Category Archives: Sutras & Ahimsa

Sandra Gomez de la Torre, Kundalini instructor

This is Kundalini Yoga: El Encuentro con el Yoga Kundalini

Guest blog by Sandra Gomez de la Torre, (pictured above) a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Barcelona, Spain

I rarely post guest blogs. However, this first-person story about the Kundalini Yoga community struck a chord. Sandra, aka Narayan Himat Kaur, wrote in Spanish. So please (try to) read her version. However, for the Spanish-challenged, scroll down to see my translation. But, please recognize that things are always lost in translation. To learn more about Kundalini Yoga, check out one of my earlier articles that references how its can settle the mind.

El Encuentro con el Kundalini Yoga, y el Yo

No te voy a pedir que lo entiendas…

No se puede encender la luz a alguien que no quiere ver.

Esta foto es del año pasado. Llegaba del Festival de Francia de Kundalini Yoga al que había ido por primera vez.

Era el 50 aniversario.

Había mucha gente (3,000 personas), familias con niñes, Yoguis y Sikhs por todos los lados. 

Nos levantábamos a las 4:00 para la Sadhana, (práctica espiritual diaria basada en el yoga y en el canto de mantras). El día transcurría practicando yoga y haciendo ayunos de 16 horas a partir de las 15h.

En el festival no había drogas, ni alcohol, ni sustancias estupefacientes. De hecho ni se podía fumar. La entrada para una semana, con pensión completa en habitación compartida me había costado poco más de 350€ ($US 415).

Kundalini Yoga me había ayudado y por qué no decirlo, me había cambiado.

Ya no era la misma persona que había construido con mis patrones y experiencias. Tenía cierto miedo y desconocimiento de la persona con la que me encontraba, que era YO, porque ya no estaba el personaje que me había creado o apenas aparecía.

Algo dentro de mi, se manifestó. Donde había estado todos estos años mi alma? La vez que había estado más cerca de ella, fue cuando mi madre marchó a otro plano.

Al segundo día de estar allí, salí corriendo sin rumbo porque mi confrontación fue tal, que pensé haberme metido en una secta.

Fui a un pueblo caminando durante 45 minutos, vi una iglesia y me metí. Necesitaba reconciliarme conmigo, con Dios, con la vida. 

Mi madre desde los éteres azules, me dijo:

— Hija, crees que no es una secta ir a un sitio donde trabajas 12 horas al día para que alguien muy rico, se haga más rico todavía sólo porque tienes un sueldo?

— Hija crees que no es una secta vivir de una forma en la que solo se es feliz por estímulos externos y por lo que te quieren los demás? 

— Hija, crees que no vives en una secta si vives como un robot, sin alma, sin sentir más que emociones o sentimientos bajos como rabia, odio, ira y miedo?

— Pequeña, he de decirte que estás viviendo en una secta dentro de ti.

Volví al festival tras estar cuatro horas fuera.

Me había reconciliado con la vida. Entendí que Dios no es más que la voz interior de cada uno. Entendí que yo y Dios, Dios y yo, somos uno. 

Mi familia hacía algunas preguntas raras 😂 yo les entiendo. Pero os aseguro que nunca en mi vida me había visto tan clara en mi propio espejo.

Era como si hubiera vuelto a nacer, como si hubiera vuelto a ser una niña. Inocente, sin culpas. Porque en el fondo todos los somos por muchas atrocidades que hayamos hecho.

Podía ver mi mente, vacía.

Podía ver mi cara sonriente sin motivos aparentes.

Podía notar en cada poro de mi piel que me había enamorado de la vida. 

Vestir de blanco era un ejercicio de conciencia sobre mi cuerpo.

Ponerme un turbante significaba que iba a estar enfocada en mi interior y que no iba a dolerme la cabeza. (Porque aunque no lo creáis, 3000 personas con nuestra neurosis y nuestra basura mental, afectan a nuestro sistema).

Hacer yoga cada día varías horas, me hacía estar en un estado de éxtasis que pareciera que la vida se había pintado de un color totalmente neutro. No había bueno ni malo, mejor ni peor.

Observaba a los niños, a las familias y pensaba que si algún día tenía hijos, me gustaría que vivieran la experiencia. (Libres y si ellos lo eligen). 

Hacer ayunos (no por estética y para adelgazar), me parecía una fantasía ya que me daba más energía que si comiera cinco veces al día. 

Mirar a la gente a los ojos para saludarles sin conocernos de nada con un Sat Nam mientras sonreíamos, era similar a oler rosas a cada instante.

Éramos una comunidad, porque nos servíamos los unos a los otros. No lo podía creer, de repente había una familia de 3,000 personas.

Llegó el tantra. Mirar a los ojos a alguien durante más de 8 horas tres días, fue como ver toda mi vida en una película de cine siendo yo la espectadora.

Lloré, reí, me confronté, me enfadé… no se. Todas las Sandras que hay en mi salieron en escena y a todas las abracé. 

Entendí la devoción, el amor, la compasión.

Estoy tan agradecida a la vida y a las enseñanzas que lo mejor que le puedo desear a alguien es que viva esta experiencia al menos una vez en la vida. 

Ahora no pasamos por un buen momento, pero cada unx de nosotrxs debe encontrar su verdad, abrazando la de los demás.

Para mi esto es Kundalini Yoga y ojalá siempre siga siendo así

Finding Kundalini Yoga, and Oneself

I won’t ask you to understand…

You can’t turn on a light for someone who doesn’t want to see.  

This photo is from last year. It was my first time at the Kundalini Yoga Festival in France.

It was the 50th anniversary.

There were loads of people (3,000), families with kids, yogis, and Sikhs everywhere.

We woke up at 4:00 a.m. for Sadhana, (the Kundalini daily spiritual practice comprised primarily of mantra meditation). Each day we practiced yoga, and at 3 p.m. began our 16-hour fasts.

This was a drug-free, alcohol-free, substance-free festival. In fact, not even cigarettes were allowed.  The cost for the week, including meals and shared rooms, was just a little more than 350€ (US$ 414).

Kundalini Yoga had helped me, and why not admit it, it had changed me.

No longer was I the the person made up of my own imprints and experiences. I was a bit afraid, and unsure of who I would find myself to be. I was ME, because I no longer was the character I had created or barely came into view.

Something within was revealed. Where had my soul been all these years? The only time that it was close to me was when my mother left her body.

My second day there, I was afraid I’d gotten myself involved with some sect. I left running.  To who knows where?

After 45 minutes, I was in a small town. I saw a church, and went inside. I needed to reconcile with myself, with God, and with my life. 

My mother, from the blue ether, said to me: 

— My daughter, you don’t think it’s a sect where you work for 12 hours a day for some rich person that’s only getting richer because you’re a salaried employee?

— My daughter, you don’t think it’s a sect living in a world where you’re only happy with the help of external stimuli and thinking about why others love you? 

— My daughter, you don’t think it’s a sect living like a soul-less robot, feeling no emotions except anger, wrath, hatred and fear?

— My little one, I have to tell you that you’re living with a sect inside yourself.

I returned to the festival after being gone for four hours.

I had reconciled with my life. I understood that God is nothing more than one’s inner voice. I understood that God and I, I and God, we are one.

My family had asked some strange questions 😂 I understand them. But I assure you that never in my life had I seen myself so clearly in my own mirror. 

It was as if I had been reborn, as if I was a young girl again, Innocent, guiltless. Because at heart, we are all guilty for so many atrocities that we have done.

I could see my mind, empty.

I could see my face, smiling for no apparent reason.  

I could see in every one of my pores, that I was in love with life.

To dress in white was an exercise in bodily consciousness.

To put a turban on my head meant that I’d be focused inward and that I would have no headaches. (Because believe it or not, 3,000 people with neurosis and mental garbage, affects our body).

To do yoga for several hours every day, put me in a state of ecstasy as if life had been painted in a completely neutral color. There was no good or bad, no better or worse.

I watched children and families, and I thought if I some day have kids I’d like them to live this experience. (Free, and as they choose). 

To fast (not for vanity or to lose weight), was like a fantasy as it gave me more energy that if I had eaten five times a day. 

To greet people we didn’t know anything about, looking at them in their eyes and saying hello with a Sat Nam and a smile, was like smelling a rose at every moment.

We were a community because we served each other. I couldn’t believe it, all of a sudden, there was a family of 3,000 members.

Then there was the tantra. Looking in someone’s eyes for more than eight hours, three days, was like seeing my life in a filmstrip, and I was the viewer.

I cried. I laughed. I faced myself. I got angry with myself.  I don’t know, I guess all the Sandras within me came out to the stage and I embraced them all.

I understood the devotion, love and compassion. 

I’m so thankful for life and its lessons that the most I can wish anyone is to live this experience at least once in their lives.

Now, we’re not experiencing good times, but for every one of us (he/she/it/we/they) should find their truth and embracing everyone else’s essence.

This, to me, is what is Kundalini Yoga and I hope it’s always this way.

special moments in India: rooftop in India

Special Moments in India: Rooftop Chats

Of course there are so many unforgettable and special moments in India. (Read my series on Men in Orange, for a few.) However, when I was traveling in India last year, I was feeling under the weather. There was a constant sense of chill, except for when tucked in bed. Plus, the dry air and dense smog wasn’t good for my respiratory system. I dressed in lots of layers, took tons of Ayurvedic herbs, and stayed in my hostels once the sun went down.

mountain in Jaipur, India

After traveling thousands of miles within India, via plane, train, motorcycle and tuk tuk, there were two occasions where I felt blissful. Both were quiet times on rooftops. Neither site would have been listed in a travel guide. Although both were in towns that attract many tourists. Following is a recount of one. For privacy reasons, none of the images included are from that experience.

Unfortunately, I ended up being harassed by my guest house host for months after I returned to the U.S. To his credit, he was a perfect gentleman the entire time we shared space. And it was a lot of sharing. For a modest fee, on his tiny motorcycle, he led me on custom made full-day itineraries.

Special Moments in India, Left Alone on the Rooftop

One afternoon was perfect. Definitely one of those special moments in India. Especially for the cultural anthropologist in me. It was a Friday. The Muslim day of worship. He took me to his multi-generational family’s small home. While he and his brother spoke excellent English, no one else uttered a word of it. That didn’t matter. His mother made me a plant-based lunch. The men showered, and changed into stark white clothes. As the men headed to the masjid for prayer, my guide suggested I relax on their rooftop.

special moments in India--from a rooftop

I walked up narrow steps. Sat on the flat surface that had no railings, ledges or walls. In Spanish, I call this an azotea, which is an Arabic word for flat or spread out. Typically, an azotea is used just to wash and dry clothes.

In contrast to the chilly air, I was surrounded by warmth. The sun on my skin and clothes felt like soothing hot chicken soup. The heat of the dark surface under my bottom and legs reminded me of me sitting on the radiator as a friolenta (sensitive to cold) kid in Chicago.

Surrounded by the warm calm, I did some breath work and yin yoga poses.

Then, one of his sisters came up to the roof and sat beside me. Via gestures, I understood she was recently married. I felt her soothing peaceful energy. There was something beautiful about her, despite her awkward features and missing teeth. I felt her gentle honesty and innocence. After a bit, she motioned that she’d return. When she did, she was carrying what seemed to be a bag of jewels. She unpeeled several coverings to show me her prize.

Special Moments in India, Viewing a Bridal Album

special moments in India: weddings

A wedding album*. Hers.

She was dressed exquisitely. It was as if she’d rented the finest apparel, jewelry, hairdresser and makeup artist and venue in another city.

She pointed, without touching, to each picture. Proudly saying the few English words she knew. Fa-ter. Bro-ter.

This was a very humble woman. In a very simple home. The animals in the courtyard were not household pets. They didn’t have a flush toilet. Her neighbors lugged empty pails to a nearby watering pump.

special moments in india: weddings

Her wedding was her Cinderella moment. She and her family were at the ball until midnight. It was her storybook tale.

Most likely, this was her most awaited of special moments in India.

Special Moments Include Just Keeping Space for Someone

special moments in India: weddingsI felt a deep sense of comfort within –and connection with her — sitting on the rooftop. It may have been an hour. Maybe two. I had no desire to even move. Nor for her to leave. Despite her rejoicing in the wedding, I felt her sadness. I read emptiness and sorrow in her eyes. They contrasted with what I saw in the album: positive anticipation, elation, hope, dignity.

Later, I asked her brother if she was visiting, or living here. He said she was temporarily staying in their family home. Her husband was in a city far away. To explain that, he voiced that the marriage wasn’t what the family had expected. In India, traditionally, the bride’s family pays a large dowry. Sadly, this family must have saved for years, wanting the best for their daughter. Apparently, the groom was a successful businessman. Perfect husband material for multiple reasons. But just like in the Cinderella story, nothing is exactly as it appears. Maya. The illusion. In her case, disillusion.  

*Note: All wedding photos displayed are royalty-free images from Pixabay. Therefore, they are NOT actual images from the family wedding album described.

We are all one. Unity in Diversity

We Are All One. Ek Ong Kar. #BLM

Basta Ya! We Are All One  

Amidst the unending racial injustices, and divisiveness, there’s an outpouring of emotions and concerns. People are outraged. Yet unsure about how to make a real difference.  

We see protests. Acts of solidarity. And, Mea Culpas. Reading lists and movie recommendations are popping up. Most want to do the right thing, and make sense of the senseless. But, how? 

A White female likely won’t really get what it’s like to be a Black man. There may be compassion. But not complete comprehension without walking in his shoes. 

Solid In Solidarity

Statue of liberty-welcomes immigrants

As a kid, I was taught we are all one. At the dinner table, we discussed prejudices and racial injustices. Emma Lazarus’ words. My mom took me to demonstrations. She was an avid letter-to-the-editor and guest commentary contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, and many other publications. Outspoken. Bold. Adamant about equality and justice. 

My mother often recounted the prejudices she faced as a child. And, as an adult. Forget that her skin was very pale. She was a minority in an all White small town. Daughter of immigrants, both her parents had thick accents. My mom who had a mellifluous voice and perfect elocution, didn’t know her parents had accents — until kids pointed it out. Rudely. I admit, I’d giggle inside whenever my grandfather said, “make out with the lights.”

Early on, I’d ask, “Aren’t we Russian?”  No. My ancestors just took a long detour through Eastern Europe. The Ellis Island documents say they’re “Hebrew.” But they didn’t speak Hebrew. They had their own language, religion, foods and customs that set them apart from the others. They lived in shtetls. Like a barrio or ghetto. Attended different schools, and were buried in separate cemeteries from the Russians or Poles. The police and the military didn’t protect us. They threatened, raped and killed us. 

So I identified with minorities.  I didn’t want to check the White box. 

My bachelor’s was in cultural anthropology with a minor in Latin American Studies. I lived, studied, and traveled extensively in non-White, or non-Christian, worlds. That’s where I feel comfortable. Even if we are all one.

Making Sense of it All

I may be in the communications field, but it’s hard for me to write about racism in the United States. I’ve seen racism and prejudice my entire life. And yet, so much I haven’t seen or felt. But I feel it bubbling up and out, and needs to be addressed. So I look to a Malaysian-raised retired Canadian Mounty to make some heads or tails about it.

Baltej Singh Dhillon leads spiritual gatherings that combine discussion with chanting of symbolic mantras. Yesterday, in his virtual satsang, he talked about the crux of the problems with our society.  Not pointing a finger at the U.S., he acknowledged the issue is widespread.

“We have to take responsibility. That’s our job. Daily. Every moment. Every time.”

We Are All One. Ek Ong Kar.

We are one. god's childrenThen, referring to the latest in the wave of police brutality and killings, he said, “We see what’s going on in the States. We see the rioting. We see the violence.  But what is the basis, the foundation of all of that? What is the underlying issue?”

“The root issue is not understanding Ek Ong Kar. One Universal Creator. We are all one. We are immersed in the one. Come from the one. You are I. I am you. Through you, and through me, is all that occurs.”

Furthermore, there’s a major schism between Sikh teachings and the cases of police bias and brutality. 

Singh Dhillon referred to a legendary story about a humble water carrier. During a fierce battle, he fed, helped and supported the enemy. That provoked wrath among his allies. So they turned him over to the holiest wise man, Guru Gobind Singh.  The Sikh guru, poet and philosopher heard the water carrier’s intentions.  Rather than punish him, the guru embraced him. Called him bhai (brother). Guru Gobind Singh congratulated the water carrier for understanding the true meaning of Sikhism. Selfless service to others.

Clearly, a disconnect said Singh Dhillon, when “someone who is supposed to keep the peace, is with his knee on George Floyd (as he’s) begging for his life. So, you see the distance between the two? And, how much disparity there is? We can put all kinds of intellect to it. But it comes down to that root issue of not connecting with our own selves and who we are and being true to that.  And may I say, that we all have work to do.  We need to come back to what was shared with us 550 years ago. And if we forget that, we will have the same violence continue.  Until we begin to connect with those teachings.” 

Loving Kindness and Social Justice

loving kindnessIn closing, Singh Dhillon made the solution to social injustices seem pretty simple. If only we’d all try a bit harder.  

  1. Kindness.
  2. Compassion. 
  3. Respect for one another.

I’ll add another. Pray or chant. Ek Ong Kar or whatever feels right.

Can’t we all just get along? Ahimsa (Non-Violence).

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.

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.

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.