Category Archives: Sutras & Ahimsa

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
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.

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. 

dhyana mudra tibetan meditation mudra

Yoga Is Everywhere, or Is It? What Is yoga?

Yoga Is everywhere — Yet Hardly Anywhere At All

yoga is an ancient wisdom. image of buddha.Yoga has spread so wide, that it is now very shallow.  In Hong Kong, for example, between 20,000 and 30,000 people say they practice yoga every day.  Crowded into large buildings, what they’re doing is not really yoga, says Aadil Palkhivala. So, what is yoga?

Aadil Palkhivala know what is yoga. For sure. He was “born a yogi, inside his mothers womb.” By age of seven, he was a “full-time yogi” under the guidance of BKS Iyengar.  He is considered one of the finest yoga teachers. Aadil has his own institute, but he travels all over the world teaching, and speaking, to share his knowledge. He’s author of three yoga teacher training manuals, and a book called Fire of Love. Additionally, he contributes to Yoga Journal and Prevention magazines. 

Interestingly, after 51 years of dedication to yoga, he has found balance to obtain degrees in physics and math, and jurisprudence.

What Is Yoga

What follows, are some of Aadil’s thoughts about what is yoga. His remarks are based on workshops and lectures for Yoga Therapists that I attended in California. 

Yoga Is Tried and True

First, consider yoga’s astonishing lineage. It has been practiced for approximately 16,000 years. Hence, it has to be respected. The deeper we dive into it, and conduct clinical studies, the more we vindicate its authenticity.

Yoga Isn’t Just Asana 

yoga isn't about poses: mindfulness. image of buddha with mala.Of course the poses have their benefits. But, Aadil likens them to being a temporary band-aid.  

Voltaire said, “The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient in a good mood, while nature does the healing.” 

Only after realizing the underlying issues can the healing take place. That’s also the foundation for Ayurveda and TCM and how I try to work with my clients. 

Rein In the Monkey Mind

Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah. The second sutra teaches us the importance of calming our mind.  Yoga is the control of our wandering mind. Calming the consciousness. 

We Are Part of the Universe

We are not just bodies. Actually, we are standing on earth, breathing in air, bathing in water, and connecting with the sun and the moon. We are part of the entire universe and its elements. Likewise, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda, both of which are foundations of my yoga therapy, are rooted in the balance of elements. 

Physical Issues Aren’t Always Physical Issues 

The masters understood that physical problems don’t begin in the physical body. Rather, they manifest there. Again, this is part of Ayurvedic teachings, and Ayurveda is considered the sister to yoga.

Honor Your Spirit Soul

what is yoga? cessation of the monkey mind.Part and parcel of the physical body is your spirit soul, your emotions and your thoughts. Problems start when connections with the spirit and the rest are broken. Yoga, of course, is the connection (yoke) between those. “If it weren’t for your soul, you’d be gone. Poof, says Aadil. ”When there’s a disconnection between the spirit and the rest of you, you get a reminder from the universe. Her reminder is pain. The great master, and my teacher, Sri Aurobindo, said ‘pain is the signature of the ignorance. Attesting the secret god denied by life.’”

Real therapy is making that connection with your spirit. Until then it’s a band-aid. It’s “allopathic yoga.” The spirit is very very direct. If you don’t like to be told what to do, forget spirituality. 

Listen to Your Heart

You have an innate knowledge. Just as people talk about a “gut reaction,” it’s really the heart that is guiding them. But, most don’t honor or recognize that.  Aadil asks, “If you have a home, why do you spend your lives in other peoples’ homes? The point is, that we have a home in our heart, not in our head. Healing happens at home. Your inner awareness is far greater than you can fathom.” 

We Are Beings of Light

what is yoga? enlightenment.Your mind plays a very big role in the effect on your body. Massive. 

Aadil explains that according to physics, there are two types of particles. Bosons and fermions. So far, science has always believed they were independent of each other. Yet, they, like so many things, are interconnected and interrelated. Bosons are the glue that holds fermions together. “You can, with your mind, create a boson.” Since photons are related to bosons, that essential means that we are able to create light. “We are amazingly powerful human beings. We waste our potential.”

Continuing from his scientific mind, he notes a DNA Phantom Effect study in Moscow. Researchers found that when a laser was beamed into a tube containing DNA, the DNA absorbed the light. More notably, after removing the laser light, it retained that light for 30 days. 

Likewise, he alludes, whenever the body heals, you are activating a strand of the DNA.  Strands are only activated when DNA is unwound. Through yoga, we smoothen that inner ladder.

Purity In the Heart and Soul

purity in the heart and soul: mindfulness. image of buddha with mala.In closing, I’d like to give a translation of the gayatryi mantra. Like the DNA configuration, it is said that the benefits of chanting the gayatri spiral out from the chanter, into the universe. Some consider it a peace prayer. Peace within and peace outside. Others, a calling for divine wisdom.  Consequently, some repeat this mantra, nightly, at bedtime. Or, upon rising. Aadil equates the meaning of this mantra to be the foundation of yoga. 

There are so many translations for this beautiful heart-opening mantra. The following is from my Chant and Be Happy workshop, tweaked by Aadil’s words. 


Om Bhur Bhu-va Sva-ha. Tat Sa-vi-tur Va-re-nyam. Bhar-go De-va-sya Dhi-ma-hi. Dhi-yo Yo Na Pra-cho-da-yat.

On the absolute reality and its planes, On that finest spiritual light, represented by the sun, We meditate, as remover of obstacles. Come fill our consciousness. That it may inspire and enlighten us with effulgence. 

 

Love and Freedom Yoga by Fiorella Duran

Affirmations: Prayer of Love and Freedom, by Fiorella Duran

Rarely do I post guest blogs. Today, I do, as Fiorella Duran’s “Prayer of Love and Freedom,” is a beautiful outpouring of affirmations. And, I’m a strong advocate of daily affirmations.  

artwork by Fiorella Duran: prayer of love affirmations

I worked for Fiorella last year. A Costa Rican, she was living in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. I can attribute my wonderful experience there, in part, due to her spirit and energy.  All that is visible in her prayer of love affirmations, and in her artwork, shown here. 

We shared time on the mat together. Did a five- or six-hour solstice ceremony together. Climbed a barely trodden jungle-like peak together. Shared quiet time on the beach together. Honored the richness of permaculture and sustainability together. 

While I head back to Nicaragua in October, she’s in Costa Rica. Committed to an eco-friendly community, and her creative talents.  Catch more of her beautiful art on Instragram@loveandfreedomyoga. Or, visit her blog.

Powerful Affirmations: Prayer of Love and Freedom 

Garden in my heart by Fiorella DuranNever again I will be afraid to:
Communicate
Get lost
Be myself

I will:

Provide for myself
Get dirty
Keep it simple
Always answer with love
Show I care

I am:
Beautiful
Smart
Worthy

Capable 

I committed to follow:

libertad by Fiorella DuranMy feelings
Read the signs
Honor nature

I will always be:
Grateful
Free
Honest
Respectful

Every day of my life I will love:
Myself
Wildly
Unconditionally

Every leaving creature

I believe in:

Me

You

Love

Hope

Everything is at my reach and everything is possible

Sacred images of Krishna at Blanton Museum of Art

Stories and Images of Krishna for Janmashtami

Krishna’s Birth and Janmashtami 

Images of Krishna and RadhaJanmashtami is an important Vaishnava holiday commemorating the birth of Krishna. A two-day celebration takes place this weekend at Austin’s Radha Madhav Dham temple and gardens. In San Antonio, Krishna communities host events, Sunday. In all, images of Krishna will be venerated. That’s because, according to the ancient texts, Lord Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu. In fact, the name Krishna, means all attractive. 

Swami Sivananda, in “Bliss Divine” writes, “Vishnu incarnated with lotus eyes, with four hands armed with conch, disc, mace and lotus, with the mark of Srivatsa adorning the chest. Vasudeva (his birth mother) saw this marvel of a divine child.”

“He was the world-teacher,” says Sivananda of Krishna. “Sri Krishna was a perfect Master.  He was a Karma Yogi, Bhakta, Raja Yogi and Jnana Yogi. He preached Karma, Upasana (worship), Yoga and Jnana. The four Yogas are blended in His Gita or the Immortal Song. He was the one Lord of love. His enchanting form, with flute in hand, holds the heart of India captive in chains, even today.”

The Times of India says Lord Krishna was born 5,200 years ago and his birthplace is lit up on Janmashtami. The newspaper refers to the “Bhagavad Gita” to further describe this day.  “…whenever there will be a predominance of evil and decline of religion, Lord Vishnu will reincarnate and save the earth from all that is evil. The main purpose behind the celebration of Janmashtami along with Lord Krishna’s birthday is the prevalence of goodwill and this is what unites people from different regions together on the auspicious occasion.”

Stories Come to Life

images of krishna and garudaThese tales, and more, are depicted in illustrations from a San Diego collection.

Most are based on epics like the Ramayana or Bhagavata Purana.

One area, however, is devoted to Persian-language literature like the Shahnama. Yet another area, is musical illustrations. These are known as Ragamala. Typically, these were sets of 36 paintings, thus, creating a garland (mala) of images pertaining to the music (ragas)

The exhibit is at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art through October 1.  Epic Tales from Ancient India features stories and images of Krishna. Traditional Indian music is piped into the gallery space. 

There are dozens and dozens of illustrations of Krishna and others from the ancient scriptures in the Blanton exhibit. Images of Krishna, Yashoda, Radha, Balaram are mostly from the 1600s. They tend to be very detailed, tiny stories on paper.

Here are a few examples.

Images of Krishna in Art

birth of KrishnaTo protect Krishna against a terrible prophesy, his birth parents entrusted him to Yashoda and Nanda. Krishna’s birth, and escape from the jail where he was born, are expressed in a watercolor circa 1560.

The exhibit description explains several of the scenes in this piece. 

“When Devaki gives birth to her eight son, Krishna, no ordinary infant, but rather an incarnation of the god Vishnu, a carefully conceived plan ensures the child’s safety.  In this image, the blue-skinned Krishna sits on a lotus throne…At the center, the prison door is left unchained. Its two guards and their dogs have fallen fast asleep, enabling Vasudeva and Krishna’s midnight escape to the distant land where Krishna will be raised.” 

Krishna overcomes BakasuraKamsa sends demons out to harm baby Krishna. One of those demons is disguised as a crane, Bakasura.  

“Bakasura attacked from behind a tree, capturing Krishna in his beak, In the story, the crane swallows Krishna but is forced to expel him when his palate begins to burn…Krishna seizes the two halves of Bakasura’s beak to rip the crane into two pieces as his brother, Balarama, and another cowherd boy wield their sticks to assist in subduing the demon.” 

In another tale, Krishna overcomes a forest fire. After defeating a serpent, Krishna and his father return home. Tired, the fall asleep at the Yamuna river.  

“At this point, a massive forest fire starts, and Krishna must rescue his people again. In the illustration, the fire that encircles the group looks like a garland of yellow flowers, within which Krishna is depicted twice…On the left, he sleeps alongside his brother Balarama and foster father Nanda…On the right, he drinks up the flames…”  

images of krishna and gopisAn opaque watercolor, from the mid 1700s shows Krishna explaining worship. There are multiple stories within the painting, representing how worship is passed on, from one to another. The eye is drawn to a colorful flower. At the yellow center of the flower, are Vishnu and Garuda. His attendants and other deities are pictured on each of the eight pink petals. 

A gallery text explains one of the pieces from around 1690.

“A telling of the story in the vernacular language of Brajbasha on the verso describes Krishna as sitting among the gopis as they together form a circle and enact the rasalila performance. Krishna multiplies himself and dances between the women. Witnessing this wonderful spectacle, gods gather while heavenly musicians and dancers join in the revelry.”

Krishna was ever popular among the gopis (cow herder girls).

“The love that the Gopis bore towards Krishna was a divine love. It was the union of souls,” says Sivananda. He adds that his flute attracted them. “It produced God-intoxication in all beings and infused life even in insentient objects. The sweetness of the music was unsurpassed.”

Epic Tales from Ancient India in Austin

Epic Tales from Ancient IndiaAs part of the Blanton show, there will be a sarod and tabla concert on September 21. Then, on September 22, there will be a lecture. Additionally, each Thursday, Saturday and Sunday will be storytelling and dance. A UT grad student, with then years of Indian classical dance experience, will perform.

The Blanton was founded in 1963 as UT’s Art Museum. Therefore, admission is free to current UT staff and students. Likewise, admission is free for teachers and active military. Typically, the museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays until 5 p.m. However, the third Thursday of every month, the museum is open until 9 p.m.

Jaya Lakshmi at Bhakti Fest

Benefits of Bhakti: Chanting and Singing Feels Good

Sankirtana. Singing feels good.Music is a part of my life. I play no instruments. I’m not a trained musician. But, music is in my heart, and in every cell of my body. That’s why chanting (bhakti yoga or kirtan) is one of the most important aspects of yoga for me. Yes, chanting is yoga. As is dancing. 

When I was a kid, I felt something special when I would sing with my sister. After seeing “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins,” some of the songs were on automatic replay in my head. I couldn’t stop singing. Now, it’s the same way. But it’s mantras that keep circulating through my heart and my mind. I try to share that appreciation with my students. In classes, even if I’m playing Mary J. Blige or Stephen Marley, I’ll intersperse a rhythmic mantra.  

Sankirtana. Singing feels good.Once or twice a year, I go to kirtan festivals. Recently, I was in California for Bhakti Fest. The following weekend I went to North Carolina for Sadhu Sanga. Both were gatherings of several thousand bhaktas. People, like me, that have been touched by the power of sankirtana (group chanting).

One of the most beautiful things about Bhakti Fest and Sadhu Sanga is the energy. Beyond the beautiful sounds and rhythms, there is a special atmosphere. Bliss. Devotion. Whatever you want to call it. That’s what bhakti is all about. In fact, one of the translations for bhakti is devotion. When you practice san kirtan that special feeling is magnified a thousand times.

Kirtan Fest Houston

Kirtan Fest HoustonNow, there’s a kirtan festival in Texas.  Labor Day weekend. September 2 to September 4.  The venue is the most beautiful ISKCON temple.

Kirtan Fest Houston brings together kirtan artists who travel around the world. Karnamrita Das is one. I’ve sung with her in California. Amala Kirtan Das is a Brazilian-born musician with whom I’ve chanted several times in Austin. In addition to many others leading the group chanting will be San Antonio’s Advaita Acharya Das. He’s my personal conductor. He’s moved my life in many ways. Not just getting me to dance or sing, but to make a difference in my life. To live the principles of yoga.

This is your chance to feel the power of group chanting without leaving the big state of Texas. In fact, Advaita is coordinating caravans to get to and from Houston. 

Kirtan Fest HoustonAdvaita quotes the scriptures to explain the value of chanting. 

“Compared to that person who is attached to chanting japa (beads), the person who performs loud chanting of the holy name of Sri Hari is one hundred times better. This is because the person who chants japa purifies himself, whereas the person who chants the holy name loudly in kirtana purifies himself, all those who are with him, and everyone else who hear the holy vibration.”

Quoting the scriptures, he adds, “The animals, birds, and insects cannot chant the holy name, but by hearing the holy name chanted they can benefit. Chanting the japa of the holy name of Krishna purifies oneself, but the loud sankirtana of the holy name of Krishna benefits all living beings. Therefore, loudly chant the holy name of Krishna in kirtana, and you will get one hundred times the benefit of chanting japa. This is the verdict of all the sastras.”

Advaita’s Tips for First Time Chanting

1) Get as close to the kirtan circle as possible. Imagine fire. The closer you are, the more wholesome is the experience.
2) Don’t burn yourself.  Respect the fire. Respect kirtan sound and you will be able to feel something without touching it, and see something with your eyes closed.
3) Don’t come to kirtan tired. Don’t over eat, or eat not enough. 
4) Remember your body is a temple. Focus on PPP:  Posture. Pronunciation. Presence.

It Feels Good

Girish is one of the frequent Bhakti Fest musicians. At this year’s Shakti Fest I attended one of his workshops. Kind of like Singing 101.  

“Every one of us is born to sing,” he said. “Each and every one of our bodies is a unique musical instrument. Are we a cello, or are we a flute, or trombone in this symphony of life?”

Girish pointed to research that validates what I learned as a young kid. Singing feels good.

Chanting is Good for you“It’s scientifically proven that singing is really really good for us. Singers have lower cortisol levels, by about 15 percent. It activates the parasympathetic system. It lowers our blood pressure and calms our mind.”

And, especially when we do so with groups of people (sankirtana). Think about singing at places of worship, or jamming with your friends or family. What’s more, Girish says when you sing in sanga (community of likeminded people), “Our heart beats and brain waves sync up.”

Girish said that freeing the voice is freeing the person. Moreover, “Our voice is a bridge between the inner world and the outer world. Singing and chanting is the best way to bring that forth. It’s not about having an amazing voice. I myself identify as a drummer who sings. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries.”

Girish’s Tips for Singing

  1. Find your key. The majority of women are most comfortable in the key of A. On the other hand, men usually prefer C. 
  2. Relax the jaw, tongue and throat. Try a few lion’s breaths before you start to sing. 
  3. The dan tien (a few fingers below the belly) is the root of the voice. In Daoist practices this spot is special. It’s where energy brews. A sea of qi (prana). Similar to with yogic breathing, expand the flower pot, beginning here.

Girish told us that the word voice is related to the word invocation. Both come from the Latin  voxdictionary.com defines invocation as the act of invoking or calling upon a deity, spirit, etc., for aid, protection, inspiration, or the like; supplication. Another definition is a form of prayer invoking God’s presence, especially one said at the beginning of a religious service or public ceremony. So, that can be interpreted as chanting is a form of invoking that connects one with a higher spirit. 

Jaya Lakshmi at Bhakti FestGirish first explored devotional singing when he was in college. There,  he found Kundalini yoga. Then, he deepened his chanting practice when he lived as a monk for five years. He studied Sanskrit and translated many mantras.   Translations are hard, especially from Sanskrit, because there are so many interpretations. About “Om Nama Shivaya,” one of my  ingrained mantras, he makes it simple.  “I honor the inner Self. Shiva. The light of consciousness within me.”

Similarly, Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda are popular singing yogis at Bhakti Fest. 

Jaya Lakshmi acknowledged that Kundalini yoga was the gateway for her devotion. Not surprising, since mantra meditation is very much a part of the Kundalini tradition. Additionally, she said “mantras have such potency.”

Ananda’s Tips for Mantras

“The best mantra to practice is the one you are going to practice. You have to find the joy in it. For me, the Lakshmi mantra is the one I go to. We go through different phases. Whatever makes you a better person. The way is your intuition…your heart.”

One of my favorite recordings of Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda is “Divine Lover’s Maha Mantra.” The maha mantra is widely celebrated. It’s always the grand finale at Bhakti Fest and is the mainstay at Sadhu Sanga and the upcoming festival in Houston. Advaita leads it throughout San Antonio, and beyond. He explains that “maha means great… great mantra for upliftment and restoration of our original loving nature that will swell in your heart more and more, the more you chant.”