Swan River Focus of the Month

May 2021- Pushti: Ripening to Release

written by Megan CW

My grandmother hadn’t spoken a word for quite a while when I was called into her bedroom on my 18th birthday. Grandma’s caretaker was a dear friend of the family, an energetic elderly woman named Darlene. When I entered the bedroom, Darlene stood next to Grandma’s bed, holding one of those Tickle-Me-Elmo knockoffs from Walgreens: A plush happy face on a fuzzy body that sang and laughed when you squeezed its hand. This one had a birthday hat on. “Oh God.” I said, not bothering to hide my teenage irritation at Darlene’s bubbliness, nor my dread for what was about to happen. “What’s the matter?” asked Darlene, “Don’t you want us to sing happy birthday to you?”.

“No. Please don’t.”

Darlene looked to my silent Grandma, who gazed into space, expressionless and still in her hospital bed. “What kind of girl doesn’t want us to sing happy birthday to her?” she asked as though she believed my grandma could answer.

Amazingly, Grandma stirred and emerged from the depths of her introversion with a couple of blinks. We watched in astonishment when she turned her head towards me. Eyes suddenly clear, she looked me in the face, and crackly muttered the only word she’d speak in those last weeks of her life: “Underdeveloped.”

It happened to be a great birthday gift that Grandma had reserved her final worldly insult for me and that she’d mustered the strength and coherence to spit it out with the precision and clarity of a single, stinging word. As Darlene and I stood there, wide-eyed, wondering what on Earth had just happened, Grandma erupted in an uproar of hysterical laughter.

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April 2021- A Perfect Mess

written by Keith Porteous

When I was growing up in the 1980s, time with my grandparents in the Mississippi Delta created community and inspiration. The bright radiance of the beaming sun, my grandmother’s endlessly joyful piano playing, and their community of artistic friends were an affirming balance to the shadow of my parents’ ongoing divorce.

Close friends who were sculptors made outdoors rooms, figures of animals, gardens inspired by Mexico, and called me “Keith Little” to give me a place amongst the lineage of women whose name I share. My brother, cousins and I would play hide and seek in their gardens and tour their studio in wonder. We watched them experiment with adding glass to sculpture, change their style, and over time build a huge business they literally started out of mud. Being around them, it felt like anything was possible, not in a reckless way, but in a life-affirming, express-yourself, believe-in-your-dreams kind of way.

The female was petite and powerful; her signature style involved wearing only one earring, on purpose. The gentleman had a common expression about someone he cared for: “isn’t she just a mess,” he would say in his heavily accented voice. His words were intended as a compliment. From my memory, I believe he meant that the person was authentic, unique, and accepted. This person who was a “mess” was invited into his circle of care, rather than excluded. Their art studios were not perfectly tidy, but they were full of creativity, inspiration and love. In reflection, I think it takes someone who is fully authentic, embodied and at ease with their own shifts to fully embrace and move through the mess: the mess of relationships, child-rearing, seasons, pandemics, life itself.

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March 2021- Spring & Ayurveda

written by Taylor Tidwell

As I write this, the Japanese magnolias are just starting to show their deep pink blooms and the citrus trees are beginning to call the honeybees with an unbelievably amazing fragrance from their fresh blossoms. By the time you the reader are enjoying these words we will be well on our way towards more stable and enjoyably warm weather. The azaleas will be popping all over and we will be so excitingly close to the explosion of jasmine across the city. These life affirming natural happenings in the subtropical climate of New Orleans are some of the big reasons I love living here; something is always assured to be blossoming, vibrant, and green and our return to comfortable weather comes rather quickly.

With festivals still on hold in order to keep our gathering sizes small, this spring will in many ways be similar to the last in that it will again be more quiet and inward, with most of us just sticking to those beings closest to our hearts. This is in stark difference to the typically loud and beautifully over the top celebrations of our normal spring season. This March, however, is much different than last year’s, as we now have the hue of hope coloring our perspective. With the distribution of the vaccines we can finally take a few deep breaths and know that we, along with the rest of nature, are all coming out of what Amanda Gorman refers to in her beautiful poem The Hill We Climb as “this never-ending shade.” So while things may still look the same as last year, I invite you to harness this new season’s energy of hope and renewal to recommit to your own upliftment and truly honor all of the many transformational shifts and challenges that you have been forced to overcome. Then together we will all once again pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.

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Photo by Laura Cherry, 2020

February 2021- I Am Sky: On Emptiness, or Shunyata

written by Laura Cherry

I am privileged to know an extraordinary and precocious six-year-old with a deft imagination. One autumn afternoon, I watched him construct a makeshift umbrella by piercing large leaves on one end of a tree branch and holding it over his head. On another day, he showed me the “special tree” outside his house, excitedly pointing out naturally occurring notches in the trunk that served as furniture for insects and cup holders for human visitors. He is known to stand outside and make grand, sweeping statements such as, “I am grass! I am this tree. I am this chair. I am water! I am sky!”

This may sound like childish nonsense, but it reveals a profound understanding of one of the most difficult Buddhist teachings: shunyata, or emptiness, as given to us in the Heart Sutra. This youngster implicitly understands the concept of interbeing: the notion that everything in the universe is inherently connected to everything else. This boy is, in fact, made of trees, water, and sky. Without them, he couldn’t exist.

From the Heart Sutra:

“Listen, shariputra,
form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.

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January 2021- Embodying The Ongoing Whole Of Creation

written by Swan Michelle

Purnamadah Purnamidam Purnat Purmanudashate Purnasya Purnamadaya Purnameva Vashisyate

Translation:

This is Whole. That is Whole. You cannot take away from the Whole. In taking away from the Whole, what remains will always be Whole. The Whole is Always Whole. The whole is infinite, and forever remains.

Another translation:

What is invisible is visible. Out of the infinite, the finite has come. And from the finite, the infinite is always present, even when covered, and cannot be destroyed. The infinite always remains.

This mantra is known as one of the 5 peace mantras, or “Pancha Shantih’s,” found in the Upanishads at the end of The Vedas, which is one of the oldest known transcribed texts. This mantra is recited when there is a propensity to divide or to destroy, which, according to this mantra, just like energy, cannot be.

“I am nothing like you. I am something like you. I am nothing but you.” The Vijnana Bairava Tantra

It seems quite understandable that we want difficult things to finally end, especially in such a purifying year as 2020. The volume got turned up many notches, yet it still carried an ominous, inconsistent, and concealed nature. The rearranging of many things has been an invitation for us all to see what it is that actually remains, and what was neither stable nor whole.

“When carving stone, the sculptor removes everything that is not the statue…The art of revealing beauty lies in removing what conceals it. So, too, Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras tells us that wholeness exists within us. Our work is to chisel away at everything that is not essence, not Self.” Judith Hanson Lasater

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December- The More We Give the More We Grow

written by Brigitte Martin

Dana is a Sanskrit word that means “gift” or “giving away.” In traditions of the East, generosity is the bedrock of the spiritual path and learning to give is a lifelong practice. It is a form of generous giving that expects nothing in return. Sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves we forget to look out for each other.

It is said that the deepest part of us is revealed when we are in service to others. This is where we can touch our lives and really come alive. This is where we use our hearts as a doorway into generosity. To find yourself you have to leave your SELF and offer to others who are in need.
In the world today more than ever we need to come together to heal, to love, to share our hearts. It is the only way truly to live. It is our only way into love. We have a responsibility to try and make the world a better place and to reach out, check in, encourage, uplift, love, support, affirm, connect…sometimes togetherness is the only way through.

Giving (dana) brings happiness at every stage of its expression. Generosity is the capacity we contain to embrace others with compassion and care. It is the most basic human virtue and is vital to how we grow beyond self – transcendence. In the teaching of the Buddha the path of giving is a significant one. It is recognized as being the foundation and seed of spiritual development. It is this seed that gives us purpose.

When we truly see ourselves in others we instinctively want to do everything we can to secure their happiness and well-being, because we know that it is also directly related to our own well-being and happiness. We exist with all of life when we give ourselves to others. The merit, the spiritual benefit to be gained from the practice of giving cannot be measured. It is simply and profoundly priceless.

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Photo by: Elizabeth Dondis Photography (www.elizabethdondis.com)

November- Celebrate Gratitude

written by Amanda Day Vance

Gratitude and compassion equals happiness and compassion.

“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.”
― Masaru Emoto, Secret Life of Water

Please, take a moment right now for yourself. A moment of stillness and begin to find your breath. Notice the rise of the in-breath and the fall of the out-breath. Be mindful of the breath, be open to your awareness, breathing in and out without controlling or judging it in any way, just letting it be. Breath in. Breath out. Feel the evenness, the flow and the centeredness of the breath in the body and the mind. Circle your hands above your head, join your palms and bring to heart center. Begin to open the palms, pinky fingers and thumbs still joining, into Lotus Mudra. Begin to invoke the feeling of your deepest gratitude. Your thanks, sincere appreciation, your utmost respect to you, to those in your life, the earth, whatever it may be. Begin to sit in this space well and create openness from within.

Sit and know your sitting. – Joseph Goldstein

Life is inexplicably beautiful but can also feel hopelessly dark.
If you discover your inner lotus flower you will always flow through life radiantly bright.
Don’t give up practicing because it’s all there within you.

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October- Every Moment Is Yoga

written by Nady Persons

At its core, yoga means “to yoke” or to join together and make whole. In the practice of yoga, we’re essentially bringing together so many different parts of us, from the parts we are proud of to the parts we’d rather keep hidden. We are also connecting ourselves both with Mother Earth as well as with the Divine, however you choose to define that.

If this pandemic has collectively taught us anything, it’s that there is a lot of deep, internal work that needs to be done by every single one of us. As cities, states, and entire countries continue the pattern of retreating within and emerging, we are presented with an opportunity that we can either choose to embrace or eschew: we can either show up and do the messy internal excavating necessary to co-create a just, equitable, inclusive world, or we can numb out. Our liberation is intertwined; as long as we continue to create separation, we will never be free. Every moment is yoga.

We have all experienced incalculable losses over the past number of months related to COVID, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. The world that’s emerging looks nothing like the world we were used to pre-March 13th, 2020. Collective grief is palpable in our communities as we process the loss of loved ones and leaders, livelihoods, and a way of life with which we had grown comfortable. The pandemic is also revealing to a wider audience the toxicity inherent in our communities where people are denied basic human rights because of the color of their skin. Where police brutality is unchecked and rampant against Black people. Where large amounts of people are being detained  and separated from their children – and some sterilized – by the US government in mass detention centers. Where people are being denied adequate healthcare.

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September- Seva: Finding a More Meaningful Orientation for Engaging in the World

written by Haiyan Khan

As a yoga practitioner, have you ever wondered what yoga has to say about how to move through life? Or how to engage in life? Or does yoga only talk about asana, meditation or even mindfulness? It turns out yoga does talk about how to move through our lives, and what it has to say is just as radical and controversial as its other teachings.

There is an entire branch of yoga called Karma Yoga, the yoga of action. This branch encourages us to engage in the world and promises that by engaging with the right orientation, we can find spiritual liberation in the process. This orientation is referred to as Seva, or selfless service. In essence it encourages a yogi to move through the world by giving and serving or being present without even the slightest consideration of ever seeking a reward. It is a profound action focused on the whole. Even today this idea is revolutionary!

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August- PAUSE: Abhyasa, Sutras, and Sacred Texts

written by Charlotte Mabry

Whether there is joy in my personal life, or events that cause some form of suffering, my refuge is found in my yoga practice. What is surfacing in our world? On one hand, there is the current mysterious and sometimes fatal disease of the human heart and lung. On the other hand, people are responding to the world of broken hearts of numerous social injustices across our globe. With great passion, dedication, and commitment action is taking place to right this injustice. Still anxiety and feelings concerning the future are uncertain. Overall, there is Dis-Ease: people living without ease. How does one approach processing all of this from the perspective of yoga and its practices?

My teacher, Judith Lasater states that conflict cannot happen without duality. While many are uncomfortable with conflict in ‘normal’ times, in 2020 one might feel bombarded with division. Conflict can also be a sign of growth, an exploration, and a chance to communicate with radical honesty both within oneself and with others.

For me, conflict is a call to practice, abhyasa, confronting my deepest self with radical honesty; yoga. Internal work. In silence, I search for direction from the sutras and sacred texts. Where am I internally? Am I in peaceful balance? Where am I in my personal relationships? How do the greater sociological questions affect my day to day relating to others? How can I make a difference?

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July-
 I Can See Clearly Now: The Hope of Liberation

written by Laura Johanna

I recently co-taught a workshop on suffering. Not surprisingly, a lot of people are interested in the topic. As I was preparing for the event and compiling my notes, I was reminded of how the ancient spiritual teachings that inform our yoga practices don’t beat around the bush when it comes to the challenges of life. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism states, “Life is suffering.” Sage Patanjali gets even grimmer in Yoga Sutra 2.15 with, “A wise, discriminating person sees all worldly experiences as painful.” Ouch!

It’s true that we only need to look at the increasingly polarized world around us or glimpse at the news to see this message corroborated. It can be easy to sink into despair or hopelessness when we see the struggles surrounding us.

But clearly, our suffering isn’t the whole story. We also experience joy, creativity, love, and friendship. We cook delicious foods, learn new things, plant seeds in dirt, express our truths to others, sign petitions, sing songs, show up at marches, move our bodies, have deep conversations, and create art – all of which are inherently hopeful actions.

The ability to retain hope and beauty in the midst of a broken world may seem trite, but it’s actually a powerful piece of our ability to keep going and see clearly.

Right after Patanjali tells us the grim news of Yoga Sutra 2.15, he gives us what I consider the most hopeful of all the Yoga Sutras: Yoga Sutra 2.16, in which he basically says, but it doesn’t have to be that way!

Heyam = endable, to be ended, to be avoided
Dukham = suffering, struggle, pain
Anagatam = that which has not come
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June-
 There is a Light That Never Goes Out

written by TQ Sims

While the world is still processing the effects of a global pandemic and many of us are coming out of self-isolation, many of us feel like we can’t see too far ahead, that we’re maybe a bit lost. June is a very important time for the LGBTQ+ community, and I’d like to tell you a story about why June is so important. It’s a story about a community rising up from the shadows and stepping into the light. First let’s talk about a a force that guides us all towards each other: joy.

Yoga Sutra I.36 states, “Viśokā vā jyotiṣmatī.” The word vā, meaning “or,” appears in the sutra to indicate that this sutra (like all sutras really) is a part of a continuous thread. At this point in the larger body of The Yoga Sutra, a list of techniques are given to return the mind to peace, reducing and eliminating divisiveness, realizing Yoga. This sutra is but one of those techniques. There are many paths to the same realization, offering many paths for the diversity of humankind.

Viśokā is described as “sorrow-less, effulgent light.” We glimpse this Light when our hearts light up or when we witness the light in someone’s eyes. This radiance can be found within when we train ourselves to look towards it. Jyotiṣmatī could be broken down into two words: jyotiṣ (which means light and is related to the English word “joy”) and matī (which means “measure”).

How do we measure out joy? Because of our inherent biases, we might not recognize the Light within others who we label as “different.” It can be challenging to empathize with others, to see others as we see ourselves. There are so many groups who have experienced not being seen and denied a space measured out for joy in our society: women, animals, indigenous cultures, the list goes on!
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Photo by Elizabeth Dondis

May-
 Refuge: Finding hOMe within

written by Amanda Day Vance

Wow, what a wild and crazy historical time of complete changes in our lives. It has been a time of challenges, for some, anxiety and fear, for others, new experiences, and, I believe for all, new feelings.

Recently as I was practicing yoga on my back porch, I noticed the silence of the city and the beautiful songs of the birds, and gazing up through the trees to the blue skies, feeling the spaciousness and openness in my movement, I noticed a sense of peace within my heart, a feeling of calmness. I felt safe, a space of refuge right within my heart. Talking with my son, Vance, I asked him to be still for a moment and take a look around and listen to the silence, maybe feel the stillness in the air, all around in our neighborhood and the city. It was actually so calming and serene. We sat there for a while, just being.

Samsara is a place of suffering, pains, confusion. It is the continuous cycle of life, death, and re-birth envisioned in Hinduism and other Indian religions. Samsara is the endless cycle of life and death from which one seeks liberation, release or freedom. The prominent belief is that samsara is a feature of a life based on illusion or Maya. Illusion enables a person to think they are an autonomous being instead of recognizing the connection between one’s self and the rest of reality. It is during these times of confusion, maybe of fear and suffering, we must begin to use our practices more than ever. Change, or really it is our relationship with change, in many ways can be a part of suffering in our lives, and we have all been going through changes literally every moment right now. Read More>>>>

 

April-
 Daily Leaps Of Faith. Boundaries and Boundlessness

written by Swan Michelle

Space, or ether, is a container. It is easy to forget it is there, but it has boundaries. Space holds the Universe in place. In a time of responsible and mandatory social distancing, it is important to remember that space is not isolation, nor limitation. It is an activation of listening and an opportunity for greater freedom.

The earth is the largest boundary that we experience, yet it is really mostly made of space, as are humans. This is the space asked of us all at this time. It requires some tactic, daily regulation and interconnected boundary. More than ever, beings are recognizing the importance of being connected to nature, to the outdoors, to their food, health, and concern for others on this earth. We are the trees, the ocean, the fresh air, the animals, the plants, the minerals and all of humanity.

“Let thy medicine be thy food and thy food be thy medicine.” -Socrates

Sickness, a form of separation and the opposite of yoga and a connection to the earth, is a wakeup call. The yogic texts state that if one being is left unconscious, we all are. It couldn’t be more clear now. If one person is sick, we are all sick to some extent, and it affects the collective whole. Within the element of ether or space, all of the elements, and all things reside. The elements are medicines. One person not well means all of us are not well.

The Universe is a unique and supremely intelligent system held in a specific container of unseen boundaries, of which are malleable, mysterious and unknown, since we don’t have access to the whole picture. It can be easy to forget, while consumed by a narrow lens of fear, that we are held in a Universal order we may not always understand.

“Don’t yearn for the past. Don’t anticipate the future. It is important that you not be so overwhelmed.” -Ram Dass.
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March-Flip the Script

written by Keith Porteous

Yoga Sutra 2.33: Vitarkabadhane pratipaksha bhavanam

When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana. – Barbara Stoler Miller

When our minds are disturbed, can we find space to look at ourselves and our situations anew? One of my favorite aspects of the yoga tradition is that it begins with an acceptance of human nature as we are, not as we should be. Then, the teachings offer practices through many paths to create peace and happiness. The whole path begins with the yamas, or restraints, which are ways we hold ourselves back when we are inclined to be hurtful. The point is not repression; the point is harnessing one’s energy towards positive action. Constructive actions of thought, word and deed will reverberate to create greater peace and happiness, just as a downward spiral in the mind is equally possible. Yoga Sutra 2.33 teaches us that we have the ability to flip the script, or “turn a negative into a positive picture,” as Lauryn Hill said, whenever we feel stuck. This sutra is an ancient reminder that we have options. We may feel stuck in fear, anger, jealousy, or just impatience in traffic, but in truth our minds are very flexible.

For many years, I practiced this Sutra by substituting gratitude when my first reaction was a sense of burden. The quick swap sounded like changing an “I have to” into an “I get to,” such as turning “I have to clean the kitchen” into “I get to clean the kitchen.” This switch reveals the obvious gift of having a kitchen in the first place. This is a helpful switch, and has saved me many times when I have missed the opportunities for gratitude that surround me always. But over the years, I have also noticed that forcing the positive in every situation can be superficial and is not always authentic. If we truly need rest, perhaps the best response is a pause to listen inwards – and then to choose the next most constructive action, which might look like asking for help. Sutra 2.33 is not saying we have to be “shiny, happy, people,” per R.E.M.’s 1991 hit, it is reminding us we have the ability to shift how we are thinking and thereby to shift the environment all around us.

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February-I Am That, and that, and that, and that…

written by Michael Quintana

Pictured in the above photo is a fourteen-year-old me in Badha Padmasana. It’s been twenty years since that picture was taken and in no way am I the same person. First off, I can no longer perform Badha Padmasana! My shoulders are much tighter and more muscle bound then they once were. Second, I don’t have that outfit anymore. Maybe I outgrew it, or perhaps the clothes were no longer fashionable (assuming they ever were!) and I threw them out. Third, our bodies are in a constant process of regenerating, replacing and reforming the structures that make our form. Old, damaged cells are constantly being replaced by newer ones. I am not the same person in that picture. I have grown and changed a lot but in many ways I am still that boy in that picture. The truth is I am a soul, an Atman, temporarily inhabiting this fleshy form. As I might change clothes many times throughout this lifetime, my body may change many times in this lifetime, and my soul has changed through many bodies throughout its existence.

BG 2.22: As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones; likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.

In yoga philosophy, the physical world is said to be a manifestation of Prakriti, while consciousness or awareness is considered to be Purusha. We humans are thought to be an element of Purusha immersed in and occupying a form of Prakriti. The Atman, or soul, is Purusha, and the body is Prakriti. The realm of Prakriti in which we reside, the manifested universe, is known as Maya. Maya, often translated as illusion, distracts us from the divine. It acts like a veil or colored lenses, that when covering your eyes colors your perception of the world. The world of Maya is full of enticements that draw our attention and pull our focus. Often we think that maya is the only reality and believe I am that job or I am that car or I am that social media post. When we identify with the aspects of maya we tend to neglect our practices and lose connection with the divine.

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January-That was then, this is now. Honoring the Past, Living in the Present, and Planting Seeds for the Future. A Reflection on Time.

written by Camilah Hicks

Time is relative. We either feel like we never have enough to accomplish all the things that need to be done, feel like we have too much on our hands and are dying of boredom, or that it has gotten away from us. It seems that we’re constantly negotiating with ourselves and others to navigate this most elusive of ideas. Time is an illusory concept upon which we’ve created systems of meaning that we’ve determined to be significant in order to keep things flowing and in motion. Class starts at 6. You can vote at 18. Expiration dates on everything. Physicists have said that time is simply a way for us to distinguish between what was the past and what is now. Time, then, is a social construct with which we are all somehow in cahoots. What then, does “That was then, this is now. Honoring the Past, Living in the Present, and Planting Seeds for the Future” mean?

We have just entered into a new year, a brand-new decade. At the close of the previous year, we are invited to reflect on what was and to dream of all that will be. This year, the hashtag #2020vision trended. Through all of this looking back, and calls to dream of and plan for the future, we are almost never encouraged to be in the NOW, in the present. To be happy, content, and satisfied with what is. What good is #2020vision if we never take the time to fully live and experience what we’ve learned?

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