Girish and heart rate variability

Heart Rate Variability: Chant From the Heart, For the Heart

Bhakti Fest is considered the ultimate playground for yogis. In particular, for bhaktas (devotional yogis). While Bhakti Fest 2018’s Joshua Tree desert playground may span 385 acres, this year I was attracted to a tiny outdoor classroom next to a small artificial pond. Sitting on the sandy ground, or perched at the rim of the pond, a variety of singers, drummers and musicians shared knowledge and tips about their practices. Of note, chanting improves heart rate variability. in other words, chant from your heart, and you’ll be chanting  FOR your heart, and general well being. 

Bhakti Fest’s Kirtan School spanned only four days, with two two-hour sessions daily. Each class had a different lead teacher for a great potpourri of kirtan key take aways. 

As Gina Salá, one of the teachers said, “So many mantras. So much wisdom.” I’d add, So many artists.  So much devotion. For the culmination of so much sangha (association/unity) of sound. 

Your Divine Voice  

Gina Sala at Bhakti Fest

Gina Sala at Bhakti Fest 2018

In a previous article of mine, Gina Salá spoke about music and devotion. A take away was that every voice is divine. Perfect.

Similiarly, in Girish’s Kirtan Class at Bhakti Fest 2018, he said, “There’s never been another voice like yours. The voice is expressing who we are. Free the voice. Free the person. Your personal growth and evolution is inseparable from your voice.”

To me, Gina and Girish have incredible voices. They hit a sweet spot in my heart. Yet, Girish considers himself a drummer. And, most drummers don’t sing. He focused on chanting during his five years as a monk living in an ashram.  “It’s not about the artistry of music. It doesn’t matter how it sounds.” He emphasized, “It’s your call to your creator.”

Most noteworthy, Girish spoke of the science behind chanting. There is clear data to attest to the benefits of singing kirtan or chanting in groups, in particular. 

Chanting for the Heart: About Heart Rate Variability  

In fact, a recent study completed by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden noted that those who sang together had synchronized heartbeats. The head researcher explained that singing is a form of controlled breathing, not unlike yogic breathwork which leads to many benefits, including lung capacity and heart health.  

Furthermore, Girish said, “When we sing in a group, our brain waves start to sync up. And heart beats too.” He talks about the phenomena called heart brain coherence, which has been investigated by the HeartMath Institute in California, and heart rate variability (HRV).  

Girish at Kirtan Class, Bhakti Fest, speaks on heart rate variability

Girish at Kirtan Class, Bhakti Fest 2018

Harvard Health Blog contributor, Marcelo Campos, MD, explains the importance of heart rate variability. “HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease. It is fascinating to see how HRV changes as you incorporate more mindfulness, meditation, sleep, and especially physical activity into your life.”

“We want a more adaptable heart rhythm,” added Girish, “as HRV is a biomarker of human health. One fantastic way to increase our HRV levels — and thus our overall health and resiliency — is to sing. And, in fact, chanting mantras increases HRV levels better than any other types of singing.”  Again, Girish has scientific research to back this up. He explains that when you chant mantras, you follow a particular breathing pattern as referenced in the Swedish study. Clearly, the breathwork associated with Tibetan monks is far from that of acid rock. 

However, Girish pointed to research comparing traditional chants from diverse religions and cultures such as Ave Maria and Om Mani Padme Om.  “All have the same breathing patterns. It’s an amazing effect. These practices activate the parasympathetic system.”

Chanting in Any Language, From the Heart

So, you don’t have to be a bhakta yogi.  As Girish jokingly said, believe it or not, “There are people out there who have never done kirtan … or yoga … or worn Lululemon.  It’s not just the yogis. All the world’s spiritual traditions are doing some kind of mantra.  So that tells me that it works.” 

While there’s plenty of evidence-based insights as to why it works, when you look at a toddler or child singing a nursery rhyme, it’s pretty obvious. Singing, especially repetitive sounds, makes us feel good.

“The primal human instrument is the voice. You don’t have to go to a music school to find out where a middle C is,” said Girish. 

Shiva Rae at Bhakti Fest

Shiva Rae at Bhakti Fest 2018

Shiva Rae, also at Bhakti Fest 2018, told an intimate gathering of women there, “Your first mantra was in your mother’s womb (her hearbeat).” And, in many cultures, the drum represents the heart beat. 

For the Mayapuris, the drum represents the sacred, too. In their Kirtan Class, the close-knit bhaktas from Florida explained the essence of the primal beats and their beloved mridanga. 

“The drum is a manifestation of Balaram (Krishna’s brother). Sound vibration itself represents the lord. When we use our instruments in Kirtan we are dressing (up) the holy name, and the instruments are the decoration to attract us. The more that we offer our love, the more we will feel the syncopation,” they said.  

“Something that runs through every culture is rhythm. Every tradition in every era on every continent has some form of collective singing, because it just pierces so clearly. These instruments are a vehicle.”

Chant the Holy Name

Mayapuris at Bhakti Fest 2018

Mayapuris at Bhakti Fest 2018

However, the Mayapuris aren’t saying you can chant mumbo jumbo. “If you were to repeat Coca Cola or water water it’s not going to quench your thirst. When we repeat the names (of the lord) it’s ever-present. It just gets sweeter and sweeter, and more ecstatic. Kirtan is the absolute platform.”

The Mayapuris are Vaishnavas. For them, the names of Krishna and Radhe, among others, are supreme. “In our tradition, we say the name of the Lord until our voice chokes up. Spiritual life starts at the mode of goodness. With that vision, it’s easier to attain that realization. Kirtan is like a shortcut. We’re not worrying about someone’s culture, politics or religion. Kirtan, and in particular collective sangha. You get a little shortcut, like a machete cutting through. And, it’s accessible to everybody.” 

“The first thing the chanting does is dust the mirror of maya (illusion). We just get so consumed and then we’re trapped. The things that get in our way, in our material brains, get pushed aside (with chanting). For this modern age, the scriptures say Kirtan is the dharma.” 

In other words, just as Gina Salá and Girish say that everyone’s voice is divine, the Mayapuris say, “Anyone can take part and start to feel divinity.” 

Bhagavan Das and his ektar at Bhakti Fest 2018

Bhagavan Das: From High Desert to Dallas — on the 33rd parallel

No Ordinary Senior Citizen

Bhagavan Das and his ektar at Bhakti Fest 2018Bhagavan Das left the United States in 1968. At the age of 18, he headed east. To India. Tibet. Nepal. With no money. He adhered to the customs of the elder yogis. A renunciate. An ascetic, or sadhu. After seven years, he returned to the States. But not to the lifestyle of the ordinary American.  

He introduced a friend to one of his gurus, Neem Karoli Baba. That friend is now known as Ram Dass, author of “Be Here Now.” Bhagavan Das authored his own book, “It’s Here Now (Are You?)”, but is better known for his music. In each of his CDs, his chanting is almost spellbinding. Rather drone-like, his concentration on the mantras or prayers is as solid as the Tibetan monks with whom he was guided many years ago.

Today, he doesn’t look like your card carrying AARP man. No Bermuda shorts. He walks barefoot, rather than gym shoes and calf-high socks. Nor does he sport a golf shirt. Rather, he wraps a long white robe around his 6’5” lean body. Yes, he has the grey hairs and receding hairline. But, his white beard reaches almost to his belly. Trailing from the back of his head is  one grayish-brown dreadlock that extends to his upper thighs. Sometimes, he wraps the dread around his head turban-like. 

In his white robe, he looks a bit like what you’d expect an aging Moses to look like. Weathered. Coming down from the mountains. Yes, weathered but wise. 

His music is mesmerizing. Usually, he belts out verse in Sanskrit. At times, he interposes English. One hand is glued to his one-stringed ektara. His deep booming voice resonates well with the sitar, and other instruments from the Indo-Pakistani region.

Ricky Tran, a yogi from Dallas agrees. “There is definitely something different about  Bhagavan Das’ chanting. He enters a trance during his performances, and I can feel the dissolution into the Divine. I have never experienced anything like it.” 

Bhagavan Das at Bhakti Fest’s 10th Anniversary 

Bhagavan Das and his ektar at Bhakti Fest 2018Bhagavan Das’ spoken messages are sparse, but have maximum impact. 

“When the earth had been completely taken over,” he tells a crowded sanctuary room of Bhakti Fest attendees between chants, “… very little dharma was left … Everyone was lost. On the cell phone. Everyone was on e-bay. On YouTube. Lost in the glamour.”  

Next, he continues his story about the sages who formed a circle around the earth. The goddess Durga, who takes away the darkness was coming to the rescue. She was trying to slay the dragon. But alas, every time she struck to whack off the head of the dragon, another head would arise while blood was spurting all over. 

“This is the great ego,” explains Bhagavan Das.  “I. Me. Mine. The self-serving. Self-possessed. Narcissistic.” In the end, fortunately, for mankind, the great goddess, “Maha Kali licked up the blood saving the world from the great ego.”

It had been many years since Bhagavan Das graced the stage there. He was at the first Joshua Tree mega-yoga/music festival, ten years ago. While some kirtan artists live on the road, like vagabond musicians, performing at yoga studios and festivals across the country, and even overseas, that’s not Bhagavan Das’ gig any more. So Bhakti Fest 2018 attendees were in for a real treat this last September as one of the earliest American kirtaneers shared his music, and his wisdom. 

Bhagavan Das at Bhakti Fest

“We live in a dream within a dream,” he said last month in the Joshua Tree desert. “Wake up before you die. Ram (the supreme) is the fire that burns away desire, transforming it into pure love.”

In an interview more than a decade ago with “Time Out New York,” Bhagavan Das explained why people feel so great after sharing kirtan with him. 

“‘Cause when we’re all together in a room and we’re all chanting and we’re all breathing together, it’s like we become this huge deity of breath and now we have a thousand arms and legs and a thousand heads and everyone’s in the same breath.”

Bhagavan Das Heads to Dallas

Now, Texans will be in for a treat as the master Bhakta offers a weekend retreat October 19-21 at Ecstatic Dance Dallas. Ricky Tran will host, and lead yoga workshops. “This is a rare opportunity to study with Bhagavan Das, as he seldomly offers this full weekend retreat,” says Tran. 

Interestingly enough, both Joshua Tree and Dallas are on the mysterious 33rd parallel. Joshua Tree, on the 33rd North Parallel, was once sacred Indian grounds, and still carries much of the sacred feelings. And Dallas? Well, the micro-chip was invented here. But, it’s also Tran’s home, and he’s a wonderful teacher.  So, this weekend in Dallas should be very memorable.

 

Austin Free Day of Yoga

Austin FREE DAY OF YOGA Extends To Wimberley

Austin’s Free Day of Yoga: 20th Anniversary

Austin Free Day of Yoga

For the 20th year, yogis are uniting to bring Austin and neighboring communities free yoga on Labor Day, to heighten awareness of the benefits of yoga. Free Day of Yoga is an outstanding opportunity to meet different instructors, and experience different styles of of mind/body practices. I’ve been headed to Austin for many years to get a yoga recharge on Labor Day. Now, I’m inviting people to my new digs and Hill Country hood. 

This year, as part of Austin’s Free Day of Yoga, two of my fellow mind/body practitioners and I  are offering eight different sessions in Wimberley. Wimberley classes run from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday, September 3. Michael Uzuanis and Brenda Bell are fabulous instructors who will each lead two sessions at Balance Academy, as will I. Balance Academy, on Ranch Road 12, is a spacious zen-like incense-infused studio set on five acres. Additionally, I’ve offer therapeutic Gutsy Yoga, twice, at The Namaste Getaway, less than 10 minutes from Balance Academy.

Our Wimberley Free Day of Yoga selections focus on bringing balance to your body and mind. Choose from Korean Ki meditation, Yoga in Motion combining Tai Chi, Xi Gong and Yoga, Yin Yoga and a Slow Flow gentle vinyasa at Balance Academy. As such, the therapeutic sessions focusing on internal balance for better digestion, metabolism and blood sugar levels.   

Try One, or Fill Your Day

Free day of yoga in WimberleyAustin Free Day of Yoga organizer, Mary Esther Middleton, encourages people to sample.  “Because we offer such a wide variety of yoga teachers, styles and classes on Free Day of Yoga, there is a class for everyone – whether you are tall, short, round, thin, physically active or sedentary.” 

Therefore, browse Free Day of Yoga classes Check out our Wimberley area sessions (see flyer).  Or, better yet, call (512) 436-2048 or (210) 381-1846 to reserve your spot. 

Tips:

  • First, reserve your space at balance.academy to ensure your place. Or, arrive 15 minutes early.
  • Second, bring a yoga mat and/or cushions, blocks or bolsters. If you don’t have any, loaners will be available.
  • Third, while in Wimberley, cool off at The Blue Hole or Jacob’s Well (reservations required).
  • Afterwords, enjoy food and drink at The Junction, just past Balance Academy.

About Free Day of Yoga

A non-profit corporation, Free Day of Yoga Austin is dedicated to providing the gift of yoga to the community. The organization helps to educate the community about the health and wellness benefits of yoga through interactive, participatory and educational events in the Austin area.  As such, Free Day of Yoga Austin offers annual events at no charge to those attending. 

 

BhaktiFest

Bhakti Fest: 10 Years of Woodstock for Spirituality

The Birth of Bhakti Fest: Spirituality at Woodstock  

It was 1969. There were 500,000 gathered in Woodstock as Sri Swami Satchidananda gave opening remarks and prayers. “America is helping everybody in the material field, but the time has come for America to help the whole world with spirituality also.”

spirituality at Bhakti Fest 2018Swami Satchidananda’s inclusion at Woodstock was the brainchild of Sridhar Silberfein, who suggested spirituality was missing from the original Woodstock lineup. He also suggested taking this concept a bit further. Why couldn’t spirituality be the focus for a mass festival? The Swami agreed, and Sridhar recognized he had to make it happen. 

After raising four children, establishing the first natural foods store in the LA area, and making tea tree oil commonplace in the States, Sridhar set out to design a Woodstock for Yogis. He created a spirituality-based festival where the focus was chanting the names of the divine, and bringing higher consciousness to the masses. 

In 2009, Sridhar opened the gates to the Joshua Tree Retreat Center for the first Bhakti Fest. This September 12-17, two of the artists that have graced the festival each year, are once again taking center stage.   

Jai at Bhakti Fest 2018

Jai UttalJai Uttal: 10 years at Bhakti Fest had been leading weeklong Kirtan Camps for six years when Sridhar first told him about his idea for Bhakti Fest. The musician with a traditional rock background, infused with Indian and Brazilian instruments and beats said, “Yes, it’s the perfect time!”

For those unfamiliar with Bhakti (devotion) and kirtan (devotional chanting), Jai tells why it’s such a powerful practice. “These ancient chants contain a transformative power and healing energy. By singing these prayers we join a stream of consciousness and devotion that has been flowing for centuries.”

Jai, who has been singing kirtan for many decades, felt his students were longing for a bigger-scale gathering full of spirituality and sacred chants.  

“The community of ‘devotees’ has grown and expanded like ripples in a lake. The more we toss in our tiny pebbles of love, the greater are the waves of compassion and caring.”

This year, as in all the prior years, Jai will be a prime time performer on the main stage. Additionally, his yogi/dancer wife, Nubia Teixeira, will lead four different workshops including a session to empower women to heal the world. Like Jai, Nubia has been following the path of yoga and spirituality for 30 years. 

Jai always gives a great show, with his high energy, and deep devotion.  Read about one of Jai’s past special events in Austin. 

Spirituality Awakens for Donna De Lory

Donna De Lory’s blend of world music, mantras and electronica has been a favorite at Bhakti Fest, since 2009. She made her way to the first Bhakti celebration, after touring the world for 20 years as a singer and dancer with Madonna.  

Donna De Lory at Bhakti Fest for 10 yearsA Valley girl, her mom died of breast cancer when she was just 16. That event reshaped her life in many ways. She moved south to live with her dad, a Latin band leader who was into health foods and Eastern religions. She took up meditation, and worked at a vegetarian restaurant. She read a book by OSHO, and made gospel music. All in the land of country music. Nashville, Tennessee.

As a young adult, she moved back to LA, and eventually landed what many would have considered the ultimate job. Part of Madonna’s crew.  Throughout those years, the sacred vibes and sounds of devotional music never escaped her. About the time that the west coast yoga culture was taking off, she had two children, left the “Material Girl” circuit, and recorded her first yoga CD, “The Lover and The Beloved.” 

The arrival of her children, and Bhakti Fest, cemented her true desire to do her own style of world/sacred music. 

“I realized I have to do my own music. What am I about, and where’s my devotion?” Her fellow Bhakti musicians, Girish and David Newman, helped to bring her to “a place where all these loose ends came together.  We all felt we were part of a movement…like Woodstock…of people wanting to come together and expand their consciousness and go deeper within.”

Joy-Filled Participatory Fans

Donna said goodbye to the “Material Girl” and hello to “Bliss” and “Sanctuary.”  But they weren’t two completely different worlds.

“It is a community. People were so joy-filled. They never stopped smiling. I felt like I was down with the people,” she says about the Madonna days. “I learned the value of that touring with Madonna. I’d go out in front of the hotels and talk to people.” Same for Bhakti Fest.

Furthermore, the Madonna fans knew all the lyrics of her songs, and would sing along “…to the point that we couldn’t hear ourselves.” Again, same for Bhakti Fest.

Collaboration at Bhakti Fest

spirituality at Bhakti Fest 2018

From that original Bhakti Fest, collaboration abounded, Donna explains. “The artists were all one big tribe.” The musicians are almost like mix-and-match. On stage in many configurations.

“There’a a lot of integration of styles,” explains Donna. “The artists and teachers have been given space to blossom in what they offer.” For example, MC Yogi does hip hop. Sean Johnson’s style is NOLA infused. The Mayapuris perform traditional Indian ragas, samba and spirituals. 

Donna sings in English, Sanskrit, and Spanish. Often mixing one to another, just as she did with Madonna on La Isla Bonita. A professional singer and dancer, everyone who hears her can channel some of that. “No matter how much I may be in an introspective place, it just goes there. You just see it. People want to dance, and sing together. It’s in our DNA. To have this celebration, together.”

spirituality at Bhakti Fest 2018People connect with each other, and with Joshua Tree. “It’s the nature. Community. Expansiveness. Especially in today’s world. It’s a place that allows you to just be who you are, and not be judged,” explains Donna. 

Now, to amp up that collaboration and closeness between artist and attendee, Bhakti Fest 2018  includes a Mantra Dome, for a more intimate gathering to chant sacred mantras.

“Bhakti Fest was so rooted in the devotion. People feel free to let go and show their devotion. These festivals are allowing you that.”

yoga for body/mind harmony

Yoga’s Mental Health Benefits

Guest Blogger, Meera Watts, shares her list of yoga’s mental health benefits. 

If you think yoga is all about getting fit and toned muscles, it’s probably the right time to get the facts straight. Most people who engage in yoga aren’t really after the physical benefits of the practice. A lot of them are actually looking for a way to reduce their stress, anxiety, depression, and mood. And if you’re still in doubt about that, here’s a list of yoga’s mental health benefits to convince you.

Eight Examples of Yoga’s Mental Health Benefits

yoga helps concentration1. It improves concentration

With each yoga pose you do, you’re improving your brain function by training your mind to focus and concentrate. The practice stimulates both your nervous system and brain so you can process information faster and more efficiently.

2. It makes you more mindful

Yoga is all about what’s happening in the present. It teaches you to be more connected with your body and what it’s currently experiencing. It syncs your emotions so you can have better social relationships and connection with your mind. Once you are able to achieve those things, you’ll be able to focus on the present without being judgemental.

3. It eases depression

Yoga has a unique way of lowering the level of depression in a person. One way it’s able to do that is by increasing the production and release of certain happy hormones in the body while lowering specific stress hormones.

4. It makes you sleep better

Having a hard time falling and staying asleep can be troublesome. It can affect your productivity, mood, appetite, concentration, and problem-solving skills.

By reducing stress and encouraging relaxation, yoga can help address certain sleep disorders such as insomnia. It can make you feel well-rested and energized that you won’t have a hard time powering through your day.

Take note, however, that although yoga can help you get better sleep, you should also consider what you eat, drink, and do before you get to bed. For example, drinking caffeinated drinks and doing really heavy exercises a few minutes or hours before bedtime can make it hard for you to get to sleep. 

yoga helps concentration5. It enhances your decision-making skills

When your mind is cloudy and you’re having a hard time thinking straight, coming up with a good decision won’t be easy. In fact, you can end up making the wrong move if you force yourself.

Yoga strengthens the part of your brain responsible for making decisions. It improves your brain’s clarity so you’ll have a better ability to deal with situations and decide properly.

6. It lessens the effects of traumatic experiences

People who develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorders typically have flashbacks and nightmares that can negatively affect their lives. While there are medications and treatments that can help address such mental health issue, yoga is proven to be as effective and safer in reducing PTSD symptoms. It requires no strong medications that can harm the body eventually.

Yoga’s Mental Health Benefits are Preventative, too

yoga helps concentration

7. It delays the onset of mental health problems

Yoga is seen as an effective approach for enhancing breathing, promoting relaxation and meditation, improving moods, and controlling anger. These things play a huge role in making the mind stronger and more resilient to psychological conditions, particularly among teenagers.

8. It reduces the risk for migraines

Yoga is known for its ability to reduce pain and promote comfort. With specific yoga poses, it can also prevent or alleviate migraine and headaches. Yoga can restore the balance in your autonomic nervous system and circulatory system which can reduce your likelihood of going through another migraine episode.

Summing Up Yoga’s Mental Health Benefits

While effective, yoga doesn’t really work like magic. It won’t give you results overnight.

For you to experience all those mental benefits, you need to be consistent and dedicated to incorporating yoga into your daily routine. You don’t necessarily have to spend hours performing poses after poses. A few minutes each day can be enough to create positive changes in your mental well-being.

About the Author

Meera Watts‘ has written articles on yoga and holistic health for Elephant Journal, CureJoy, FunTimesGuide, OMtimes and others. She’s the founder and owner of SiddhiYoga.com, a yoga teacher training school based in Singapore. Additionally, Siddhi Yoga runs intensive, residential trainings in India and Indonesia.

Intention Attracts Divine Energy: Shakti at The Western Wall

The Western Waldivine energy at the Western Wall in Jerusaleml is considered one of the holiest places. It attracts people from all over the world, of different faiths, to pray here. During my first visit, the meaning and history behind the stones and traditions didn’t really resonate. My second trip was not the same. The divine energy was visible and palpable. I attribute the difference to many things. In part, I was in a different place in my life, and spiritual path.  

A few months ago, I watched hundreds of women* filled with their own divine energy (shakti). They purposefully approached the wall. Fingers touched and caressed the wall. The ladies reflected all ages, religions, races, and corners of the world. With great intent, connected to divine energy, they found a space for their carefully written prayers to be sent to heaven.  

Whether it was my personal prayer, intuition, current events, or the shirts worn by dozens of Brazilian Christians, I felt we were all one. Joining in prayer for world peace. Peace for Jerusalem. An end to conflicts.

After their time directly at the wall, the women slowly placed one foot behind the other, maintaining their hearts and eyes facing the divine energy at the wall**. Rows of females continued their reflections, sitting facing the sacred stones. Others entered a covered prayer galley. The sincerity was apparent in the faces, body language and respectful clothing of all.

Two trips over a span of about ten years. Same wall and same traditions. Same passport I was carrying. But, not the same person. Neither my mind, body or spirit grasped any of the divine energy in my first trip. Perhaps, I had built up my own wall of protection.

Energy Follows Intention

divine energy at the Western Wall in JerusalemPennsylvania-based pranic healer, Andrew Chapoy-Garza, explains part of the phenomena of the divine energy that people feel at the Wailing Wall. 

“When I was trained as a pranic healer a number of years ago, I learned that energy follows intention. When someone writes a prayer on a paper that is placed in the Western Wall, the intention in it attracts the divine energy and vibrations from the Divine Source. This happens so much at a number of different holy sites around the world that portals of light are created in the midst of this present darkness.”

That energy is not confined to the Western Wall. I learned the same concept in my Reiki trainings that spanned nearly ten years. Just like the Wall, my Reiki atunements didn’t give me automatic entry to divine energy. What I felt in my hands after my first Reiki training, was similar to what I felt at the Wall on my first visit. However, by the time I reached Reiki Master, likely, I allowed myself to connect to the divine energy.  Long ago I was taught each one of us has the same powers. What we do with them is the difference.

Andrew further shares, “In the spiritual world, I believe we experience this (divine energy) within ourselves every time we meditate, chant or pray. These are wonderful powerful ways to reconnect with the Divine Source. The Western Wall is one of these places of spiritual energy exchange just like the Kaaba in Mecca for all our devout Muslim brothers and sisters.”

Generations of Humans Have Prayed at the Wall

divine energy at the Western Wall in JerusalemFellow yoga instructor, Steve Rubin, of Orlando, Florida was far better attuned than I was during his first visit to the Wall. He spent two hours watching, praying and crying.

“It was a very special/charged place,” he recalls. “All the prayers that have been shared there for so long made it a very tangible feeling — very strong — at least for me.  I could feel the timelessness of humans and our prayers. It brought me to tears instantly, as soon as I laid my hands and head on it, which is not something that happens so quickly for me.”

Furthermore, it was an instant humbling for Steve, who is a very well travelled spiritual yogi.  He attributes the divine energy, in part, to “the generations of Humans for so long pouring sincerity and prayers into the wall.” Additionally, he  felt a connection to his own Jewish roots that he had not felt before while in Israel. 

The Western Wall is the most sacred construction for the Jews. But, what made an impact for me was seeing the large number of non-Jews sharing in the practice of prayer at this holy site. A kids’ brochure, simply, with lots of color, explained how “Jerusalem is the city that brings everyone together.  Adults and children from around the world come here to visit, to touch, to feel and to pray.” The same Creator, whatever one may call it.

Where God Created the World

divine energy at the Western Wall in JerusalemThis area (Temple Mount or Mount Moriah) is where Herod declared, “whomever has not seen the temple, hasn’t seen a true beauty in his life.” 

Even more impactful, some believe that Mount Moriah is where God created the world.

Certainly, it’s hard to imagine man building this wall without a whole lot of divine energy.  The entire wall extends 488 meters, and was at one time up to 60 meters high. Much of the wall is under ground, so what is visible is just a part of the enormous structure. Then, consider that part of the wall is comprised of massive meter-deep stone frames. Each weighs 570 tons, measures 40 feet wide. With today’s technology, the best crane in Israel can’t move these stones. Furthermore, each piece is carved perfectly, and set in place with no mortar. 

Prayers at The Western Wall, JerusalemIsaiah called the temple “a home for all nations,” or a spiritual gathering place, regardless of one’s chosen religion. That’s what one sees today, thousands of years later. Albeit one wall that has withstood earthquakes, ransacking, fires, and destruction by the Romans, Moors and Babylonians. It was covered up by the Muslim quarter built on top of the ancient temple. Then, politics attempted to obliterate the wall. 

In 1948, with the emergence of the State of Israel, this part of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan. No Jews were allowed here. When Israel took over in 1967, the wall was made accessible to all, and the area was consecrated as a temple with space for 60,000.  

Not surprisingly, today, it is the most visited place in all Israel.  

* Not unlike traditions at many Indian temples, men and women pray at separate areas at the Kotel. 

** Again, as in Hindu traditions, when one’s back is not to face the deities, the same etiquette is practiced at the wall.  

Protected by Divine Energy 

As I left, I took a a Spanish-language.

Todos son iguales frente al Muro. El tocar sus piedras nos vincula a nuestra nación y legado…lo insignificante se desvanece. El Muro ha sido testigo de épocas de guerra y épocas de paz, de destrucción y renacimiento.

Everyone is equal in front of the wall. Touching its stones connects us to a nation and a legacy. What’s not important disappears. The wall has witnessed times of war and times of peace, destruction and rebirth.

 

Shabbat as part of dinacharya; sunset to sunset

Add Shabbat to Your Dinacharya

For more than three years, I’ve been following an Ayurvedic dinacharya, as prescribed by my Ayurvedic doctor. I try to adhere to my daily routine as closely as possible. Even when I’m traveling around the world, without access to hot water, or other elements that are part of my Rx, I try to maintain my dinacharya.

On my last visit to my Ayurvedic doctor, as was to be expected, he made a few tweaks to my dinacharya. He  simplified some, and then added on more layers to my routine. With just a slight sense of humor, I told my partner, “Now my dinacharya includes Shabbat.”  

Disconnect for a Spiritual Reboot

Shabbat to disconnect and reconnectAs much as I think I disconnect from stressors all around, my doctor  wants me to have a cleaner break. Once a week, I should turn off all devices for 24 hours. 

For many years, I’ve understood the benefits of shutting down a few hours before bedtime. TVs went to Goodwill. Same with the stereo. I cut back considerably on the time spent on my laptop. However, my smart phone is my lifeline. It is my everything. Messenger. Alarm clock. Timer. CD player.  Guided meditation source. Camera. Calculator. Flashlight.  Newsroom. Social network.  And, it’s even a telephone sometimes. 

I totally get the importance of disconnecting. While I have never honored the sabbath, I appreciate the benefits it has on your body, mind, and soul. However, for most of us that have never followed the traditional Jewish rules of sabbath, it can be difficult to adopt, or accept.Shabbat at Jafo beach

Saturdays in Israel often mean beach time, so, who am I to say turn that down. 

Haddassah Mendoza-Elias lived in Jerusalem when she was in her 20s. The Chicago-area resident returns as frequently as she can. She wasn’t raised in a family that turned off electronics and turned in the car keys on sabbath. Haddassah admits it’s very hard to shut down in the States. But, she relishes honoring the day of rest, and her family always had Shabbat meals. 

“I observe (Shabbat) when I’m in Israel because of the peace that I get.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Jewish guide for living, the Torah, has built in recharge time. There is space to relax and almost a societal requirement to participate in Shabbat in one way or another. Keeping Shabbat is helpful for keeping things in perspective, because you have to prioritize things. What can wait for 24 hours, and what cannot?  It’s refreshing to discover that most things can wait.”

Disconnect to Connect your Body and Soul

Estee is a dynamo of a Zumba teacher at the Jerusalem YMCA. She exudes passion and a Type A personality. Just as she moves to the fast beats in Zumba, so does she speak and think at techno dance speed. Estee, like Haddassah, says it’s rare that something can’t wait. The mother of eight, talks about why disconnecting on Sabbath is so beneficial. Even her non-religious adult children respect and relax during Shabbat.  

Shabbat in Tel Aviv“When they walk into my home on Shabbat, everything is turned off. It’s family time. It really makes a giant difference in their lives. Even for the non-religious ones. It’s more than connecting with other people. It’s connecting with yourself. We have to be important to ourselves. Sometimes you need you.” Estee admits that while it may not have been easy to keep the rules going in her household, now, her kids “wouldn’t have it any other way.

Her remarks strike a chord with me. Much of my daily dinacharya is precisely so that I can connect with myself, rather than the fast-paced world around me. In fact, the purpose of breath work, meditation and yoga is about disconnecting from the outside world and re-connecting with the inner being. Many studies have confirmed this. But just maybe, Shabbat can take you further.  After all, the rituals of Shabbat have been going on for about the same time as yoga and meditation. Just like with yoga and Ayurveda, the benefits of these practices have been proven over thousands of years.

Shabbat in Tel Aviv

Estee’s 13-year-old daughter, Ora Leah, speaks like an old yogi. Her words relay her wise soul.  She explains how she is more centered and grounded with the practice of Shabbat. You listen to your body and your soul. “There’s no clock or alarm on Shabbat.  You eat when you’re hungry. Sleep when you want. For as long as you want. Also, it’s quality time. It’s a beautiful thing. Even to get together with friends.”   

No wonder I enjoy the peace and quiet of blackouts. The beach to the city. A lack of artificial sounds and sights amplifies the benefits of my daily dinacharya.

Ora Leah recounts an experiment in Asia. In an attempt to increase productivity, they initiated ten day work weeks. Employees were given a day of rest every ten days. However, the “brilliant” theory backfired. Illnesses rose.  “Your body needs to rest,” underscores Ora Leah.

We need to prioritize ourselves. Our bodies. Our minds. Even more importantly, our spirits. Each of which is certainly far more important than any post on Facebook, the urge to get in your car and go shopping, or checking your unending string of emails. Disconnect from the artificial. Connect to the natural.  Add Shabbat to your dinacharya. Sunset to sunset, any day of the week. 

Yoga at YMCA Tripoint, San Antonio

Jerusalem Sangha: Muslims, Christians and Jews at the YMCA

YMCA Three Arches JerusalemFor as long as I’ve been a yoga teacher, I’ve been affiliated with the YMCA.

Frequently, I mention to my students why I enjoy being a part of the YMCA family.

First, it not about the facilities.

Second, it’s not about the pay.

Neither, is it about the location.

Rather, it’s all about the sangha. Community.

Additionally, the “judeo-christian principles” that we try to instill everywhere at the YMCA jive with my Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) yogic philosophy and lifestyle.

Those Judeo-Christian values, and sangha, shot up to the sky after my visit to the Jerusalem YMCA.  Coincidentally, it was just a few weeks before the U.S. embassy moved to this holy city, which resulted in major uprisings OUTSIDE of Israel. Based on my experiences in Jerusalem, I’ve always seen co-existence between the Arabs and the Jews. But, no sangha.  So, imagine a place in Jerusalem where hijabs and head coverings are removed, and you can’t tell the difference between a, Jew, Muslim or Christian. And, the only thing that matters is that they get their game on, and enjoy themselves. 

Welcome to the YMCA Three Arches

TYMCA Three Arches Jerusalemhe YMCA in Jerusalem is a landmark. Its bell tower is visible from afar, making it a beacon and focal point.  Opened in 1933, it was established as a place “…whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.” 

Arthur Loomis Harmon designed the Three Arches. He was an architect with the firm responsible for the Empire State Building. Twelve cyprus trees at the entrance to Three Arches acknowledge the 12 tribes of Israel.  In fact, Three Arches, refers to the three related religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam.

Throughout its history, it has aimed to unite and coalesce the different communities in Jerusalem. In other words, create sangha. The YMCA’s preschool was the first bilingual school in Israel. Its Jerusalem Youth Chorus encourages the youth from the three religions to become leaders for peace in their communities. The Youth Department, with free youth programs, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, apparently for far more than traditional daycare.

As a fine four-star hotel, many of the guests from around the world appreciate the YMCA’s swimming pool. In fact, it is one of the largest in the country. Guests, and members, relish the workout facilities at the sports center, considered to be the largest in the Middle East. 

Christian Values in a Non-Christian City 

YMCA Three Arches JerusalemYes, Three Arches offers the finest in facilities. Among the 50 weekly classes are usuals like Zumba, pilates, spinning and yoga. However, this YMCA offers Feldenkreis, Osteofit, Aquacise, Commando, Barre, pre-natal yoga, and Gyrokinesis. But that’s not about what management and staff are cheering loudest. Rather, this is viewed as a place for people of the three Mohammadan religions to gather, work out or socialize together.

The goal of this YMCA is to have a membership that is 40 percent Jewish, 40 percent Arab (Muslim and Christian), and 20 percent other (i.e. European, Asian, American). That balance isn’t all that easy to attain considering the overall population of Jerusalem is about 64 percent Jewish, 34 percent Muslim and just two percent Christian. Perhaps the hotel guests help balance out the diversity at the YMCA.

The mission of the YMCA Three Arches is to follow, and promote, Christian values. Interesting, considering the Christian population in Jerusalem is very low. Yet, not surprising when you accept that Christian, Jewish and Muslim values are the same. Again, the three arches representing the three religions that evolved from the same roots.

The YMCA’s mission works beautifully, in Jerusalem, according to Estee, a Zumba teacher here.

A Microcosm of Jerusalem

YMCA Three Arches JerusalemThe YMCA staff is continuously tasked with encouraging a meshing of the subsets of Jerusalem residents. According to Estee, that may sound nice, but in reality, there’s no need for it. “Here, it’s already happening.” 

“There are no differences in this building. This whole place is based on that. Prejudices aren’t allowed. My goal is to look like I don’t belong to any group,” says Estee, who in fact has long bright blonde hair and pale skin.  “I cannot tell the difference between the Arabs and the Jews. Cultural differences don’t exist here. Rather, differences are seen by how high can they jump, or twerk. They’re having fun, and get to know everyone on a different level.” 

Estee’s words aren’t empty. The Mayor of Jerusalem, commenting on her Zumba class, saying it was a “microcosm of Jerusalem.” Pretty cool for the YMCA — and Zumba, under Estee’s leadership and positivity, to be able to achieve this.

Estee is proud of the unity among staff, members and guests at the YMCA. She says the YMCA dissolves all differences. Especially on the basketball court, yoga mat, or dancing to the beats of hip hop, salsa or Arabic music. “It gives me so much happiness to see them (interact and mesh).” Again, it’s all about that sangha at the YMCA.

Three Arches YMCA Tailored for All

YMCA Three Arches JerusalemOk. So, let’s accept that there are no differences in the way Arabs and Jews dance, jump or lift weights. But, visitors may notice other differences.

One. While the YMCA is open seven days a week, observant Jews will not be present on Shabbat (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).

Two. The Muslim day of rest is Friday.

Three.  Sunday is traditionally considered a day of worship for Christians. 

So, attendance among the different groups of religions will vary from one day to the next.

Furthermore, to respect both observant Jews and Muslims, almost all group exercise classes are segregated. Men one hour, women another. Even the non-observant seem to prefer it this way. 

Plan a visit: The cost of membership at the YMCA Three Arches is about half that of other fitness facilities in the vicinity. YMCA members from the U.S. are eligible for a free week at the Three Arches YMCA if they bring a letter confirming their membership from their home YMCA. 

 

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