Winter to Spring – Yoga Retreat
The apex of the December moon cycle was marked by an evening satsang program at Sivananda Ashram-Bahamas. A day of yoga in the Caribbean sun, silent meditation and chanting opened onto a special concert with American Kirtan singer and yoga teacher, Snatam Kaur. It was a beautiful night, a full moon and a reminder of a transformative two weeks since the new moon.
I had only arrived the previous day with a friend from California and her daughter. We flew a short 39 minutes to Nassau from Miami-pretty close! After customs we phoned the Ashram for our arrival, caught a taxi to Elizabeth Dock (20 min.) and ferried over the bay (5 min.) to a radiant and serene sanctuary on Paradise Island-first stamp on the passport!
Our journey began roughly a week earlier, mid December, spending eight days in Lake Wales at the Winter Solstice Sadhana Celebration. I had strained my chest muscle right before the trip during my regular Mysore Style Ashtanga practice. Though I did not realize it at the time, the retreat period would provide much needed time for reflection. Tears streamed down my face when the injury occurred, slowly realizing that I no longer had access to postures that were simply attainable before. I struggled through that practice but was reassured by my teachers kindness. My doctor suggested a more gentle approach to yoga for a bit. I humbly accepted the present moment and packed for two weeks of reawakening. Most twisting was out of the question and certain types of chest, shoulder and arm articulation were simply blocked. . . A few injuries had come and go this year causing a reset, some time off, healing and/or reevaluation but my current situation was different-heartbreaking on an emotional level. What was my practice pointing to? Where did I need to focus my attention to locate the root cause?
Friends and injuries are great teachers and I had much healing ahead, so I picked up Jessi and Kalea from Miami International Airport. I hadn’t seen Jessi in four years! We all drove to central Florida in an awesome Sixt rental to experience ancient traditions of Kundalini, Karma, Naad and White Tantric Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. I quietly worked with my body each morning during Sadhana. Basic postures and breath work were essential and little bits of twisting were becoming acceptable. It was a time to simply take care of myself, a break from the normal routine and was a welcome disruption. The theme of the week, “When the time is on you, start, and the pressure will be off.”
With service, physical postures, breath, meditation and sound, a pretty impressive energetic shift took place. I practiced and worked alongside people from all over the world. While Jessi did her service in the kids camp with Kalea, I made chai tea and golden milk-two recipes that would later figure into my flu recovery! There was so much I experienced at The Circle F Dude Ranch from Indian vocal classes, meditation and women’s circle to new healing modalities. My favorite was deep relaxation accompanied by the gong before bed. The community was an amazing healing space and I reacquainted myself with pure awareness.
I completely let go of all preconceived notions of what made up my yoga practice to facilitate a space for rejuvenation. Any patterns were shattered, so that a path of wellness could be shaped. Service came up again and again as I ended up choosing a pretty demanding Karma Yoga. Everyone attending the Winter Solstice Sadhana Celebration chooses someway to assist in the inner workings of the camp. I chose making Yogi Tea and Golden Milk. I really do love chai tea (Yogi Tea) and I was not familiar with Golden Milk-a blend of milk, turmeric, almond oil and honey! Our team had such an awesome time making pots of tea and milk to energize, soothe and sustain the camp. Long hours, early in the morning and late into the evening were rewarded by witnessing the sheer enjoyment that only a hot beverage could bring after challenging yoga work. Usually it’s coffee for me. It was a different thing entirely to take a step back and look at the yoga practice from this perspective, not without the coffee but from the sense of serving others. I did my best-leaning on some other lifetime ago as a fine dining server for the tea making. It took some focus; learning the recipes, navigating the busy kitchen, making the tea in large batches, setting up outside and cleaning for the next batch each morning and evening. It was good to revisit the type of skill set that requires an alert disposition, plenty of attention, mindfulness and flow. Sometimes I began to feel exhausted and made sure to rest but for the most part it was exhilarating to provide something for a large community. Most mornings our Karma Yoga group would meet by the lake for a meeting and reset. Our team leader, Amrita led us through chanting the Guru Gaitri Mantra. It works on the heart center and was a reminder of my chest injury-still a nagging part of my existence. Through this mantra I further invited compassion and patience into my being towards infinite awareness. They say this mantra assists with breaking through deep-seated blocks. Day by day I was starting to feel better. The karma yoga meetings also gave us the opportunity to share experiences along our journey that week. I shared my path in a gentle breeze with new friends.
Winter Solstice Sadhana Celebration builds up to three days of White Tantric after two days of workshops. Each of the three days is eight hours of 32 and 62 minute kriyas-blending posture, breath and sound. Sitting across from a partner, in rows making up several hundred people under one tent, intense subconscious clearing takes place. Every day we had a pretty lively group surrounding us-the best energy all the time! We were laser focused but also laughed, cried, nearly fell asleep and let the internal processing do its work. Thoughts that I did not even think existed anymore bubbled to the surface. Most came up fast and some lingered longer than others but all seemed to float away, resolving themselves on their own. I was not surprised to see visions of pain and death being released that were replaced with love and joy. It was an awesome process with three days of Tantric Veggie Burgers served at lunch. Let it be said that I love spicy onion soup and a banana for breakfast! This is for all of the Avatar-The Last Airbender fans out there. Yogi Bhajan was certainly on to something here. Though in the animated series of Avatar the recipe is blended banana and onions-I have not tried this yet. Aang is super attuned to his chakras when eating this combination. Is this why I love durian so much?
It was awesome to spend three days sitting next to fascinating people all practicing yoga together. Some completely new, as well as some masters of this Kundalini practice and everywhere in-between. I made beautiful connections-simply appreciating life.
Jessi, Kalea and I left the Circle F Dude Ranch renewed and energized. The drive home was surreal as well as the vet/coffee stand/dog park we managed to find. The sunset and green landscape of central Florida finally morphed into the glittering lights of downtown Miami and when we drove over the MacArthur Causeway passing a sparkling bay to South Beach we all saw it all with new eyes. It felt a little bit strange to be home for a one night laundry marathon but with clean clothes we were ready to board a flight for Paradise Island and continue the adventure.
“By controlling the act of breathing you can efficiently control all the various motions in the body and the different nerve-currents that are running through the body. You can easily and quickly control and develop body, mind and soul through breath control or the control of Prana. It is through Pranayama that you can control your circumstances and character, and can consciously harmonize the individual life with the cosmic life.” –Sri Swami Sivananda, The Science of Pranayama.
2015 was a year of courageously moving forward. When a teacher told me she didn’t want to hear me jumping back in yoga practice I managed control over my body, when another revealed to me I was not breathing in my chest, I opened my lungs and when my teachers supported me through dropping into a backbend in the Ashtanga Primary Series, I dug in deep, trusting my body to move and let go of old patterns. The stirring up of old patterns is a serious endeavor and I was faced with many challenges. But I do have to say the process of revisiting old and uncomfortable experiences is necessary to move forward. I was happy to have the opportunity this winter to work intimately in areas of my yoga practice that I may have neglected before-especially the more subtle aspects, such as my breathing patterns.
There was an unexpected lesson for me when I arrived to Paradise Island. I saw a teacher of mine
in an ethereal way. First I saw her in the faces of other people, then a reminder of her Kriya lineage, spotting a place-marker on a pillow reserved for a student. I had many passing thoughts of her as I practiced the Sivananda sequences at the ashram. For me, the sequence seemed familiar. I wondered in some way if this practice was connected to the Dharma Mittra style. This particular teacher on my mind studied with Dharma and shared the practice with us at Shanti Yoga in Myrtle Beach. While I was studying in South Carolina, my Dad’s battle with Parkinson’s was coming to an end and I could feel that I was in the wrong place. I went home. I guess it would not have been so troubling an experience except for the fact that I cut a year long apprenticeship short by about a month’s long worth of work.
The thread of yoga, no matter what or where you practice is pretty amazing. At Sivananda Ashram we chanted mantra that I could trace through gifts that many of my teachers have shared-those in Florida, South Carolina and California-all whom I am grateful to have spent time with. The one mantra that stood out in particular was the Mahamrityumjaya Mantra. I was left with a deep feeling of connectedness in the Caribbean even though I was farther away from my practice, physically than ever before, slowly moving my body as much as it would accept, chanting a mantra to overcome death.
After a sunset class near the dock I asked a senior teacher, Arjuna about my feelings. I literally felt I had taken a time machine back to South Carolina. He did not think anything of the Dharma Mitra connection until I mentioned, Dharma’s teacher Yogi Gupta or Swami Kailashananda. Turns out that Swami Kailashananda was a student of Swami Sivananda, just as Swami Vishnu, the teacher who started the Sivananda Ashrams outside of India. Yogi Gupta developed his own following in New York and Dharma Mitra was one of his students. I felt relieved and could finally relax into the ashram a bit more. I felt like a part of life’s puzzle was complete and it no longer seemed like an episode from The Twilight Zone. Jessi reminded me that it all comes from the same place anyway! With that all cleared up, I smiled at the gems all around the Sivananda Ashram. New friends from familiar and far way places, the vedic astrologer from Kerela who reminded me to keep practicing pranayama and afternoons workshops with Snatam Kaur and her husband Sopourkh. It was a nice continuation of the Winter Solstice Sadhana Celebration. In the afternoons everyone swam in the aquamarine sea before dinner; floating and gazing up at the sky while kids splashed, and built sand castles.
The evening program at the ashram following dinner was meditation and a speaker or performance. The theme towards the end of December and the beginning of January was Unity in Diversity-Many Paths One Truth. The visitors shared teachings and also gave day time workshops. I made may my way to one extra workshop given by Lama Migmar Tseten, the Buddhist chaplain at Harvard University and director of the Sakya Institute of Buddhist Studies in Cambridge, MA. I seemed to run into Lama Migmar everywhere around the Ashram so I tuned in. After empowerment, transmission and a bit of instruction our class was ready to catch a glimpse into the practice of Arya Tara with visualization, mantra and mudra cultivating wisdom and compassion. One part of the Arya Tara is meant for sentient beings everywhere to experience peace. Throughout my yoga journey, this has been one of the most beautiful thoughts that I carry every day and also the the last line of the Mangala Mantra that ends the Ashtanga practice as taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Two weeks of sleeping on my yoga mat flew by. My cats had used my roll up air mattress as a scratching pad and it was no longer of any use. I am not the best ground sleeper and I don’t understand how my friends do it, however, several full days of yoga brought on complete relaxation. During the night, just outside of my tent, I could hear the sound of the sea or a tropical rain storm causing me to drift off while my body processed new information.
I felt at peace in many different ways ready to continue my Ashtanga practice on Miami Beach. That was in the beginning of January. . . My integration period has taken longer than expected! I became sick upon returning home, derailed because I expected to continue where I left off and instead entered an ever deeper inner cleansing mode. I remembered the vedic astrologer telling me, everything would be different when I went home. . . He kept repeating the words in many different ways as if I would not understand. I admit that it took me a while to understand. I ran into one of my teachers a few weeks before I came down with pneumonia and she said the same about my practice-it was all about to change. Now after much rest, I am beginning to adjust. I returned to reading some yoga philosophy and am nearly ready to practice meditation, pranayama and asana again. It all came down to the simple act of breathing-something I completely took for granted. Asthmatic symptoms have begun to pop up that have caused me to look into the process of breathing related to yoga practice with new found interest. Going outside has been a process and the intensity of a short walk is little crazy for me.
The last time I can remember such a feeling of strength depletion was just about ten years ago. Now that I think of it, I had just met Jessi, the same friend I was on this particular adventure with! I became sick upon moving to Orange County, CA after grad school in Santa Barbara. It was a major shift in my life to continuing my art practice and skydiving. Jessi and another friend, Lindsay introduced me to my first Kundalini class, really it was my first yoga class ever! I tried a raw, plant based cleanse for six months and it completely reset the previous ten years of my old eating style which was heavy on the processed soy cheese slices during the soy craze of 1995-1996. I remember bringing Thai coconuts to the drop zone and drinking them in the back of Jessi’s truck before loading the planes to jump. Perhaps every ten years some major self-examination and soul-searching is in order.
Another New Moon phase has just arrived.
To prana and the next ten years of life!