Author Archives: thenamas

Pratyahara going within

Pratyahara: Quarantine Yoga Practice

Daily, I try to practice as many branches of yoga as possible. Many of us need to push ourselves to go beyond the most common yoga practices of breath and body work. Now, in my second month of quarantine, I strive to incorporate pratyahara, the fifth branch of yoga. But, it’s not as easy as the other forms of yoga. That’s why I’ve designed  my own three-day silent retreat. It begins tonight, at sundown. 

Pratyahara: The hardest yoga practice

Sitting in a pose, or focusing on the breath, is pretty simple and straightforward. But pratyahara is harder to understand, much less practice.  First, there’s no simple translation.  Swami Sivananda explained, “Pratyahara itself is termed as Yoga, as it is the most important Anga (branch) in Yoga Sadhana (practice).”

Yoga International article translated pratyahara as “gaining mastery over external influences.”  The article further explains pratyahara “involves withdrawal from wrong food, wrong impressions, and wrong associations, while simultaneously opening up to right food, right impressions, and right associations. Just as a healthy body resists toxins and pathogens, a healthy mind resists the negative sensory influences around it. If you are easily disturbed by the noise and turmoil of the environment around you, you need to practice pratyahara.”

Definitely not that easy to comprehend. Or, practice. Michelle Fondin on chopra.com spelled out that pratyahara “teaches us to mindfully filter what we experience in our outer world so as not to live in constant fear or become overwhelmed.”

Everyday “norms” overwhelm the senses

Our worlds, pre-quarantine, were so often overrun by an excess of unhealthy stimuli.  Dodging vehicles, foot constantly on and off the break pedal.  A constant flow of billboards and enormous, sometimes flashing neon, signage can’t escape even our peripheral vision. Plus, responding to work/life demands 24/7.

traffic creates internal chaos.

Opening bills, which may include long lists of charges for non-essentials. Yet, items or services we have been led to believe we can’t live without. (Note: I have worked in marketing for more than 40 years.)

To intensify it all, we open our refrigerator or pantry. More often than not, piles of food items are crammed inside. Still, we grumble, “I have nothing to eat.” The same with our closets. Most are tasked daily with rifling through too many options of footwear, clothing and accessories. Then again, we complain, “I have nothing to wear.”  Overwhelmed by stuff. Choices. We may react by inaction. Or frustration. Purchase something new online.

Even worse, the unhealthy noise, messages and images that blare from TV sets. Both programming as well as advertising. 

Oftentimes, if there are four people living in one household, there are four smart phones, four cd players and four televisions/monitors. Our society has created elaborate mechanisms to tune in to non-essential noise and visuals. Worse yet, we have no one to talk to. Communication is relegated to texts.  As a result, we tune out others, along with our selves.

Tune in to your inner voice

Pratyahara. Introspection. Essential during Covid

As many of us are still trying to be safe at home, we should cherish — or seek — the doorway to our inner voice. Be safe with our minds and spirits. Listen to the inner knowledge. The inner self. Your inner voice. Not to say we shouldn’t be thankful to technology for connecting you with loved ones. But know when to disconnect.

Relish turning off external, unhealthy stimuli. Embrace isolation. Appreciate the sanctity of your home. For example, shut out whatever external annoying stimuli and noises still surround you. Conversely, appreciate the sound of silence. The chirping of the birds. What have you been shutting out from your own thoughts for far too long. Examine what is often ignored. Your true nature. 

Pratyahara. Introspection. Important part of yoga

Humans were not intended to be packed in automobiles, tied to a computer, or working at an assembly line. We were created to be symbiotic with the planet. Rather than overtakers and eliminators of nature. Humans are just a speck in this universe. Not the focal point. 

Quarantine as time for positive change

self-isolation can be positive.

Embrace all that Mother Nature provides right now. The colors of the sky. The beauty of day, and night. The perfectness in every stone, every blade of grass, every flower. The simplicity of growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. 

The word quarantine, comes from the Latin word quadraginta, or forty.  In Latin America, the cuarantena is a 40-day healing period. Lent, in Spanish, called cuaresma, comes from the same root. Dietary and lifestyle changes are best made over a 40-day period. It is said that Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Honor this period, even if it’s beyond 40 days. 

Tune in to what’s been positive, and try not to tune back in to the negative. Search for whatever healing is right for you during this societal game changer. You don’t have to sit silently for three-days. But, take the time to go within and listen to your heart. Determine what is your true north, and try to heed that, moving forward.   Knowing that you’ve got those 40 days already under your belt. 

Gifts of the Creator

So Much Magnificence. Jai.

It’s now more than 40 days of quarantine for many. I’ve been trying to follow the words from a song on one of my yoga playlists: So Much Magnificence. And herein, I’m expounding on that refrain. I am offering this advice to you.

So Many Treasures in Our World

Open your eyes to appreciate the beauty and bountifulness of this planet. Do not focus on limitations, challenges or roadblocks.  Gaze beyond your immediate backdrop, and see the treasures outside waiting for you.  The world is endless. The possibilities, labyrinthine. Joy, unending.

But only if you open your eyes, and appreciate God’s gifts.  

The heavenliness of a blue sky.  Corn fields.  Wheat fields.  Giant oak trees.  Olive branches. Mango groves.

So much magnificence in nature: olive trees

You are just one minute particle in this immense world. Yet, you can make a remarkable difference. If only you open your eyes to the beauty and grace of those things that man can not make. 

So Much Magnificence Surrounding Us

So much magnificence in nature:bumble bee

Turn the kaleidoscope of millions of magnificent colors and shapes that share this space with we humble humans. Open your eyes as wide as an elf owl to appreciate your neighbors. Diminutive lady bugs. Undescribably-colored chameleons.  Heroic bumble bees and stronger than Atlas leaf-cutter ants. 

See the vast power in the ocean. Or even the narrow snaking stream. Even if it’s murky.  

So much magnificence in nature: rain on rose

Honor the power of the sun and the moon, as many of our ancestors did.  Respect the rain, and the earth.  They are gifts from the Creator. Do not disregard them and trash them. 

I am offering this advice to you. Open your eyes.  Soak up the beauty in 360 panoramic vision. But think, and thank, with your heart. Every breath you take. Every step you take.  Respect God’s gifts. Indeed, we all must live in harmony.  

Read my Covid Prayer for the Planet for more (hopefully) inspiration.

Free will: Freedom to choose your dance

Life is a Dance aka Free Will

Life is a dance. Free-style.  Non-choreographed. Going with the flow. Modern vs. ballet. 

Freedom in movement.  Expansive or binding. Freedom to paint your world. Your community. Friends and family. Your lifestyle — and your life view. A black box theatre, an orchestral pit or a open-air amphitheater.

free style dance

Silence vs. symphony. Whereas even white noise is a backdrop to your dance. Steering you away, or closer to, whatever it is that you choose.  Free Will. Freedom to Create and Mold.  

free style dance

Freedom of choice to listen to the sounds that spur you to happiness—or discontent.

It’s your life. Freedom to choose. Your dance can take you soaring over the highest peaks. From the vista of a helicopter. Or, your dance can keep you at pedestrian-level, or the view from the subway.

The music can be slow, steady beats that one by one, propel you farther on your path. Or, they can surprise you like a bag of microwave popcorn. Bursting every which way in a hip hop pattern. Or, keep you stuck in your seat like a wallflower. 

free style dance

Freedom to Grow, and Hibernate.  

It’s your life. Freedom to choose. Your dance…Your libretto…Your backdrop…Your bag of popcorn. Buttered or no-butter.

My prayer for the planet

A Covid Prayer for the Planet

My Prayer for the Planet

Prayer for the planet

I speak for the planet. Mother Earth. Nature. All sentient beings. Everything that grows, and yes, dies.  That is what I visualize with my prayer for the planet.

I speak for the planet when I extol the silver lining in what may seem like infringement on our freedom. As people complain about missing the hair or nail salon, I shout to the heavens that this glorious world is in a stage of rebirth. Mankind is not kind, when focused on personal gains and comfort. Humans need to be humane.    

Zebras: prayer for the planet

I speak for the planet as I urge everyone to open their eyes. Look at the destruction we have created through “modernity” and human “intellect.” Recall the days of your ancestors who living in sync with the environment, cherished family and the bounty of Mother Earth.  

I speak for the planet when I urge people to respect those “primitive” tribes or cultures that still today pray to the sun, moon, or rainclouds. Those that are connected to Mother Earth rather than setting a planetary distance between themselves and our universe. 

I speak for the planet when I encourage you to consider that you are as minute as a snail in this world. Unbury your heads from underneath your shell of societal norms that destroy, rather than nurture, life.

I speak for the planet when I suggest that life is a current of interrelated energy. When man destroys anything, there is an echo effect that destroys, and destroys, and destroys. Now is the time to plant seeds to grow, and grow, and grow.   

I speak for the planet when I pray that these days of self-isolation have created a greater sense of wisdom. An appreciation for love. For life. One world. Humanity for all, not just for humans. 

I speak for the planet when I hope that these last 30-some-odd days have made burned an unending candle to flicker images of better human beings and members of this universe.  My 2020 prayer for the planet.

Covid 19 breathwork techniques

Covid 19 Breathwork Techniques

Covid 19 Breath Work Techniques for Physical and Emotional Wellbeing

ujjayi 3 part breathing

Ujjayi Breathing

Beset with chronic pain, I discovered the benefits of pranayama (breath work) as a teen. Today, pain free, I practice six different breath work techniques daily. Furthermore, as a yoga therapist, I routinely prescribe breath work tailored for my clients’ needs. Because of the current pandemic, most everyone should incorporate Covid 19 breathwork techniques. Here’s why, and what Covid 19 breathwork techniques you can do. 

A doctor in a Bergamo, Italy hospital referred to his Covid 19 intakes as “bilateral interstitial pneumonia.” My understanding is that interstitial pneumonia and fibrosis equate to a loss of elasticity in the lungs. Hence, the necessity of respirators and ventilators.  

Healthy lungs have elasticity, and should be exercised. However, we rarely stretch our lungs as we may stretch our hamstrings.  Furthermore, the diaphragm IS a muscle. While we don’t feel the diaphragm working as we may feel our quads, it stills needs a workout.  

Following are Covid 19 breath work techniques to exercise lungs and diaphragm. I recommend at least five to ten minutes, twice a day. For all the Covid 19 breathwork techniques described below, inhale and exhale through the nose.  Check out links below for more details. Or, contact me to sign up for private or small group 30-minute “Practice During a Pandemic” donation-based sessions that incorporate Covid 19 breathwork techniques.  

Ujjayi, aka Yogic, Three-part or Long Deep Breathing

Supported Fish yoga pose

Supported Fish

Traditionally, I try to engage Ujjayi, throughout my Hatha or Vinyasa practice. However, when focusing solely on Ujjayi, I sit cross legged. Or in child’s pose to feel the expansion and compression of the three parts (belly, upper abdomen and lungs). 

That said, as part of my Covid 19 breathwork techniques, I recommend lying on your back. A supine position provides more space for the diaphragm to descend and retract with each breath. Following are several supine options.

  1. Savasana.  Relax flat, no props. 
  2. Passive rest. Similar to above, but with knees bent and soles of the feet grounded. 
  3. Low supported fish. Place a rolled up towel horizontally under chest. 
  4. As an add-on, incorporate the following with for any of the first three poses. Place palms at the low belly. Make a diamond with your thumbs and index fingers surrounding your navel. Feel the hands rise with the “in” breath. With each exhalation, gently push the hands down to squeeze out the air.

Visualize the torso as an old ceramic decanter. With each inhalation, the vessel fills from the bottom up with water. With each exhalation, the liquid is “poured out,” top to bottom. In other words, deflate the chest, then upper abdomen, and low belly. 

While this is the most basic of yoga breathing techniques, it’s also the most important to get right. Tina Karagulian, a San Antonio-based Kundalini instructor, just posted a video tutorial for Long Deep Breathing.

Triangle, or Sama Vritti

Triangle or Sama Vritti pranayama

Triangle or Sama Vritti

Along with ujjayi, I often practice triangle breathing before bedtime. I find it calming. And calmness is a must, now. More importantly, Sama Vritti helps expand and contract the lungs beyond the norm. That’s why it’s one of my recommended Covid 19 breathwork techniques

I call this triangle breathing. Visualize an equilateral triangle. (Sama = equal). Each of the three components (inhale, retention and exhale) is of equal length or time. While ujjayi is good for everyone, neither retention nor suspension of breath is recommended for those with uncontrolled high blood pressure, glaucoma, or pregnant women. Adding the suspension is what creates Box or Square breathing. 

Dr. Loren Fishman is a physician and yoga therapist with decades of experience.  I recently attended a 90-minute Zoom session he led on Yoga and COVID-19: Possibilities and Problems.

Of the two Covid 19 breathwork techniques he reviewed, one was Sama Vritti. He recommended each of the three parts (inhale, retention and exhale) to last ten seconds. If that’s difficult, work your way up.   

Dr. Fishman notes multiple reasons to practice this. He says Sama Vritti helps considerably to generate peace and boost Prana (life energy). It strengthens the diaphragm and the muscles of respiration. Plus, it gives you more control.

“The point is to get control… Breath is sort of voluntary… you can control it. If you don’t, (i.e. when you fall asleep) you breathe anyway. It’s where the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems meet. In a sense, the mind and the body.”

25/25/25/25:100 aka Four to One or Segmented Breath 

Particularly good for people with respiratory issues, this is more frequently seen only in Kundalini classes. 

I refer to this as the 25 percent breath. Because you inhale just 25 percent of your lung capacity, four times. First 25 percent:  inhale and feel the chest expand a bit. Second 25 percent: repeat, filling the lungs more. Third 25 percent: fill almost to capacity. Fourth 25 percent: expand your breath beyond normal lung capacity. Next, release the breath with one long exhalation. 

I find Segmented Breath helps us to better gauge our lung capacity. And, recognize that we can always add a bit more. Like a balloon. Furthermore, there’s a very slight retention after each inhalation. When I practice it, I feel as if I’m giving my lungs a workout. 

Plus, to Dr. Fishman’s point, this breathing technique requires control. In fact, it’s said to help control the emotions as well. Another reason it’s part of my recommended Covid 19 breath work techniques.

Kapalbhati, Breath of Fire

kapalabhati ego eradicator breath of fire

Ego Eradicator Incorporating Kapalabhati

Note: Similar to the contraindications for Sama Vritti, only practice if your blood pressure is normal, you’re not pregnant, haven’t had recent internal surgeries, or have glaucoma. Additionally, since this boosts metabolism and digestion, don’t practice after eating.

If this is new to you, or if you have asthma or COPD, be sure to start this slowly, and take a deep breath whenever you need a rest. When I first began practicing this regularly, 15 years ago, I felt it was tough on my lungs. Now, it’s a cinch.  

Normally done in easy pose, with hands at the knees, I often prefer Ego Eradicator. This is basically a more challenging version of Breath of Fire by holding arms up, elbows straight, in a V.

Visuals of both, with complete descriptions are on my Yoga Rx page.

Or, visit Tina Karagulian’s video tutorial.

But basically, you force the air out of your lungs and belly with rapid exhalations through the nose. The inhalation should be an automatic reflex. You may want to imagine you’re being punched in the belly, with all the air being kicked out of you…through the nose. You may also want to imagine the beat of a drum. Consistent. Almost like a heartbeat. And time your exhalations to those imaginary beats.

Sing Along for Covid 19 Breathwork Techniques

Finally, don’t forget that singing or chanting is all about breath work. Moreover, your feel-good response kicks in when you chant.  What’s undeniable is that it’s a practice that cuts across all geographies, all religions, and all eras.

Beyond the joyous sensation that arises when you chant, studies confirm that singing is good for the lungs, especially vital lung capacity.

One study was among former smokers with Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (COPD) in Brazil. “We have concluded that singing classes are a well tolerated activity for selected subjects with COPD. Regular practice of singing may improve QoL, and preserve the maximal expiratory pressure of these patients.

Bhakti House Band for chanting

Bhakti House Band

A 2016 review noted, “Qualitative data from studies of Singing for Lung Health (SLH) have been strongly positive…There has been a rapid spread of singing groups across the United Kingdom. SLH has the potential to have a positive impact on the lives of people with lung disease, improving health status and social participation.”

While you can sing or chant by yourself, the benefits are boosted when you’re with others. Following are a few of the virtual chant sessions I tune into as part of my Covid 19 breathwork techniques and chill time. 

Bhakti House Band meets every day at 9 a.m. CT via Facebook Live.

Snatum Kaur is at 10 a.m. CT, via Facebook Live. As she notes, it’s a “community gathering for a livestream healing meditation with me, and whoever in my family joins me, currently broadcasting from our kitchen.”

Finally, for a breath of virtual fresh air from Costa Rica, tune in to Deva Premal and Miten.  Via Facebook Live, their gathering is at 4 p.m. CT and you can hear the songs of the monkeys and lots of birds. 

connect via virtual sangrias during covid 19 shut ins

Virtual Sanghas Amid Shut-ins

 

World Bhakti with Sean Johnson now creating virtual sanghasSocial distancing and quarantines are no fun. Fortunately, virtual sanghas are forming to keep us sane.

For example, the other day, Gov. Cuomo mentioned an extremely heartfelt talk he had, virtually, with his daughter who was in self-isolation.

Without a doubt, technology is providing us with a welcomed doorway. A bridge to keep us connected. Uplift our energy and spirits in these trying times. For those missing their normal routine, now is an even more important time to soak up the wisdom, creativity and positivity of others. 

Moving in a pinch, all the lead presenters from the recent World Bhakti festival revved up ways to  get connected.  Opportunities for the homebound to connect with like minded people. What I call virtual sanghas

World Bhakti with Sean Johnson“I’m grateful for live interaction with my circle of support in challenging times,” says Sunshine Kessler Teran. She synchs to Bhakti House Band’s virtual sanghas. Plenty of others are finding solace tapping into the energy, spirit and talents of their favorite yogis or kirtan artists. Live. From their phone, tablet or laptop. Following are just post-World Bhakti offeringsi. (Details follow.) Because I was there. Felt the sangha form. And, recognize the doors to those virtual sanghas are wide open.

While I wasn’t a presenter, I’ve got sangha in mind. Aside connecting with other yogis in their virtual offerings, I revived my Yoga Book Club from San Antonio. Undeniably, this will be super simple. No need to buy or read anything in advance. Just tune in via Facebook Live Tuesdays, Thursdays and/or Sundays at 2 p.m. CT.   I’ll read a passage. Afterwards, folks chat about the meaning.

The first selection is from John Pavlovitz. “A Bigger Table.” Disenchanted with the Catholic Church, he ended up serving as a Methodist pastor for 20 years. His book addresses the need for spiritual communities, within our outside of places of worship.. 

Sean Johnson, Virtual Sanghas from New Orleans

Sean Johnson at World Bhakti Festival, Dallas

Last week, Sean Johnson launched virtual classes from his studios in New Orleans. “Here we go, entering uncharted territory together,” he said. “If yoga prepares us for anything, it’s for change, and we’re looking forward to supporting each other and seeking the gifts inside this challenging time together.” His next virtual class is Thursday March 26, while his instructors will lead asana and meditation sessions on other dayparts.

For those unfamiliar with Johnson, he’s a favorite among many yoga teachers. He performs, and teaches his unique style of Bhakti on the Mat, across the U.S.  For first timers, his classes may seem unusual. They may start with storytelling, Students sit close together on the floor around him. Not unlike kids huddled in a pre-school.

Like storytelling with the kiddos, Johnson isn’t reading bland words. He is a cross between a poet and an actor. Using animated gestures, vocal and facial expression, he incites the listener to join in with sound effects. Animal noises. Pounding the floor. Howling with scary animal or nature sounds. In essence, he pulls the kid out of the adult. Making his sessions not only fun, but memorable.

 

Considering that Johnson’s stories all connect to the ancient Scriptures, his ability to make those learnings relevant to modern day American city folk is remarkable.  

The son of a former nun, and father who was studying to be a Jesuit priest, he has an expansive vision of what’s holy. Johnson considers himself an educator that builds bridges between the physical and devotional aspects of yoga. Furthermore, he makes an effort to cross cultural and religious divides.

All the while, he expresses his New Orleans roots. Somehow, the Cajun spice mixes well with his reverence for the traditional mantras and vedas. He encapsulates the spirit and knowledge of the ancient sages through music that makes you want to rock and roll —and chant along. Regardless of whether it be via concerts, storytelling time or yoga classes.  Consistently.

Bhakti House Band’s Virtual Sanghas Radiate from Fort Worth

Bhakti House Band now with virtual sanghasAs soon as people started to tuck themselves into their homes, Bhakti House Band began daily FaceTime Live satsang (gathering of truth). Not only Monday through Friday. But every day. Good thing, as weekday and weekend is now blurred for many. 

Randall and Kristin Brooks of Bhakti House Band call their sessions Bhakti House Cafe. However, I call it chat and chant. 

First, beyond the virtual Bhakti satsang, what makes their sessions so beautiful is the simple lessons they teach. Yes, they share their knowledge of Sanskrit and mantras. But, they connect to every day living — and challenges. Especially those people face in this phase of quarantines and six-foot distancing. 

Second, each day is different in the virtual satsang. Nonetheless, they follow a routine that boosts self-discovery — and community. At 9 a.m. CT they elicit participants to share from their daily gratitude top three list. Close to 10 a.m. CT they chant a song from their latest double CD, “Roots to Revolutions.”  Called “Raise Your Words,” it’s become their anthem to “rise above” Coronavirus. The song blends words from a Rumi poem, with Sanskrit Universal Peace mantra.  After it winds down, they chant a verse from “Let it Be.”

“Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice. It’s the rain that grows the flowers, not the thunder.” ~Rumi 

Roots to Revolutions by Bhakti House BandAdditionally, Bhakti House Band is offering more intimate online classes and workshops Thursday evenings. Via Zoom, it enables them to delve deeper in discussions about the ancient learnings and modern day applications.

I first met Randall and Kristin about six years when they led 108 rounds of the Gayatri mantra in Houston. Now, they’re leading 108 rounds during their Saturday FaceTime Live satsang.

Over the years, I’ve chanted with Bhakti House Band in Houston, California and Madison, Wisconsin.  They are friends, mentors and spiritual guides. To top it off, they’re phenomenal musicians who stay true to their urban Texan roots. 

 

Roots to Revolutions. Indeed, they share their spiritual journey through relevant lyrics and heartfelt musical compositions.  Plus, their love for the yoga of sacred sound and conscious devotion. Over the last few decades, they have criss crossed the country –and beyond–to inspire humanity. To awaken hearts. To live with purpose. And experience a higher sense of freedom and connection with all life.  

While that sounds like a difficult feat, they’re successfully translating those desires to their virtual satsang

Virtual Sanghas for Kids, too, with Stefanie Tovar

Stefanie Tovar at World Bhakti Festival, Dallas

Stefanie is definitely the kind of person that you can tell likes to be in touch with people, person to person. She leads yoga and kirtan sessions to folks of all ages.  Sometimes, in Spanglish. Often times in outdoor public places. Plus, she leads retreats geared toward going within, regardless of where you’re at, spiritually. 

Moreover, The Dallas Observer recognized her kids’ initiative, Hanuman Homies, as The Best Underdog Nonprofit of 2019.

But, as of this week, she’s online. Daily. Most her offerings are on her two YouTube channels.

At the same time, she’s also connecting via Zoom and Instagram. Her new donation-based video classes range from Morning Mantra, to Practice in Your PJs. As part of Hanuman Homies, she leads mindfulness and yoga via shorter online sessions. 

While she recognizes that people need to keep up with sangha, any way they can, she says that this new work is also to helping her to stay connected and committed to her purpose. “I’m honored to be of service, in some way, to as many people as possible.”

Sangha Comes in Many Styles

Additionally, two of the World Bhakti organizers are getting ready to go virtual. Lavanga Latika will lead Sangha With Lavanga. Via Facebook Live, she’ll discuss the Bhagavad Gita. For those wanting a traditional yoga practice, Kirsten Burch will begin those soon. And, I’m offering private virtual Yoga Nidra, as I think it’s more important now for so many,.

Finally, a great way to tune in to the music of Sean Johnson, Bhakti House Band and Stefanie Tovar is through a World Bhakti playlist on Spotify. Tune in to the vibes of that festival, as you do your laundry, cook some healthy food, or drink some tea. 

 

Leviticus 19:34 Lovingkindness to strangers among us

Loving Kindness & Social Justice: Tenets of Yoga and Judaism

Yoga is not just about 60 minutes on a mat. For me, anyway.  It’s a lifestyle that follows ancient tenets. Among them, loving kindness. Act selflessly and be in harmony with the universe.  In his book, “Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings,” A.C. Mohan says, “if the yamas and the niyamas are practiced, one will have universal compassion toward all living beings.”

Refugees Welcome_HIAS_Jews for Refugees

I consider loving kindness to include opening our doors and hearts  to immigrants. All my grandparents fled persecution. What’s more, I recognize that with the exception of the Native Americans, all Americans were once immigrants. 

Melanie Nezer is senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS, a non-profit dedicated to selfless service and advocacy for immigrants.  Last week, HIAS hosted a Jews for Refugees Assembly in Austin. Established in 1881, HIAS is active in 16 countries from Kenya to the Ukraine. And, the U.S.  

“We used to help refugees because THEY were Jewish.  Now, we help refugees because WE are Jewish,” she said. The reason for HIAS underlies the meaning of the Hebrew word tzedakah. Charity. Social justice. Righteousness. In other words, tzedakah, like the yamas and the niyamas, promotes loving kindness and compassion. 

Loving Kindness: Love the Stranger as You Love Yourself

As a child, I memorized the words on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Basically, a compassionate mantra for those seeking a better life.

Today, that welcome mat is out of sight, said Rabbi Alan Freedman of Temple Beth Shalom at the Austin assembly. On the contrary, the current administration demonstrates a lack of compassion for immigrants. To clarify, Rabbi Freedman spoke about a disregarded passage in Leviticus.  

Leviticus 19:34

Leviticus 19:34 states that one shall love the stranger as one loves oneself. Recalling being foreigners living in the land of Egypt.

Rather than honoring what many religions prescribe, our government is harming the foreigner, said the Rabbi. Especially the millions whose lives are at stake in their homelands. 

“This story of fear to freedom is under threat. The policies of our government are violative of this commandment. It’s a policy of cruelty. A stain upon the national soul.”

Ahmed Abbas crossed the Atlantic hoping to close a chapter of fear, and live in freedom. Taking a turn on the teachings in Leviticus, he was not a foreigner in Egypt. Conversely, he fled Egypt and became a foreigner in North America. 

We Need Each Other

HIAS at Austin Jews for Refugees AssemblyAbbas was a political exile, having been a leader in the Arab Spring protests. Just a decade ago, tens of thousands rallied for peace, freedom and a change in the 30-year rule of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarek. Abbas escaped to Mexico. There, he began a successful business. However, that attracted the cartel. And threats. Once again, feeling danger, he became a two-time refugee. He sought asylum in the U.S. in 2014. Today, his residency remains in limbo. 

In perfect English, he spoke about an element that tzedakah and the yamas and niyamas share. 

“Compassion is the only aspect of mankind that makes us human.” All throughout history, there have been ideological walls. Yet, every human invention is based on connecting with one another, to some extent. “We all have imperfections. We need each other.” 

Compassion Makes Us Human

Yet, compassion is not always part of government policies acknowledged Texas House Rep. Gina Hinojosa. Rather than compassion, she said current policies reflect cruelty. While no longer discussed on the nightly news, child separation continues. A point often overlooked, many children enter the U.S. with a family member. If it’s not the mother or the father, they are separated. Regardless of the fact that the parents entrusted their child with the relative.  Secondly, millions of Americans live in mixed status families. One child may be a U.S. citizen or legal resident. Another is not. To repeat, families are separated.  

HIAS Austin Jews for Refugees Assembly

Another example of cruelty is the number of refugees allowed in our country. 

HIAS’ Nezer said there are 71 million displaced people, globally. Of those, 26 million are refugees. The number the U.S. government will allow to be resettled? Less than 18,000. In Texas? Zero.  Therefore, the doors are basically closed for asylum seekers. 

“What our country has done is offshore asylum responsibilities.” The result: “the most horrible…defacto refugee camps” void of any security and basic necessities. Rather than offering a safe-house for those seeking asylum, 80 percent become victims of violent crime under the U.S. “Migration Protection Protocols” a.k.a. remain in Mexico.

“We are killing people. Very literally. We started a feeding frenzy for the cartel,” said Nezer. People are getting death threats on their cell phones. 

Nezer, whose organization provides legal counsel to refugees and asylum seekers, gave an example of one man from Cuba. He asked for asylum at the U.S./Mexico border. His case was waitlisted for three to four months. In just five days, he was held up at gunpoint five times. 

Social Justice as Loving Kindness

Selflessness and Social Justice

HIAS is spearheading more opportunities in Austin, and throughout the U.S.. The goal is to show compassion, and make a difference. Following, are a few easy steps. 

Finally, remember that advocacy is essential. Above all, understand small efforts count.  “You can make a difference in someone’s life,” Nezer urged.

cacao as medicine

Cacao as Medicine. From My Heart to Yours.

Cacao: A Treat for the Heart

I enjoy cacao as medicine. It’s heart-healthy, and a heart opener. Sunday afternoon. Feb. 23., I’ll be offering cacao as medicine workshops at The Namaste Getaway. Pick from Partner Play, or, First Love Yourself. All will include gluten-free, vegan low-glycemic cacao treats. Made with love.  From my heart to yours. 

Cacao vs. Coffee

cacao as medicine. pure cacao from Costa Rica

I was never really a coffee drinker. In fact, I didn’t have my first sip until I was in college. At 30, I stayed clear when my doctor told me it was a digestive irritant.  But, when I moved to Miami, how could I resist the ritual cafecito breaks? Then, in San Antonio, I began to sip coffee to offset the workplace A/C chill.

When I upped my yoga practice, I put a complete stop to caffeine. Both of my yogic lineages say no to meat, eggs, alcohol, and caffeine. For multiple reasons. Now, I’ve been living pretty much caffeine-free for 15 or 20 years.

However, I still rev up my body, heart and mind, with cacao as medicine treats. Following are some of my reasons why.  Plus, how I make my own cacao as in the image to the right. 

Caffeine-free Energy Boost

I get my physical and mental boosts from cacao. Yet, cacao is caffeine-free. Rather, it contains theobromine which is a gentle cardiac stimulant and muscle-relaxant. Furthermore, theobromine does NOT affect the central nervous system, as does caffeine. 

I view cacao as medicine. One of nature’s good medicines. It has been considered such by the indigenous peoples in the Americas for ages. In fact, the word chocolate, comes from the Nahuatl word Xocolatl. Likewise, the word cacao has its origins in Nahuatl. It’s shortened from cacahuatl meaning the bean of the cocoa tree. While, the word cacahuate, in Mexico, now is commonly used for peanut. The latter was shortened from the Nahuatl tlacahuatl, meaning cacao de la Tierra. 

But let’s forget about the word chocolate. Go a step further. Try to erase it from your pantry, fridge, and mind. Consider this: today’s “chocolate,” like kisses or Crunch, are overly processed. They are loaded with sugar, fats, and basically have no redeeming features. Fortunately, many alternative brands of organic higher cacao content products are available at your Whole Foods or Sprouts.   

Nonetheless, I go to the source. I buy my cacao in Central America.  Real. Pure. 100 percent. 

Pure Cacao as Medicine

This past Xmas eve day, just back from Costa Rica, I held a special heart-opening class at Orange Moon Yoga. I served my pure cacao as medicine, and explained its benefits.  

cacao ceremony by Deborah Charnes at Orange Moon Yoga, Wimberley

First, cacao is loaded with magnesium.
Second, cacao is one of the greatest sources for anti-oxidants.
Third, cacao is high in protein. And meat-eaters always ask, “where do you get your protein.” Ha!
Fourth. Cacao is calcium rich.
Fifth, cacao is great for the mind. In several ways. Many, recognize it as an anti-depressant.
Next. Cacao for the heart. Energetically, it is a heart-opener.  Physically, it can reduce blood pressure and improve heart health. 
Finally, cacao is caffeine-free. However, it contains theobromine which is a gentle cardiac stimulant and muscle-relaxant. Theobromine does NOT affect the central nervous system, as does caffeine. 

Cacao as Medicine with Indian or Indigenous Spices

cacao as medicine. pure cacao patty at Museo del Cacao in Costa Rica

To add to the benefits of cacao as medicine, rather than watering down the benefits with milk and sugar, which was introduced by the Europeans, go for what’s been added historically.

At my recent visit to a Cacao museum in Costa Rica, my guide explained to me that the indigenous people added turmeric, ginger and black pepper to their cacao. Interestingly enough, that’s pretty much what I add. But, my inspirations come from Ayurveda. At the same time, following a low-glycemic diet for many years, I tend to use lots of cinnamon as my “sweetener.” My guide said the indigenous people in Mexico used the cinnamon.

Furthermore, I make my own bliss balls, following plenty of recipes, and always omitting the dates or other sweeteners. Two of my favorite bliss ball recipes come from my Ayurvedic doctor. The first is Dr. Nibodhi’s Cacao Bliss Balls, infused with ashwagandha and cayenne.   The second is Dr. Nibodhi’s Chai Balls, which include ginger, cardamon and cloves. 

So, I was pleasantly surprised when at the end of my Cacao Museum tour, I pretty much made my own flat rather than round bliss balls.  Freshly ground and toasted cacao, with just a tad of water to be able to form the patty on the banana leaf. Then, I was able to sprinkle in cinnamon, ginger, pepper, nutmeg and turmeric. Medicine sprinkled with many more medicinal forms. Pure Bliss.

Now, I look forward to sharing cacao as medicine. From my heart to yours.

 

gratitude:yams and Niyamas for the holidays

Honoring the Yamas and Niyamas at the Holidays

Today is Thanksgiving. I don’t celebrate traditional Thanksgiving. Rather, I try to abide by the age-old Yoga Sutras. The lessons of the Yamas and the Niyamas. No stuffing myself on holiday fare. Not interested in Black Friday or CyberMonday. I don’t need anything. Rather than amassing more, I give. Seva (self-less service) is a part of my long-time I practice.

Following is a rundown of a few of Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas that we can relate to the holidays.

The Yamas: What NOT to do

First off. Ahimsa. Non-violence. Mahatma Gandhi spread the concept of ahimsa, widely. According to the Gandhi Book Centre, “The concept of ahimsa extends to all living beings, and therefore, protection of environment, natural habitats and vegetarianism are its natural derivatives. Buddhism and Jainism impose total non-violence on their followers.”

As a 40-year follower of ahimsa, I don’t like to see a big dead turkey on a table. Or a pig on a plate. I prefer my cows (and other animals) live, roaming about. Not on a spit or BBQ.

Two of the other Yamas respond to the materialism that is rampant in our society. Especially around the holidays. Asteya and Aparigraha. The two, are related. Both, about being content with what you have.

Aparigraha can be translated as non-greediness or non-possessiveness. Non-accumulation. Not pining for what’s not needed. Non-attachment. As I was taught it, it’s ok to enjoy a piece of chocolate. However, to have a deep desire — or addiction — to the chocolate is the problem. Yet, offering one’s favorite chocolates to others represents non-possessiveness and non-attachment.

Among the Yamas and the Niyamas, asteya is often translated as non-stealing. Of course, most of us don’t knowing steal from other people. However, we ARE stealing, if we upset the balance of the universe. For example, overconsumption of gasoline, water, food and natural resources, are forms of stealing. Hence, wanting and taking more than what’s needed is not honoring asteya.

When it comes to material items, most of us have way more than what we need. When I was young, it was common for kids to have one pair of school shoes, and one pair of tennis shoes. Now, I’d guess most kids have closets filled with a wide assortment of footwear. Plus, closets, shelves, dressers and other storage areas filled with clothing, toys, and other non-essential items.

When I recently sold my house, my realtor said everyone want walk-in closets. Clearly, that doesn’t represent the Yamas and Niyamas. When I went to live in Mexico for one year, all I took with me was two duffel bags. Still, I had more than what was necessary.

The Niyamas: What TO do

Moving on to the Niyamas, the first is soucha. Some, translate this as cleanliness. But, as with most Sanskrit words, it means so much more. For example, I was taught to bathe and put on clean clothes before devotional practice. To ready one’s body and mind for the holy. Not unlike wearing your Sunday best.

Soucha can also refer to purity, and a sattvic diet is considered pure and clean. I closely adhere to a sattvic diet. That means no alcohol, no caffeine, no garlic, onions, mushrooms or other foods that upsets the natural constitution. Patanjali, 5,000 years ago, referred to soucha and sattvic, together.

Next on the Niyamas, I see santosha (contentment) as being complementary to asteya and aparigraha. Not surprisingly, a few years ago, the community at Yogaville focused on santosha for the month of November. Swami Ramananda reflected on that practice.

“Of course, we all grow up in a culture of “never enough.” We can easily fall into an unconscious and never-ending effort to acquire, arrange or achieve the things that we feel bring us security and love, our most basic needs. Of course, we all grow up in a culture of ‘never enough.’ We can easily fall into an unconscious and never-ending effort to acquire, arrange or achieve the things that we feel bring us security and love, our most basic needs. Thus, this moment is continually warped by anticipation or anxiety over the next thing to do or get.” He explained that Santosha is about being at “peace with this moment as it is and with ourselves as we are.”

That’s something that I can accept for the holidays.

For more on the Yamas and Niyamas, read the following from the Art of Living.

Note: All images are mine. India 2019.

Goat Yoga

Goat Yoga Hits Urban USA

One of the newfangled yoga trends is goat yoga. It’s not about a new style of yoga where you imitate goat poses. Rather, you practice your cat/cow or downward dog as baby goats walk around—or on top of— you. If you’re lucky, maybe a goat will cuddle next to you in your savasana.  However, on the down side, the goat may decide it’s time for a bio break. On your mat.  

The Birth of Kid Goat Yoga

It shouldn’t be a shock that the origins of goat yoga come from the Western U.S. As recently as 2016, a woman living on a farm in Oregon recognized the healing aspects of yoga. At the same time, she understood that being close to animals had benefits. In need of some physical and emotional boosts, she meshed the two. She named it Caprine Vinyasa and got a slew of media coverage. And, boom. Goat yoga was everywhere.  Not just in the country, or in the trendier spots like San Diego and Austin. But even in Chicago’s inner city.

Goat Yoga in the Inner City

Urban goat yoga

What at first glance seems far removed from the prana in the midwestern cornfields is a hopping spot for goat yoga. Chicago’s west side. The goats are let loose to meander around the yoga mats, regularly, in Austin, the far west side of Chicago. Also, at Garfield Park, 10-15 minutes west of downtown. Both sites are right off the Eisenhower Expressway.

David is the goat herder that supplies the animals for the yogis. An urban farmer, he has a goat refuge just a few blocks from the rapid transit elevated line. From the street side of his house, you’d never know that he’s got a backyard full of chickens laying fresh eggs, and a large family of goats. He and his wife live in a traditional city house with a backyard that’s been converted into an organic mini farm. There’s a milking station where the goats, one by one, are milked. David and his wife then sell the fresh goat milk, plus goat milk yogurt and cheese.

He has about a dozen baby goats in his hay-filled garage. Each day, he loads the goats in his truck and releases them in a neighboring empty lot. Here, his babies graze. And play.

Goat Yoga in Chicago

When it’s time for goat yoga, he can lead the goats to a community garden just down the street. The open space has a pen inside the fencing to keep the babies closer to the yoga practitioners.

Five Reasons for Goat Yoga

Before you jump into the pen with the goats, or start bringing goats into the studio, let’s break down pros (and cons) of Caprine Vinyasa.

First, yoga is fundamentally about surrendering your mind and body. Perhaps one of the end results of goat yoga is that you give it up for the baby goats. You relinquish your control and go with the flow. Like the adorable kid goats. Don’t Worry. Be Happy. Nonetheless, Sarah, a yogi enthusiast and mother of two children, is not particularly a goat yoga advocate. Her take is that the more gimmicky, the more it dilutes the practice.

Second, in American society people get caught up in physical boundaries. Even for yoga practitioners. Many have clearly delineated “no touch” zone. Oftentimes, American yoga students want at least four or five feet of space all around them. The more space between them and their neighboring yogi’s mat, the better, they feel. So, just maybe, the goats prancing wherever they want helps people to get beyond that required emptiness surrounding them. And, maybe, it’ll even get them more comfortable with having a person less than a meter away during their practice. 

Third, yoga is all about mindfulness. Emptying your mind. Closing your eyes, or maintaining a dristi. However, keeping your eyes from jumping around to check the whereabouts and antics of the baby goats isn’t easy. Kim, a personal trainer who has been close to yoga for years, tried goat yoga at a conference. She found it was “distracting.”

Fourth off, yoga should be about absorbing, and relishing, the elements of nature. Prana. Breathing in the fresh air. Pressing your toes into the grass, or sand. Letting your skin soak up the sun.

Ideally, goat yoga is done outdoors in a farm-like environment. But that’s often not the case. My first view of goat yoga was inside a warehouse in East Austin. Definitely not an optimum spot for oneness with nature.

Fifth thought. Yoga teaches us ahimsa. Do no harm to any living being. So, any practice that helps us get closer to animals, and respect for ALL lives, is a plus. Hopefully, goat yoga is an entry point for urban Americans to get closer to farm animals. Then, as they appreciate the personalities of the baby goats, the participants may think twice before they eat goat meat. 

Introducing Yoga a la Ferme

Ahimsa and the Sacred Cow

In India, the cow is sacred. So, I’d expand upon goat yoga.

Sacred Cow, ahimsa is yoga

I’d broaden caprine vinyasa to yoga a la ferme. For starters, I’d let a few chickens scamper about.

More importantly, I’d be sure that beautiful cows were within everyone’s view. Next, I’d require all partcipants to pet the cows, before they get on their mats. Moreover, have them meditate while gazing into the huge happy cows’ eyes. Adding in sound therapy, I’d ensure that each of the cows had cowbells on their necks, tuned to different chakras. For special effects, during savasana I’d lead the cows in a circle around my resting yogis. Or, ring the cowbells myself.

Finally, I’d suggest that everyone’s sankalpa include how they would have greater respect for farm animals, and take the plunge to refrain from eating farm animals for a week. Better yet, commit to a plant-based diet for 40 days.