Category Archives: Sutras & Ahimsa

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.”

 

extra-terrestrial yogis at Contact in the Desert

Celestial Yogis Make Contact in the Desert

Recently, I was invited to Contact in the Desert. This is the largest UFO gathering in the States. While I didn’t catch any flying saucers, I found some celestial yogis.

Laura Eisenhower

Laura Eisenhower She looks like yogis do. She has natural curls, nose ring and loose fitting natural fiber clothes. Laura’s on the lineup for a June 17 Mass Meditation Initiative in Los Angeles. The goal is to “raise the vibration of humanity and bring forth higher consciousness on planet earth together.” 

Although she’s steeped into UFOlogy, and claims to have had some close encounters of her own, she speaks like a yogi. “We are here to be amazing vessels of creativity…help others through experience of being wounded. There’s got to be something else besides wounds.” 

It’s clear she has mastered mindfulness. In my book, that’s more important than landing your side crow. The great-granddaughter of Ike, her father runs wilderness expeditions. It’s apparent that Laura picked up his love for the elements in our universe.  

stress reduction workshop“I’m blown away by nature.  Looking at nature is like a psychedelic experience.  I have to remind myself, this is what it’s all about,” she said. “We are so connected to this earth. The energy of the mother is unconditional love. The ultimate wound is separation from the mother.”

In Sanskrit, mother is ma.  I interpret ma to mean my birth mother, the divine mother, mother nature, or womankind. 

In a prior interview, Laura spoke about that.  “The Mother energy loves us beyond our comprehension, and is patient and determined to create global transformation, regenerate and re-unite with Heaven, through the cycles of nature and the path of Venus.”

“It’s not easy being human. Just to observe, in a week, all the things in your life, out of balance. Defeat is just a choice. You go though a lot… either becoming a victim and evil, or, help others…have each others’ back.”

Like many yogis, she has traipsed all over the world.  Steeped in frontier health, alchemy, metaphysics and ancient history, she has degrees and certifications in science, wilderness expedition leadership and natural healing. 

Robert Bauval

Robert Bauval at Contact in the DesertAn Egyptologist for 30 years, Robert Bauval is author of more than a dozen books. His latest is “Cosmic Womb: The Seeding of Planet Earth.” The founder of Astrobiology, Chandra Wikramasinghe, PhD. co-authored that edition.

Most relevant, Bauval broaches subjects popular among yogis. Consciousness, and the afterlife. 

“In all honesty, no one really knows what consciousness is.  That’s what makes it exciting.  Something is physical, and yet it’s not. Consciousness is what happens when you wake up. When I’m at that stage of waking up.” He told workshop attendees that it can feel like a buzz, or something electric turning on. Our traditional consciousness is very dull. Rather, turned on just four percent. “That’s where it gets spooky. As far as we know, we are the only conscious beings in the universe. Our level of awareness and consciousness is extraordinary.”

Actually, his theory is that we are the product of a much more ancient life form. “Maybe there’s more between the stars and the pyramids.  Life was brought here by meteorites some 3.5 billion years ago.  The probability for life having evolved HERE is almost nil. I’m beginning to think we are aliens.”

Amrit Kirtan Kaur

Amrit Kaur at Contact in the Desert When I saw the name, I knew she was part of the family of yogis. In the Sikh tradition, we are all equal. A woman does not “belong” to a man. Hence, all females take on the same surname: Kaur = princess. Amrit means sweetness, or nectar. Finally, Kirtan is devotional chanting. 

On one evening, she led beautiful mantra meditations in Gurmukhi (language of the Sikhs) and English. The following morning, she was on stage with her electric keyboard, explaining the healing effects of chanting.  

I have great respect for Kundalini as taught by Yogi Bhajan. His teachings are wise forms of therapy. Yogi Bhajan was a disciple of Guru Ram Das who was a healer. Guru Ram Das sent Yogi Bhajan to the West. According to Amrit, he came to the United States in 1969. One of his missions was to help get people off drugs. 

“Happiness is our birthright,” said Amrit. “It’s the blessing that we have. You can share it with everybody. With yourself. And God.”

“What is music?” she asked. “Vibration. It’s infinite. It’s everywhere. We are vibration. You are the instrument. When we sing we feel better. I am definitely one that has been a guinea pig to my own experiences.  I have been changed by the mantras,” she confessed. 

hatha at Contact in the DesertMe too. I chant every day, and just returned from a retreat where we chanted three words, almost 12 hours a day. I’m looking forward to repeat that retreat next year.

“The power of mantra, when you chant, you connect with the meridians in the mouth,” she explained. “It’s a beautiful marriage: prayer and mantra. When you tap into your voice, you tap into what’s there. Like a whole closet. Full of things you never knew you had there.”

Most noteworthy, Amrit equates different chords with different chakras. This approach is similar to Dr. Dream with his Tibetan bowls.  For example, the root chakra is C. Likewise, the second chakra is D which boosts creativity and minimizes fear. 

Sunrise Hatha

Finally, yogis could unite for asana practice. This is California. What would sunrise be without a sun salutation.

kapalabhati ego eradicator breath of fire

YOGA MEDICINE: Focus for International Day of Yoga

Tiffany Cruikshank is the founder of Yoga Medicine and author of two books. With a Masters in Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine, she combines the wisdom of east and west to help her clients achieve optimum health and wellness. At one of her yoga workshops in Austin, she said, “I feel strongly that yoga belongs in our medical system. My patients who were yoga students, got better, faster.”

So many others in the health care fields share this message.

Both Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Ayurveda, seek to find the root cause for imbalances which can cause dis-ease. About TCM, Kruikshank spoke about the over riding principles. “In a simple way, we treat the wholeBrahmari Yoga Medicine person…the root of what’s happening and symptoms,” which she referred to as the leaves and branches. “The body knows what to do to heal itself.” And, she added that healthy bodies have a natural flow. Call it chi or prana, it’s the energetic life force.

Another yoga therapist who combines the best of east and west is Dr. Saraswati Markus who leads Dao Flow Yoga/TCM Teacher Trainings.  An ob/gyn, and acupuncturist, she “weaves together Chinese medicine, and Yoga, along with modern medicine, into one healing cord.” She seeks to find the root cause of the problem and a lifetime solution. She says you can “use the body as a tool.  Balance (yin/yang) becomes a game changer.”  And, it’s too often missing. Especially, when you consider that 70 percent of people’s issues are stress related. 

“We are wired to see our environment as a problem,” said Dr. Markus. “The sympathetic nervous system is being toggled on.”  And, females seem to carry a bigger burden. “Women are natural multi-taskers. Most of us are very goal-oriented.”  Following what she calls the disease of perfectionism, with no balance, things get out of whack. “We have to be very careful. Doing one thing at a time conserves your vital life force.”

The Namaste Counsel Yoga MedicineExplained from a Western medical reference, Dr. Markus says that the endocrine system shuts down as a result of a hectic overburdened lifestyle. “Every time we break harmony, it leads a little bit of residue.”

For some, it’s easier to stay in harmony. For others, the slightest upset can wreak havoc on their body and cause pain. I’m very easy going. But, I have dealt with stress-related discomfort most my life. Fortunately, I turned to yoga and meditation for pain management when I was a teen. Now, nearing my 60th birthday, I take no prescription or OTC drugs. However, I reach for my different forms of yoga medicine upon rising, before bedtime, and throughout the day.

My personal experiences are what led me to be a Certified Yoga Therapist. I believe in teaching people about yoga medicine whenever possible.

One of my clients was a vet with a barrage of injuries and insurmountable pain. With the support of bolsters and cushions, he was able to relax his mind and body in key poses, and practice mindfulness and breath work. He experienced a significant reduction in discomfort, improved energy and sleep. That led to an overall improved state of being.

Learn More as Part of International Day of Yoga

Lawrence M. Cohen, MD, says that, “Pain represents an area of inflammation and ‘stuck energy.’ By doing stretches, applying sound eating practices and using diaphragmatic breathing, both the causes of pain and the perception of pain can be lowered.” Cohen is medical director of The Center for Complementary Medicine in San Antonio. He will discuss Yoga as Lifestyle Medicine at a free International Day of Yoga event at TriPoint June 17. 

Yoga therapy, Ayurveda and TCM are individual rather than one-size-fits-all prescriptions.   There is no handy Rx reference sheet for practitioners. Hence, client/practitioner relationships are important. For example, I try to do lifestyle as well as postural and musculo-skeletal analyses. Then, seek root issues, and how to address them. 

bhastrika yoga medicineDr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa has conducted ions of clinical research. For decades he has studied the efficacy of yoga medicine for Alzheimer’s, back pain and a host of other disorders. I’ve attended workshops he’s led for yoga therapists in California. Now, he’s headed to San Antonio.  For International Day of Yoga, Dr. Khalsa will lead a CME-Seminar for physicians, students and healthcare professionals. 

As is my preference, he endorses the many limbs of yoga. “Yoga practices that include all of the traditional components including breath regulations, deep relaxation and meditation/mindfulness in addition to physical postures and exercises are behavioral strategies that have a significant psychophysiological impact on physical and mental fitness,” he explains.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yoga, Ayurveda and other mind/body practices focus on balance and wellness. Dr. Devraj Nayak is a cardiologist in Floresville, Texas. As an advisory board member of the upcoming Yoga as Lifestyle Medicine event, he quotes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra Chapter 2 Verse 16.

The pain and suffering which is not yet come can and is to be avoided.

Finally, for some of my favorite forms of yoga medicine, check out my photo gallery that includes benefits and instructions. 

Shadows of the Sun Dynasty by Vrinda Sheth

Sita’s Fire: Trilogy Unveiled at Austin Performance

When Vrinda Sheth was 18 years old, an opportunity fell into her lap. Most would have run the other way. Or laughed it off. She toughened up to the challenge. She spent the next 15 years honing her talents, as part of “Sita’s Fire.”

This week, the object of her immense dedication won a prestigious award. “Shadows of Destiny,” was bestowed a Silver Medal by the Independent Book Publishers Association. One of the most influential associations in independent publishing, IBPA awards recognize excellence in book editorial and design.

Book Reading Performance in Austin

Vrinda Sheth, author of Shadows of the Sun DynastyVrinda lives in Central Florida with her husband, Vish.  He’s a kirtan artist about whom I’ve written many an article. April 21, they will perform their mesmerizing and invigorating blend of East vs. West music and dance at Austin’s Sanctuary Church. The visit is to promote what has kept Vrinda on the creative track all these years.  Not just one book. But three.  “Sita’s Fire” Trilogy.  All are published by Mandala/Simon and Schuster,

Well-known yogi, Shiva Rea says Vrinda is an “extraordinarily gifted storyteller” who makes the timeless epic come to life.

Vrinda explains how everything fell into place. 

Annapurna Johansson, Sita's Fire“This project began as a vision by my mother, who is the illustrator. As long as I can remember, she has been fiercely committed to her art, setting up studios for herself even with the most minimal of resources. She began her first Ramayana drawings over 15 years ago and was working with another author. That project came to a halt as that author dropped out. Determined, my mom asked me if I’d like to try my hand at writing. Her request really surprised me, as I was 18 at the time, about to start college, and with no clear idea of my direction. But the publishers loved the draft I wrote and that was the beginning of this joint mom-daughter work.”

The Trilogy: Sita’s Fire

Shadows of the Sun Dynasty by Vrinda ShethVrinda began “Shadows of the Sun Dynasty” from Internet cafes in India.  As she was writing the Sita’s Fire trilogy, she earned a degree in English from the University of Florida. She married Vish. They had a baby, and are expecting their second child this July. Now, she has gained confidence as a prolific writer. “Queen of the Elements” will be available August 8. Then, the third in the series will be released in 2019.  She acknowledges mom was always right.

“I think in some ways she knew me better than I knew myself, because her request really compelled me to start my creative journey as an author. In hindsight, I can see that my mom encouraged me in this direction, because I was always writing something or the other and an avid reader. It took more than 10 years for me to settle into my confidence as a writer, and that journey will perhaps continue lifelong. But I’ve at least grown past paralyzingly self-doubt into a mature ability to even critique and edit my own work.”

Vrinda’s mother, Anna Johansson, exposed Vrinda to the ancient tales of the Ramayana at an early age. Rather than tales of Mickey and Cinderella, her parents raised Vrinda according to Vedic cultures and traditions. Stories of Sita and Rama. She learned Sanskrit and basic Hindi.  For five years, she lived in India. She mastered  traditional Indian dance which guests will appreciate in Austin.  

“It is my personal aim to make these ancient Indian stories accessible to ‘my own people,’ in the sense that I grew up in the West, first Sweden and then America, and I’m quite rooted in the United States. I was raised on these incredible Indian epics from various ancient texts. Good stories are good stories. And we are all hungry for them, no matter where on earth they come from.”

Vrinda and Vish make sacred traditional music hip. Likewise, she hopes to be a cultural translator of the tales from India that date back to fifth century BCE.

The Ramayana is an Epic Tale

Vrinda Sheth, author of Shadows of the Sun Dynasty“The Ramayana is a complex, multi-layered epic that has stood the test of time, and is studied by scholars and is being constantly retold by various authors. In India, for example, there are over 200 regional versions. So I’m officially part of this vast and vibrant storytelling tradition. Knowing this actually eased some of my writer’s anxiety, as it was at times daunting to tackle such a beloved story,” says Vrinda. 

For Vrinda, much of what makes the story so special are the pivotal characters. While Rama is oft-described as a deity, one of the things that endears him to Vrinda is the human struggles he undergoes. “The challenges he faces are ones that any of us can relate to,” she says.

“The story itself has so many of the classic elements that a modern reader craves: palace intrigue, romance, a prince in exile, an abducted princess, a three-dimensional villain, the battle of good vs evil. And perhaps most of all, the question of womanhood is central to the story, as I see it, turning it ultimately from a love-story to a tragedy. This is, at least, one of the most fascinating and admittedly disturbing aspects of the tale: how it treats its women. Our retelling is unique in that it focuses not only on the inner lives and feelings of the characters but also explores the place and personal power of the women.”

Sita as a Heroine

Not surprisingly, the female protagonist is Vrinda’s favorite in the fable.  

“Sita, to me, is the most fascinating of the characters. Despite being a central character around which the plot of the story moves, she has received very little stage time herself.  Isn’t this exactly the position that women across history have faced? In our work, we make an intentional effort to bring Sita into the spotlight.”

Sita in Shadows of the Sun DynastyTo some extent, Vrinda is taking the classic tale and bringing a bit of feminism to the storyline. 

“All over the world there is a rise in the collective consciousness towards elevating women, valuing girls, giving equal opportunity to children, regardless of gender. I was reflecting the other day on the power of our childhood stories (in Sweden). One of my favorite childhood authors is Astrid Lindgren, who wrote Pippi Longstocking and many other stories with strong and powerful female leads. This has impacted the Swedish consciousness, and I think women’s equality is a going strong there. This motivates me to be part of a storytelling effort that pays attention to the women and girls even in stories that already exist.”

Similarly, Madhavi Mangu is a strong female in Texas. Of East Indian ancestry, she was raised in Dubai and works as an IT manager for a major multi-national. In her spare time, she is dedicated to Austin Bhakti Yoga. As such, she is co-host of the book launch performance. “This is a MUST COME cultural event. Vish and Vrinda combine contemporary touch with a classic twist at the beautiful Sanctuary Church in Tarrytown. The book reading is presented through a unique format of Indian classical dance and music that symbolizes honesty, goodness and sacrifice.”

ISKCON Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami: The Journey Within, Part 2*

For a kid from the Chicago suburbs, Radhanath Swami followed a non-traditional life as part of his journey within (read previous post). Today, as a spiritual leader, he is a primary force behind a charity hospital and roving eye camp. He inspired a program that feeds 500,000 school kids daily. Moreover, he is at the helm of an award-winning Eco village, a women’s empowerment initiative and financial literacy programs, all in India.

The soft-spoken swami still finds time to share his words of wisdom via books and workshops. Herein, are remarks made at Chicago’s Bhakti Fest, particularly relevant given our current political atmosphere. 

Unity in diversity is at the heart of Bhakti — Radhanath Swami

“Like a flower garland, the diversity makes it beautiful,” he said referring to the strands of colorful buds that are placed around people’s necks to display respect and reverence. To extinguish diversity is regrettable, he says.

“True wisdom is to see everyone with equal vision. Whether it’s a human or a cat, wherever there is life, it is sacrRadhanath Swami:The Journey Withined. Spiritual people have been in so many places and languages trying to give humanity this teaching.”

That philosophy is part of the concept of the first yogi commandment: ahimsa. When we talk about ahimsa (non-violence) we don’t just say, do no harm to your loved ones. Rather, we are inclusive. In other words, do no harm to any living being.

“There so much conflict in the world,” he says. To paint the picture, he gives an example of someone suffering from a blood disease. You can’t use a band-aid approach to address the symptoms. Rather, you must go to the root of the matter. Determine what is causing the disease. “The same with politics.” Therefore, with societal woes, we can’t just resolve them with tax breaks or other panaceas. We must zoom in on what plagues our society at its core. 

Radhanath Swami sees a lack of spirituality as a festering problem.

“Spirituality is that science that deals with the core problem of conflict. When there’s greed, arrogance, anger, it (conflict) comes out.  These qualities can become monstrous. Somehow or other, the false ego is obsessed.”

“The law of karma is a scientific analysis of how the world works. As you sow, so shall you reap. What goes around comes around. Like the law of gravity. Whatever we believe, whatever goes up must come down. It’s not that we can always see the results. If you plant a nice flower, it takes a long time for the flower to bloom. It takes its time. Karma is like that. Sometimes there’s immediate reaction. Other times not until another life. But in due course it will blossom.” 

The greatest value of life is compassion — Radhanath Swami

coexistWe’ve all seen those bumper stickers that say COEXIST. But, unfortunately, there are too many us-versus-them mindsets in our population. People that believe, “We are superior to others. My race… my religion… my beauty… my education. We look for ways to be superior to others. If others outshine us, we are vulnerable to depression or envy. If we outshine others we are vulnerable to condescension.”

“Victims make other people victims. The oppressed, when given power, become oppressors. Real greatness is overcoming that ego. Unless we understand who we are we can’t understand our unity with others.”  That’s why the journey within is so important. 

At the core of Bhakti yoga is mantra meditation. Radhanath Swami explains, “This chanting of mantras is an ancient eternal way in which is love is awakened from within our hearts. Only to love and be loved can give pleasure to the heart.”

Most forms of yoga help us to go within. The aim is to quiet our monkey mind. Bhakti is one way to keep the mind from jumping which “can really get us in trouble.” Inner peace, love and bliss are within reach when we still the mind.

According to Radhanath Swami, in the Bhakti tradition, it’s not about whether we have a lot or a little. Nor, does it matter whether one is a surgeon, or a garbage man.  Selfless love is the greatest thing we can pass on to our children, he teaches.

He told a story about a CEO from Chicago that he met in London.  The CEO traveled on a private jet. Radhanath Swami hitchhiked there. The CEO was on the verge of being a billionaire. Radhanath hasn’t had a checking account since 1969. Despite their differences, they are in the same place. 

Does it really make a difference what one thinks he or she owns? In the shared yogic and ISKCON beliefs, we don’t really own anything. Thus, the universe is the true owner.

Everything comes from the same source — Radhanath Swami

 love, compassion and humility“The difference between spiritual life is not just interacting with the world, but how we interact. From a Bhakti perspective, I’m a caretaker of god’s property. Not the proprietor. But, if we forget the origins, it becomes material versus spiritual.”

Prestige. Possessions. Abilities. Those things are unimportant. Rather, we should seek inner peace. Compassion. Love for God. 

The first principle taught in the Bhagavad Gita is that we are the life that animates this body, Radhanath explains. “The souls can never die. This body is like a car. If there’s not a driver in the car, what can the car do? When the body dies, the soul travels on. When we awaken, our true consciousnesses discover we are all from the same source.”

“What does it mean to be humble? It’s such a profound and deep subject. We are not the controller, or the owner. I didn’t make the sun. All the organs of my body are gifts given to me.”

“We have our choices. We always have free will. Whether in pleasant times…or in hard times. We can make choices to live with integrity. This is what life is about. But how many things in the universe can we not control?  It’s limitless. That should humble us.” 

* Part 1 and Part 2 are based on a workshop Radhanath Swami gave in Chicago at Bhakti Fest. This was one of many workshops I have attended with him, over the years, at Bhakti Fest. To read more about his prior remarks, use the search engine on www.TheNamasteCounsel.com/yoga-blog

India

Radhanath Swami: The Journey Within, Part 1*

“When you expect things, you are never happy,” says Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within.

Yoga teaches us to live in the present. Don’t worry about the future, or dwell on the past. Be content.

Why is there so much arrogance and hate…in the name of religion?— Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami  was raised in an affluent spirituality and the journey withinChicago suburb.  He went to Deerfield High School, where pretty much everyone back in the 60s was college bound. The now spiritual leader got a different type of education. He found answers on the journey within.

Growing up, he felt he didn’t fit in. When he was just a young kid, his father filed bankruptcy. As a result, Radhanath worked at a car wash. There, most all his work mates were African-Americans who had witnessed poverty. 

“They all had no way out,” Radhanath Swami told a group of yogis at Chicago’s Bhakti Fest 2016. “I really loved them. I remember thinking, ‘why is it they had no opportunities?’ A lot of things didn’t make sense.”

Richard, as he was called, considered himself part of the counter culture. Early on the journey within, he had long hair, and wore one set of clothes. “I ended up at Grant Park during the Democratic convention, and I am proud to say I got tear gassed by the Chicago Police.” 

He chose to be the change.

“I started doing some yoga and meditation and read different scriptures.  I came to a crossroads.”

He was in a desperate quest to find himself, and the meaning of life. On summer break, he went to Europe. Atop a mountain in Crete, he received a message. Head to India. 

I was homeless but felt so much at home. — Radhanath Swami 

India

“When I arrived at the border it took six months. Now it takes eight hours on British Airways. But it’s not as scenic or life changing. I was emaciated when I arrived. I had 26 cents in five currencies.”

What’s more, he was denied entry to India. He was in a desolate area. There were problems between Pakistan and India. The border agent told him, “We have enough beggars in India.” 

Meanwhile, he pleaded. Begged. Got philosophical. “For six hours I sat under a tree and tried again. Finally, they put their guns in my face and said, ‘If you come back we will kill you.’” 

Those escapades and more make his first autobiography, “The Journey Home,” read like an adventure novel. 

Apparently, this kid from Chicago’s quest for knowledge wasn’t satisfied with school books. The journey within took him through much solitude.

He lived in caves. Under trees. In forests. “There was one baba and he used to sleep under trees too. And there’s a certain collegiate connection between people that live under trees,” he says. 

We lose ourself … with materialism and goals.— Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within, and The Journey Home

ISKCON Radhanath SwamiHe kept searching for answers. He came upon many so-called gurus. Finally, in Vrindavan, he found what seemed like the real source.  The journey within led him to Bhakti (devotion) and Srila Prabhupad of ISKCON. “I found a place I never wanted to leave. After about a year, it was discovered that my visa had expired. I was a fugitive and this agent was obsessed with finding me.”

His stories get crazier and crazier. Yet, they’re true.

One day, an animal pulled him into a sewer.  He got rabies. While that’s typically a nightmare, the series of shots required him to be under medical care. As a result, he was given legal medical papers. Especially relevant, he got his visa. 

Despite all his hurdles, he recounts them all with laughter.  Just after he returned back to Chicago, he learned he missed George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the ashram.  

“When I finally did come home (after several years), I was a hard core ascetic. They (his parents) were confused.” By then, his traditional Jewish parents would have been happy if he had married a Muslim or African-American, he said. It wasn’t until many years later, with their son going back to India, that the gleaned the values of his newfound life. “Finally in 1989, they came to India for the first time and were totally transformed. They loved everything.”

Things can never give fulfillment to the heart — Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within“The nature of life is a series of choices and every choice we make affects our destiny. In whatever situation we are in, we always have a choice of how we respond,” he says. His guru, Srila Prabhupad taught that a person’s greatness is not measured by wealth, land, beauty or athletic ability. Rather, greatness is measured by how one responds to challenging situations. 

“In all the great spiritual traditions, the real wealth is in our state of mind,” Radhanath Swami says.  You can tell how rich you are by counting how many things you have that money cannot buy. Peace. Love. These things bring purpose to life.”

In conclusion, we can all have what we need. It’s a state of mind. Hence, the journey within. 

* Part 1 and Part 2 are based on one of Radhanath Swami’s workshops in Chicago at Bhakti Fest. For the past four years, I’ve attended multiple workshops with him at each Bhakti Fest. To read more about his prior remarks, use this blog’s search engine.

Rancho Regeneracion

Ahimsa and our Planet: Rancho Regeneración Respects Nature

A Yogi’s 1st Commandment: Ahimsa

Ahimsa and the planetAhimsa. It’s the first commandment for yogis. Gandhi’s rallying cry: “non-violence,” or “do no harm.” 

Typically, people associate ahimsa with how we interact with our fellow man.  However, ahimsa goes deeper. Practice ahimsa with oneself, all other living beings and our environment.  

Hence, traditionally, those that honor the yamas and niyamas are vegetarian, with respect for our planet. Two of the other yamas, asteya and aparigraha, affect our environment.  Waste Not. Want Not. Nothing more. First, relinquish attachment and materialism. Then, don’t crave what you do not need.  If we all honored those rules, overconsumption would be kept in check. The Universe can provide, if we don’t take what we don’t need.

Take a look at any major construction or remodeling site in the States. Contractors over purchase to allow for error. What’s more, they don’t usually recycle the excess materials or scrap. We live in a throw-away society. Just as we don’t see a cow being transformed into hamburger meat. Nor, do we see tons of garbage stuffed into landfills. So, most don’t care. They feed the alarming cycle.

“It’s negligence. Irresponsible. Unconscious.” Those are the words of Muffa, as he describes the waste in the United States. “It’s the American Dream. To live beyond your means. In developing countries, everything is used. Dumpster diving is a profession,” Muffa says about the difference between his birth country, the U.S., and Nicaragua, where he now lives. 

One Man’s Garbage is Another Man’s Treasure

Ahimsa and the planet: re-useIn Latin America, barefooted young children scour the towering expanses of garbage dumps. It’s a form of recycling, but it’s hazardous to their health. 

For last two months, I’ve been living on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.  Population: 16,000.  Despite the tendency to “waste not,” there is a sprawling dump on the outskirts of town.  Sad marks of our “advancing” society.  

Fortunately, there is a movement to make a difference. Costa Rica, long ago, planted its stake in eco-tourism. Almost one-third of the land is protected. There are many sustainable living communities and eco-lodges. Nicaragua is following suit.

This is why I’m here. I’m part of Muffa’s eco-community. Like me, Muffa is from Chicago, and studied at the University of Illinois. He had a high powered corporate gig in the financial industry. His job was “soul-sucking. It felt evil.”

So he chucked it.

“I began as a volunteer on eco lodges and permaculture farms in Central America, and worked my way around the world helping build sustainable and regenerative projects in Australia, Philippines, Chicago and Peru,” he says.

Design Inspired by Nature

Rancho RegeneracionMuffa made a leap of faith. The stars aligned, and he found 80 acres of overgrazed cattle field. He converted it Rancho Regeneración to counteract the overflowing landfills.  His community is based on the concept that nature knows best. “Having a net zero impact is not enough to heal all the damage we have caused. We all need to be creating a net positive impact on the environment, the local community and the economy. Our work is guided by design inspired by nature. Nature has 4.6 trillion years of research and development.”

Shortly after he began working, solo, on Rancho Regeneración, he purchased a hostel, Casa Oro, and guest homes in San Juan del Sur. An ever-growing circle of sustainability. He tries to educate the guests, and has taken them to visit or work the ranch. Furthermore, his properties collect organic waste for composting. Plus, left-over building materials head to the ranch. The goal is to convert garbage into treasures. Windows. Flower beds. Mulch. “Eco bricks” made out of plastic soda bottles filled with inorganic waste.  

While he left the stress-filled financial industry behind, he has self-induced pressures now. “I feel so much urgency to share this with the world … share beautiful things. I have this tremendous responsibility.”

Now, as an ambassador for sustainability in San Juan del Sur, Muffa has coordinated Sunday community clean-ups with kids and local businesses. “It’s been a constant thing. Wherever it looks dirty, we pick up stuff. Instead of putting it to the basurero, we bring it here.  We’ll figure something out (how to use everything.) There’s absolutely no need to put anything in the dump,” emphasizes Muffa.

Precious Dirt

Rancho RegeneracionRancho Regeneración was a mono crop, so it needs replenishing. 

So, after researching many formulas, Muffa and one of his key “circulo” leaders, Fiorella, chose a hot compost system that takes 18 days to convert carbon to nitrogen. They use no worms or manure.

“It’s like a lasagna,” explains Fiorella who has an advanced degree in natural resources.  “It gets up to 150 degrees and we turn it every other day — giving air to light the fire.”

“It was really a great accomplishment,” says Muffa about their first compost system. “I was crying. Compost is the beginning and the end of everything.”  

First, the planted tiny aloe shoots. In the future, Muffa wants the ranch to produce food for his hostel.

Casa Oro, he hopes, will be the best hostel in Nicaragua. Maybe the world. It’s a shining example of creative re-use. The lobby has dozens of lights hanging from the ceiling, and a candelabra. Moreover, all the bulbs are strung inside glass bottles of different colors and shapes. Plus, the candelabra base is a piece of precious driftwood they found on the beach.

Ahimsa and Waste

Ahimsa and the planet: re-use at Casa OroFirst of all, when it comes from the ocean, it’s concentrated with salt, Muffa explains. As a result, it’s termite-proof, in a climate in which these buggers thrive.  In addition to the up-cycled light fixtures, the hostel’s cafe bar and reception table are created out of old bottles inserted into a concrete form. Additionally, they mastered that technique after creating a window out of empty glass bottles for the ranch’s classroom/storage facility. 

Next, smaller branches create 3-D sculptures around concrete posts. Furthermore, adding color are 50 hand-painted pallet-based chairs. 

Ahimsa and the planet: eco blocks“When we’re traveling, our hearts and minds are more open to foreign experiences than when we are at home. When we learn from experiences, the lessons go deeper and become more ingrained into our personalities. The space acts as a platform to create experiences where people come to better understand regeneration. We must clearly demonstrate and define what we think ‘eco’ means.”

Consequently, Muffa doesn’t even want trash cans on his properties. “If you have no options, what are you going to do?” So, why not fill an eco-brick. Contribute to the compost bin. Most importantly, honor the planet. Thus, Ahimsa

Just Be

Live in the Present. Key to Happiness.

Live in the PresentLive in the present.

During my first experience at an ashram, several of my cohorts said they were hoping to be able to learn how to live in the present.

I admit. I didn’t know what that meant. Now, that’s part of my mantra. Release the past. Don’t worry about the future.  Live in the present.

The last few weeks, I’ve gotten to know some backpackers that I think have much to teach about how to live in the present.

My new friends may be considered nomads. They experience the world, one day at a time. They live in the present. No return ticket. Without reservations. Not stuck on a schedule.

The result: they allow a beautiful world to unfold.

Give it Up

live your dreamIn the yogic world, we teach non-attachment.

Walter has spent more than half his life traveling the world. He is decidedly not a tourist. At one point, he was married, had two cars, two motorcycles, a condo and an important social status. But he wasn’t happy. He gave it all away.

He’s lived for extended periods in Argentina, the United States, Spain and Mexico. His real home is wherever he and his life partner, Ivette, take their backpacks.

“It’s a personal path,” says Ivette. “It’s more compassionate than the norm.”

“I got my adventurer’s spirit from my father, and I’ve passed it on to my children,” says Walter. “I let my children know that life is very short. Live without limitations.”

Live Your Dream

He says one needs to live their own dreams.

As a kid, Walter wanted to be a musician, but his parents wouldn’t have that. “I’ve always tried to teach my children to live their passions,” Walter says. His son seemed to be happiest banging on things when he was little. As a result, Walter bought him a set of drums when he was eight. “Today, he lives his passion. He’s a musician.“ Walter is living his passion too, and he’s in a good spot.

Just BeGood and bad things are still going to happen. But that’s life. Walter doesn’t like being within his comfort zone. He prefers not to have expectations. Rather, expect internal and external changes. Just live in the present. That’s Walter and Ivette’s motto. It matches that of another pair of world backpackers. The two couples’ sharing living space in Nicaragua. They have been working as volunteers at a sustainable living farm, Rancho Regeneración. The farm is a sister property to Casa Oro, where I’m teaching yoga this winter.

Andrea also follows the mantra, live in the present.

“The best and worst experience in my life, was taking off in a sailboat from Cartagena, Colombia,” says Andrea, who worked as a physical therapist in Argentina. She was headed, with a friend, on a four-day journey to Panama. Without GPS, or a motor, it took them ten days, under the leadership of a captain who seemed to have some screws loose. They persevered through heavy thunderstorms, and non-stop vomiting.

“It seemed like a month that we never saw land,” Andrea says. “In the end, everything is a great learning experience.”

The Journey Within*

no barriers“I told myself I’d be in Mexico in three months. It’s been three years, and I still haven’t gotten there (Mexico).” Andrea recalls about leaving her private practice, friends and family in Argentina.

But, she’s gotten so much more. On her journey north through Latin America, she met the love of her life in Montañitas, a small town on Ecuador’s Pacific coast.

“We are rare birds. What differentiates us from the others,” Walter says, “is that we are adventurers. We are on a journey inside. The journey is giving us lessons. Most don’t understand us. Our way of life is also hard to maintain.”

“There aren’t many necessities in life, when you live day to day in other cultures,” adds Andrea. She feels that her off-the-beaten-path, rare-bird lifestyle corroborates the shortcomings of materialism. She believes that our society is on overdrive. In the fast lane. She hopes that her choice for living as a carefree traveler carries over to more people.

Claudio, her life partner, shares her perspective. He says most tourists have detailed plans and itineraries. Those expectations just set them up for failure. When you take it one day at a time, you can more easily go with the flow — and enjoy life.

“My mother gave me the freedom to be happy,” acknowledges Claudio. “My father wanted me to be a lawyer. But, I think he really would have wanted to live the life I’m living.”

Unlock the Gates

“I always yearned to get to know other places,” Claudio adds. He earned his degree, to please his family. But, he never set aside his love for music, or travel. He ventured on a voyage to find himself, beyond the obvious. Unlock the gates.

“Life has many gifts to offer when you leave your comforts behind,” says Claudio. “The same old routine, with the same characters…same old life,” is not the way to live. “There’s nothing set in stone. Open yourself up to another way of living. Get to know yourself, and the world.”

“I feel that my backpack gets lighter, all the time,” concludes Walter.  Literally, or figuratively?  Most likely both.

* Read about people’s Journey Within at https://thenamastecounsel.com/journey-home-ragani/ and https://thenamastecounsel.com/radhanath-swami-bhaktifest/