn from the locals.

Post-Hurricane San Juan Del SurIn the absence of electricity, it was a street party. Kids and adults, locals and foreigners, played with the soccer balls we brought. Women ladled out food for those that didn’t have any. Young and old, there was no sense of despair. And yet, some of us despair if our internet connection is on the blink for a few minutes. 

Karma yoga? It wasn’t really selfless. I nabbed a free ride to the beach. A free t-shirt, which I gave away. More importantly, I got an invaluable experience.

My karma yoga annual practices have ranged from three weeks to three months.  The rest of the year, I try to re-integrate into society, with ad hoc karma yoga for non-profits. 

The man behind one community in Nicaragua, however, is a karma yogi. As one of my yoga mentors would say, he’s a conscientious entrepreneur. 

The Círculo 

children OstionalFor the most part, Nicaragua is unspoiled by multi-nationals’ monster-sized footprints.  Unsightly food chains are rare, and even the major hotel brands are nonexistent in most parts of this nation sandwiched between two oceans. It’s a country where travelers can find beauty in simplicity. 

Visitors to Nicaragua are comfortable in simple accommodations. Upgrades are not oversized pillows, a super duper shower head or an over-rated over-priced mattress. Rather, eco-friendly, organic vegetarian food, and proximity to a good surf, volcano or jungle are the perks here.

For many, like me, we feel a connection to the people and the land. 

Karmic Enterprise

Casa Oro Cafe, San Juan del Sur, NicaraguaMuffadal Saylawala was an investment banker. He said swapped his suits and briefcase for a backpack. After several years, something special rang out to him in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.  He bought a run-down finca. Then, a hostel. Now, six properties.  

“The country is at a tipping point and we believe that we can help push which direction things move from the inside out,” says Muffa. “We are riding off a rising wave from the eco-conscious efforts of Costa Rica and targeting a widely underserved market. It is within our reach to transform Nicaragua into the premiere eco destination in the world, a place where the rest of the world comes to learn.” 

Muffa is the opposite of a Leona Helmsley, Paris Hilton or J.W. Marriott. It’s obvious that he’s committed to make the world a better place. His vision is to give back to Mother Nature, the economy and the local community. He is building a supply chain going to and from the farm and his eco-friendly accommodations.  

“We’re building bridges between worlds, peoples and communities.” Muffa explains, “We generously share what we’re doing with the hopes that San Juan Del Sur becomes the most authentic eco-travel destination in the world.”

Strengthening the Chain of Tree Huggers 

Rivas, NicaraguaHopefully, with every contact at one of Muffa’s properties, a touch of that respect for Mother Nature will grow exponentially. Rooms at Casa Oro are named: Regeneración, Transformación, Humanidad and Soñar.

First, “We know we’re not the only dreamers. We believe in collaboration. And, we seek to help people who wish they could live more holistically; the people who dream about leading a life full of meaning and fulfillment. We believe shared and united space fosters collaboration and creativity. Finally, we believe in building bridges between modern society and the new world — between business and nature — between travelers and locals.”

turtle release NicaraguaPart of the dream includes Muffa’s ever-morphing team of collaborators, like me. People from around the world drawn to Nicaragua for a multitude of reasons. Likewise, they come with a wide range of skill sets, speaking many languages, all choosing to reinforce a circle of sustainability.

In my case, I taught donation-based yoga.  A full 100 percent of the donations were destined for La Flor,a government-run turtle reserve.

“We’re all weaving together, collaborating, sharing space and resources. We are building something greater than any of us could have ever imagined doing alone: an intricate and enormous web of elements around the world living regeneratively.”

“The more that we give, the more we have to give,” he says.  “Our work is guided by design inspired by nature. Her system is the most optimal that we know; self-maintaining, beautiful and circular.”

The Bottom Line

San Juan del Sur, NicaraguaMuffa’s brand of conscientious entrepreneurialism uses business to preserve ecology. Furthermore, he uses business to empower communities, shape culture and as a space to foster community. His measurable objectives are nothing like those that I saw in my 40 years in the marketing world.

1. “I will measure how much physical soil is created by this project to give back to the earth.

2. “I will measure how much food is grown, how much electricity has been saved, and how many families in the local community are better because they were part of this project.

3. “I will measure how many people go home and do something to make their life more sustainable.

4. “I will measure how many synchronistic connections are spurred as a result of being in our spaces and interacting with people and places.”

Entirely self-less? Muffa is bound to get an immense feeling of contentment. And, he’s a big hugger. Hugging boosts endorphins. So he gets to feel good, too. There are always some perks with karma yoga, even if those aren’t the objectives. Just one more reason why karma yoga is my drug of choice.

swami sivananda

Swami Sivananda: From Contentment Comes Happiness

Swami Sivananda (1897-1963) was greatly responsible for the rise of yoga in the West. His teachings are instrumental to the way that I try to live. Speaking about one of yoga’s ten commandments, he said, “Contentment with whatsoever one obtains of its own accord without effort is Santosha. Riches and poverty are not counted by the amount of wealth one keeps. A king, if he keeps too many desires and if he wants more, is considered to be a beggar. A beggar, if he is contented with what he has, is really a king. From contentment comes real happiness. If a man has no contentment, his mind will be always wandering.”

Do the “Haves” Have Contentment?

Since I was a young child, the division between “haves” and “have nots” bothered me. Today, I seem to be drawn more to the worlds of the “have nots.” Void of physical possessions, they value things that I deem more important.

For example, just 48 hours since returning from three months in Central America, those divisions are glaring at me. 

Namely, I feel uncomfortable in a world where supply and demand necessitates big box stores. Where people load their carts (physical or online) with so much stuff that they don’t need. What one really needs is love.

Does “Stuff” Yield Contentment? 

Ostional after Hurricane Harvey

No power for a week, in Ostional, after Hurricane Harvey

In Nicaragua, my co-workers work six days a week. Many, commute. Or,  live beyond overflowing streams and rivers via unpaved roads in a tropical jungle. Their pay? $130 a month is the most recent government mandated minimum wage for the tourism sector.  

Fermin and Cruz are two night guards where I stay.

On my first day in town this year, Hurricane Harvey hit. Fermin lost his entire house. Half of Cruz’s home was washed away. it wasn’t a two-story brick house with white picket fence. Their living quarters were most likely simple concrete block walls topped with a tin roof held in place be heavy rocks, bricks or pieces of wood. Fermin lived in his home with his wife and children. His mother and sister lived in another building on the same lot. Their house, too, came crumbling down in Harvey’s force. 

Fermin and Cruz, despite the fact that their material worlds have been upturned, maintain their composure and professionalism. Neither Fermin nor his family can rebuild on the land they own. The river is too high. They are living in limbo. His mother and sister are with in-laws. Fermin and his family are with friends. During the day, he hangs out on a street corner, not far from where his home was.

What Is Necessary in Life?

Hurricane Harvey in Nicaragua

Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Consider this. When Harvey hit, our entire region in Nicaragua was without water and electricity for a few days. The border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was closed for several days because of the lack of power.

On the other hand,  the night I returned to San Antonio our house is without water. We called the plumber, and they came at midnight to fix the problem. This is America, right? You can’t bear to be without running water for more than a few minutes. But you have to pay for it. A lot.

Power was just reinstated in the home of a friend’s elderly mother in Puerto Rico.  She’s one of the lucky ones. Seven weeks after Hurricane Maria, more than half of people on the island are without power. While Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, it’s not a state. So the same rules don’t apply.  

Stateside, if Superman were to look into people’s homes or car trunks, maybe he would know what seem to be the necessities for John Q. Public. An iPhone 8? A Ford F-150? Sony PlayStations? A quadcopter? Starting with a daily Starbuck’s Caffe Latte?

However, where on the list of priorities do we place friends, families, neighbors, co-workers? Or, connection with nature?

Desires Are a Bottomless Pit

“There is no end for craving in the life of a worldly man,” taught Swami Sivananda. “That is the reason why a worldly man is ever restless despite his wealth and comforts. There is always dissatisfaction with his lot. He is ever discontented. Before one craving is satisfied, another craving is ready to occupy his mind, and this craving agitates the mind and makes a constant demand for gratification.”

In our society, we tend to be so focused — and attached — to material things. Yogic teachings do not say one must live in a cave. Rather, the problem is with attachment and lack of contentment. We must be able to release at any time. Just as from one day to the next, Cruz and Fermin lost their homes.

Detach from Possessions and Expectations

During my month in Nicaragua, many backpackers from all over the world fill my yoga classes. One young guy from the U.K. had just begun his adventure in Nicaragua. He was planning on being in Central America for three or four months with his childhood best buddy. All he had with him is one rather small and light tubular backpack.  Then, he got bit by a sting ray. The barb is embedded in his foot. He called his parents, and decided to leave the next day to return to the U.K. for treatment. 

“I’m so sorry you have to cut your travels short,” I tell him. His response exuded contentment: I get to be with my girl friend, and it’ll be more comfortable to have treatments while at home. He also shows detachment. First, for being on the road for that long without his family or girlfriend. Second, to change his plans and head across the Atlantic from one day to the next.

“Be not bound to anybody, any place or thing. Do not desire to possess. Possessions bring pain,” said Swami Sivananda.

Read more about contentment and detachment.