Swan River Focus of the Month
May-Focus of the Month
Mind: My Own Business
My children help me see how challenging it can be just to be a human. Recently, my daughter complained of a headache, but after discussing her pain, she looked at me with wide-open, plaintive eyes and said, “TOO many thoughts in my head!” She even chose a poem for Poetry Day at school called “Rain” by Shel Silverstein, which is about filling one’s brain with rain and hearing water all day long. Another time my son looked at me and whispered, as if sharing a secret just between us, “Mommy – I CAN’T STOP THINKING!” I gave him a hug.
Sometimes one of my children will run up to me and insist that their sibling made them feel angry, sad, or unhappy. These feelings are valid. But when I see their immediate reaction to assign responsibility for their emotions onto another being, it feels like rather than watching a solution, I am only watching pain grow.
There is the initial pain and then there is the subsequent separation from others as an attempt to protect oneself from pain. From the outside, it does not look like a brother could ever make a sister feel in a certain way, and vice versa, right? But how often do I believe that others are wholly responsible for my emotions, that others have the power to make me feel a certain way? Why abdicate the responsibility for my own mind? Why make the state of my mind someone else’s business, rather than my own?
Our relationship with our own mind may be the most important and most challenging one we experience. The ancient yogis described the unawakened mind as being in a constant state of change or whirling. The famous yoga sutra 1.2, yogash citta vritti nirodha, means that when the whirling (vritti) of the mind (citta) ceases (nirodha) then true yoga (union) is realized. The word “vritti” comes from the same Sanskrit root, which gives us the English words whirl, vortex, and even weird. So, the unawakened mind can be a whirling, weird place to be. But that place is not who we truly are.
April-Focus of the Month
You Are Never Alone In This World
So how can we navigate these turbulent waters? How can we stay uplifted and drink the divine nectar of life from all the beauty around us when there are so many forces pulling us down? We live in a culture that continually promotes independence and self-reliance, but at what cost? How much do we have to rely on just ourselves? How separated and independent must we be? Yes, we need to be strong, and yes, we need to truly dive deep into the workings of our own minds, and yes, we have to try to heal the wounds that we find hidden in the deep recesses of our own hearts, but we can’t swim this sea alone. It’s too big and it’s too strong; it will just toss us back.
We need a boat. And that boat has a name. Its name is Satsang.
This word Satsang comes from two words in the Sanskrit language, Sat and Sangha. Sat means truth and Sangha means association or community. According to the Sanskrit dictionary, Satsang means association with the good. I prefer to think of it as my tribe, a global community of beings trying to do good for themselves, for others, for all beings seen and unseen.
March-Focus of the Month
Is that all there is?
Fire is a powerful force. In its controlled forms it is essential for life, but when out of control its potential for destruction is vast. Smokey the Bear’s famous line, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” provides a consistent reminder of the personal responsibility that is required when interacting with such a powerful element.
A few years ago I was biking home from teaching an evening class. It was April, spring had sprung, and the air was filled with the scents of night blooming flowers. As I neared my house, I caught the smell of a fire, not the comforting smell of wood smoke, but a sharp, acrid, smoky smell like burnt electronics. When I got to my block, there were four fire trucks in the street and I began to rapidly consider if I had left a candle or incense burning. A clothes dryer in the house to the rear of mine had ignited, and while it did not burn the house down, the structure was uninhabitable for months and required a complete renovation. I am still awed by the speed at which the fire got out of control, the damage it caused in such short time, and the amount of energy and manpower required to put it out. After the flames were out I toured the house with the firemen while it was still swelteringly hot inside. Everything was covered in black soot and ash. Nothing was salvageable. Everything was destroyed.
Is that all there is to a fire? Destruction? Ashes? Is that the only way to see it? If you’re the insurance company, yes. If your life savings was invested in your home, probably. Maybe if you’re Peggy Lee you break out the booze and have a ball. It can be hard to see beyond the destruction. It can be hard to believe there is a silver lining. It can be hard to see any useful purpose for all of that destruction. It can be easy to see the ash and think that is all there is.
February-Focus of the Month
Prema: Space Love
What if someone told you that the reason a good relationship ended was because you loved the other person and they loved you?
A teacher once told me something profound about a long and loving relationship that had ended. She stated it ended because of love. I thought this sounded absurd! I was born on Saint Valentine’s Day, the day of love. I love love. No one will tell me not to love! She stated, “No, I mean love with a lower-case l. If they love you or you love them, eventually they will hate you. Love (lower case l) creates hate. virtue (lower case v) create vice. taking (lower case t) creates poverty. good (lower case g) creates evil, belief (lower case b) creates suspicion.”
Dual love is often a primal by-product of the understandable we have all been in of struggle, survive, belong, or fight. Dual love creates otherness. Like David Bowie sings in his song “Soul Love:” “All I have is my love of love, but love is not loving.” This love has no life force behind it, and so the seeds die. What is left is resentment and separation. Dual love is not sustainable. It feels empty. This kind of love, the world of 2, or “us versus them,” takes a lot of work and it is often socially programmed into us from birth. It is not a Soul organically recognizing and honoring another Soul.
January-Focus of the Month
We Are the Architects of Time
Do you always feel like you’re running out of time? Do you wish you could slow down the hands of time? Maybe you can.
In Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga and one of the oldest known forms of medicine on the planet, we talk about time as one of the causes of disease. The primordial, or root, cause of disease is forgetting our own true nature as Spirit, or Divine. Our true nature is timeless; it unites us with each other and with Nature. When we forget this, our ego takes over. Our intellect fails, and we misuse our senses by taking in food and experiences unsupportive to our health. Add to this the ravages of “time” as we know it, and we have a perfect recipe for premature aging.
Ayurveda discusses time in two ways: linear and biological. Linear time exists outside of our Selves; it is something we have created and constructed. Maya is the yogic term related to linear time. In Sanskrit, maya quite literally means “illusion;” it refers to the world we live in and perceive with our senses. The illusory world of maya includes linear time: the measure of eternity (actually im-measurable) in seconds, minutes, hours, and days. While helpful in keeping track of birthdays and appointments, linear time is irrelevant to the aging process.
December-Focus of the Month
Kundalini is Life
It is often said that Kundalini is life, and it has revived my life. One Christmas morning I awoke to go see a present built for my brother, but instead I found that my mother had chosen to end her life. No one is prepared to handle a discovery like this, not a person or a family. Most of my life, my mother’s name was barely mentioned, which in some ways was even more confusing than her death. Her decision covered and cloaked me. I became layered with heavy energies of grief, shame, and confusion. I wondered at times if I would ever be able to crawl out from under it. There was nowhere to go to un-spin from it.
Kundalini is a powerful yogic practice that can help liberate you from dense energies by clearing unconscious and subconscious barriers clouding the original Self. Kundalini Yoga has helped me to release a lot of this heavy and oppressive energy. Through Kriyas (targeted actions), meditation, pranayama (breath exercises), mantra (sound), and visualization, the opportunity exists to awaken you to You, the original Self. The original Self contains the pure divine source and energy of life. Just like a 3.5-ounce, 6-centimeter oak seed turns into a 20,000-pound, 80-foot tall oak tree that recreates a new 3-ounce seed with same creative potential, we have that infinite creative potential within all of us. Like the acorn seed buried beneath the ground, we have the ability to break through what is dense and heavy and express this infinite potential within us.
November-Focus of the Month
Harvest of the Heart: Bhakti Yoga & the Art of Devotion
One of the greatest tales of India helps me to remain devoted to the divine. The Ramayana, which some say is the “soul of India,” is one of the most romantic, surprising and thrilling adventure tales that speaks to a colorful array of human emotions. One of the main characters in the story is Hanuman, who is half monkey and half god. He represents the struggle humans face on their quest to remember self and god-realization, which according to Ramana Maharshi, “is the greatest gift a human can render the world.” Hanuman teaches us that by remembering god, we remember our true nature to serve love to all beings, and by doing so, our struggle transforms into devotion, which unveils the Harvest of the Heart: Bhakti Yoga.
Ram Dass does a fabulous job articulating Hanuman’s symbolism of Bhakti Yoga and the Art of Devotion. “Hanuman’s eyes filled with tears as he recalled the Lord’s virtues. He ever enjoyed the nectar of the Lord’s story. His only desire was to be allowed to remain as a devotee of Rama. Again and again the Lord tried to raise him up; He, however, was so absorbed in love that he would not rise. When Rama asked him what he wanted, Hanuman answered: Grant me unceasing devotion, which is a source of supreme bliss” (Miracle of Love, Ram Dass).
October-Focus of the Month
Shakti and Shiva: Balance between Opposing Forces
I have always walked the shadow edge between worlds of darkness and light. Before I was a yogi, I was a punk. Nowadays, I take the seat of teacher, here in the light-filled Mandir. I guide students to connect to their bodies, their breath and the universe. I encourage them to sweat, chant and wring out the habits and patterns that aren’t serving them. We do this work to make space for new energy, ideas and opportunities to come through our bodies and into manifestation in our lives.
But I came to New Orleans homeless, with nothing but a back pack. It was just another stop on a circuit I was making, hitchhiking and riding trains around the country. I specifically chose that path because I wanted to live with less stuff, to exist outside society, to truly be free. People always imagine that this was a dark and difficult time in my life, but actually, despite the struggle and uncertainty, I experienced much magic, synchronicity, kindness and support from strangers during this time.
September-Focus of the Month
The Koshas: A Soul Experience
Through using the Higher Self Meditation and the practices of Reiki, I have found access to an internal and divine wisdom. I recall when I was trying to decide whether or not to sign up for Swan River Yoga Teacher Training. Though I knew I would take this training someday, I wasn’t sure if the time was right. It was getting time to make a decision.
I sat in stillness, and imagined my life as if I had signed up and begun to partake in the training. I felt this as joy, all the way through each of my internal layers, all the way to my physical body. My body felt light, relaxed, at peace. I then “checked my math” and sat with the idea of not doing the training, waiting until the next time around, and sensed this as a reality fully throughout my being. At that moment my mind became noticeably more dull and let down. My body felt heavy and tired. It was quite obvious at that point what to do.
August-Focus of the Month
TAPASYA: Stoke the Fire
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2.1: Tapah svadhyaya Isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah
“A burning desire must fuel your discipline. You must make the effort to continuously study the subject. You must devote all of your efforts to the Supreme Self. These are the actions to be taken to realize yoga.” Translation: Sharon Gannon
“Accepting pain as help for purification, study of the spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga, Union to the Supreme Being, in practice.” Translation: Sri Swami Satchidananda
I remember one day many years ago when Swan Michelle posed a question to our yoga class. I was sitting perched on my blanket and yoga mat at the Mandir, ready to listen. It was the middle of summer and extremely hot outside. It seemed like a miracle that for once I was not late to class. As part of her dharma talk, Michelle asked us, “Whoever said that life had to be easy? Who said that all struggle was bad?”
I was surprised. Who? Well, me, for starters. I believed that challenges were unpleasant and “bad” and that the goal of my practice was to get me to a point where I was free of struggles, so that I could finally be happy.
July-Focus of the Month
Freedom: Our Natural State
The co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, Sharon Gannon, says, “Yoga is not something you can DO. Yoga is our natural state. The yoga practices reveal to us where we are resisting our natural state.” Mokṣa, the Sanskrit word for emancipation, liberation, or freedom, is said to be the result, or even the goal, of the yoga practices. When I contemplate mokṣa, I hear Sharon’s words echo in my mind to remind me that freedom already exists within me. This goal of liberation cannot be reached with acquiring more money, bigger and nicer homes, prestige, popularity, certifications, credentials, or anything that lies outside of the yogi. The attainment of freedom does not come with searching and fighting for it, but with the opposite. Freedom comes with letting go, reversing the search to move inwards, and discovering what already lies within. Freedom is our natural state. . . it is our birthright.
As I was preparing to embark on the 2010 Swan School Yoga Teacher Training, I open-heartedly began a meditation practice. I consider myself a good student, so I followed the directions offered by Swan Michelle: start with a shorter meditation time, and practice at least 6 days a week, at the same time of day, in the same spot. I began with 5 minutes. 7 years later, my daily meditation is only 10 minutes. Progress is slow, but steady.
June-Focus of the Month
The Myths of Practice
I recall a moment in one of the first yoga classes I ever took when the teacher brought us into a horrifying split and said, “Now imagine you’re Hanuman, leaping to Sri Lanka.” All I could do was roll my eyes because I had no clue what she was talking about and my eyes were the only part of my body that I could move during the attempt. It’s not that I was resistant to the mythological and spiritual origins of the practice, it was more like I was feeling clueless and impatient with being new. Nonetheless, I loved the way yoga made me feel so I just kept coming back.
Within two years I was totally hooked. I practiced as much as I could and went to every workshop I could afford. I reveled in the versatility of options and styles, attending everything from Anusara intensives to Yoga and Tarot workshops, kirtans and 5 a.m. Kundalini donation-based classes. Nothing was too practical or too “out there;” I was open to it all.
I decided I wanted to do a teacher training, but felt really timid and insecure about it. I finally got the nerve to speak up to my instructor at the time. He pointed me to Michelle Baker, who had just announced that she would be leading the first yoga teacher training in New Orleans. Michelle seemed lit up and her teaching was rich and layered and I hung on every word. I signed on without hesitation and began a journey which ultimately became the centerpiece of my life (though I had no idea at the time).
May- Focus of the Month
The Unstruck Sound:Nada Yoga
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states “When the mind ceases to be fickle and is united by fixing it in nada, it becomes immobile like a wingless bird.” IV:92
One of the divine teachers upon my path, Avalokitesvara / Chenrezig the bodhisattva of compassion, attained enlightenment through single pointed focus on the subtle inner sound. Standing on the shore staring out upon the sea, Chenrezig focused on the sound of the waves exhaling to shore and inhaling back out to sea. Like an instrument being tuned to a tuning fork, his mind became in tune with his surroundings through deep listening. As distraction dissolved, he grew aware of more subtle sounds within. Through the art of deep listening, an unwavering focus and stability of mind arose.
When we can ‘tune in’ like this, we rest effortlessly in the Here and Now. Sound fades into the background. Our experience seems more like a movie screen on which ideas, emotions, sensations, and sound are projected. In this state of greater, spacious awareness, practice holding fast to this steady point of view: watching, yet not involved in the “movie script”.
April- Focus of the Month
The Chakras, A Ladder to Love: Renewal of the Infinite Within
I believe every breath is a new beginning and that every moment we have the chance to be reborn. I have found that in the most devastating moments, I have the capability to remember the infinite within me that is never born and never dies.
My ladder to love was a resurrection of sorts. It started with me and it will never end with me. It is my journey to God, to Love. And it started with one of the most profound and painful moments of my life.
Five years ago, during my teacher training at Swan River Yoga, my father passed away. It was sudden, it took my hope away, and it left me feeling breathless and lost.
My first day back to teacher training after his death felt impossible.
My husband drove me to Swan River because I could barely put one foot in front of the other. He sat with me in the car for what felt like an eternity. He didn’t say a word. He just held my hand.
March- Focus of the Month
Spring Into Mindful Living. Nourish Your Ojas!
““Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.” -Maya Angelou
Ojas literally translates as the juice of life. It is our natural, innermost vital essence which acts as the carrier of our life force. It is our vitality.
According to Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga, healthy people have abundant ojas, our essence that promotes immunity, happiness, physical and spiritual strength, and clarity of perceptions. A person who is healthy is radiant, generous, strong, supple, joyful, compassionate, and balanced. When our ojas is depleted, we are left vulnerable to illness, anxiety, restlessness, confusion, and poor digestion.
In life, health is the greatest wealth. We are of highest service to the world when we are clear and of radiant health. Yet there isn’t one set prescription for this luster.
Our well-being depends on many factors, like our faith, mindful connection, communion with nature, self-care practices and our sense of belonging. Trusting that there is an infinite Consciousness that governs all things, as well as acting as an integral part of the Divine web of life, reminds us to take care of ourselves and others.
February- Focus of the Month
The Lila Gras
“My, what a Divine space suit you have on.” Ram Dass
I remember the first time I met one of my yoga teachers, Ram Dass. He is the author of the iconic coffee table book on yoga, Be Here Now. He walked out of a library in New York and I unconsciously turned towards him. He had a magnetic pull. He was lit up and accepting. I really felt like he was “somebody,” whatever a somebody might be. He seemed to look at me as though he knew who I was, yet I didn’t know him at all, let alone myself. It was an interaction I hadn’t known before, free of judgement or labels. It was a sort of Soul-to-Soul glance that lacked any motive or intention behind it.
I later saw that he was the keynote speaker that night. He gave a talk about reincarnation, a concept new to me. He stated that we all had “divine space suits” on and that we were really Souls in a body, the body being a costume. I had just graduated from college with a Major in Costume Design. I found the concept very relatable and intriguing.
January- Focus of the Month
Protection & Direction: The Four Infinite Truths
In my garden in the early morning, I admire the orange trees. From the roots, the trunk rises and splits into branches, which split into smaller and smaller branches that hang heavy with fruit. The trees were planted by the previous owner of this garden when he was a young man. He planted the trees for his mother; she loved oranges. Both the son and mother have passed away now, but the creative power within the seeds he planted, to express his love for his mother, lives on. As I am pregnant and expecting a third child, I am touched by this connection that bridges time. I know little more of their relationship, other than that she loved to garden and he planted these trees. He could have given her anything—a scarf or a hat, for example—and my family may never have known. Their relationship would not have touched our lives. But because he chose to plant a tree, his gift self-renews in a way that no longer depends on him. The trees nourish me, my family, the friends of my children who joyfully pick oranges on temperate afternoons, the baby I carry, our neighbors and even those we don’t know, like the homeless who accept a bag of oranges or a jar of juice at a red light. Read More>>>>
December – Focus of the Month
Circle the Sun
I enjoy watching the sky slowly changing color as the sun rises and the world is illuminated. I can hear the birds waking up to sing, beginning the day most likely the same way they began the day before. My morning routine is usually much the same as the previous day. I put some water on my face and put in my contact lenses, I take care of the cats and I show them each some love, I practice asana and sun salutations and I sit down to practice pranayama and meditate. The asana sequence I practice in the morning has been the same for years. I’ve been practicing the same sun salutations in the morning for years. Some mornings, I’m teaching or traveling early, but I do my best to make time for the asana and sun salutations. Some mornings, I hold off on the paranayama and meditation until later in the day, but for the most part, my mornings are very repetitive.
Life itself is very repetitive. We are on a giant rock which has been circling the sun for over 4.5 billion years. The teachings of yoga tell us that we’ve lived out many lifetimes ourselves, often repeating much of the past in our current incarnations. Day in and day out, millions of people get up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. Certain details—our bodies, our lives—change, but so much of our lives is repetition. Repetition becomes dulling for many people, but the yoga seeker sees the repetition as a chance to go deeper into what is already known. Read More>>>>
November – Focus of the Month
We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
I sit sometimes and study my harmonium. When I look at the screws, the clasps, the eyelets, the keys, the polished wood, the bellows, and all the other pieces, I cultivate a sense of gratitude because I know there isn’t a single piece of this wonderful device I am capable of making on my own. Someone had the idea to make a screw and then figured out how to make one. Someone else made the piano keys, the shiny knobs, and all the other little tiny components. Another person took each of those individual tiny parts and put them together in a way that allowed beautiful sounds to come from them. And eventually, after all that, and against all odds, that device made its way around the world from India and into my home.
So before I play my harmonium, I study it, and I humbly acknowledge all the people (past and present) who contributed to it being in front of me. It took a tremendous amount of effort by MANY other people for a harmonium to be here. I see, contained in this small device, the story of countless beings, each doing their part to make something amazing happen. Each person played their role with skill and enthusiasm, and because they did, I get to make music.
Studying my harmonium, I also see through the illusion of separateness. There is no separation. Read More>>>>
October – Focus of the Month
The Spiritual Practice of Disaster: From So Hard to So Ham
Soham is a Hindu Mantra meaning “I am (s)He/That” in Sanskrit. In Vedic Philosophy it means identifying oneself with the universe or ultimate reality. Soham means that my Individual Self is my Universal Self. Soham is also called the Hamsa mantra, because when sung in repetition it elicits the sound Hamsa. In Sanskrit, the word Hamsa represents a white swan that symbolizes the Individual Self. Paramahamsa, the Universal Self, is reflected as Individual Self, or Hamsa, in all of us; in other words, the God(dess) in all of us.
Drugs plague the community where I choose to reside. At its laziest moments, my mind can ride the pop-psychology-recipe for “right and wrong” and condemn those who fall victim to the drugs-of-no-choice that run the streets of the 7th Ward. It’s the one-size-fits-all narrative that relates drug use to the “weak,” the “criminal,” the “desperate,” the “pathetic”- the other. Like so many folks who don’t reach for drugs as their first means of relief, I sometimes find myself seduced by proliferation of this storyline – or I did until recently, when I hurt my neck.
Without going into the throes of inane-hard-life-misalignment details, I hurt my neck and I don’t exactly know how. As a yoga teacher, gardener, builder, community mama, person who uses their body to make ends meet- this was a disaster. Three weeks into the mostly unbearable pain- and three weeks into various treatments, called-in favors, and secret promises to the Universe-nothing changed except an aggrandized projection of fear and burgeoning hopelessness. Read More>>>>