Saturday, March 31, 2012

Retreat to Vrindavan, India

The March 2012 retreat to Vrindavan was one that I had been dreaming of for years and I feel so glad that it happened. Vrindavan, is a spiritual oasis disguised within a sea of chaos. An extremely holy city, Vrindavan is the location of many of the pastimes of Lord Krishna, who's stories we heard much of while there. We stayed at the very comfortable and accommodating Jiva Institute, where we had our meals, relaxation, ayurvedic massages, space for daily yoga classes, and an unlimited supply of filtered water. Satyanarayana Dasa (Babaji), Jaya, Arun, Kamela, and the rest of the staff and residents of Jiva made us feel so at home. We couldn't have been better taken care of (or fed!).

During our days in Vrindavan and visiting the surrounding areas (Mathura - the birthplace of Lord Krishna, Radha Kund, Agra - to see the Taj Mahal, and other small villages not even found on a map) we saw so much! Please enjoy the photos below for a small taste of what we experienced in India.

Visting a small village outside of Vrindavan. The whole town came out to see Babaji for a meeting in the small, open air temple and to show us around. You can see here how the cow dung is dried and then stored to be used in a variety of ways.

At Care for Cows, truly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. These rescued cows are all so well cared for and loving.

Everyone is happy after a visit with the cows.

We make the long drive to visit the Taj Mahal. Truly beautiful.

Giving donated clothing to local children, who were thrilled to be getting these items. They would run in joyfully to each pick out something special.

Yoga every morning in Babaji's beautiful library.

Celebrating at the Durga temple in a small village.

Visting the Giriraj diety at Govardhan Hill. Giriraj was sheltering his most humble devotee from the intense sun.

Meeting and honoring friends everywhere we went.

Eating dinner at night in the small, mosquito-free indoor space that we began calling "the cafe."

Many many rickshaw trips began with intense negotiation about the fees.

Our last night was celebrated with an amazing Odissi performance in Babaji's library, turned stage.

Bye, Jiva Institute! See you again soon!

If you are interested in coming along on the next trip to Vrindavan, scheduled for March of 2014, please get in touch!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Getting Better

I once heard my teacher Dharma say that during childhood/adolescence/teenage years, we work off a lot of old karma. Those years can be full of frustration as a result of inability to express ourselves, make our own decisions, or be fully understood by those around us. This perspective gave me a newfound compassion for the young and understanding of their sometimes questionable choices. It also gave me the opportunity to look back at my own youthful transgressions with less judgement. And who knows, maybe in 15 years, I'll be looking back on my life now wondering what the heck I was thinking, but I am trying to get better. ;)

Thursday, December 1, 2011


I recently watched a Ken Burns documentary on The Shakers, a 200+ year old Christian sect that is known for their exquisite (but unadorned) craftsmanship, humble devotion, and their "wild" dancing (which gave them their commonly-used name over the actual "United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing"). The Shaker religion was founded by a woman and worship a God that was equal parts male and female. Men and women play an equal role in the church and in society. The Shakers were celibate, acquiring members through conversion or adoption (though adoption of orphans by religious groups was banned in the 1960s and this practice ended). At their height, there were over 6,000 members in the US and now there are only 3. "The Last Shakers" live in Maine. People drawn to this way of life were truly devotional. Their hard work was for God and others. Bhakti and Karma.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Morning at Yoga Trek

This year's Thanksgiving morning class at Yoga Trek was so much fun to teach and such a beautiful practice to witness! We had a wonderful group and a very full studio. What great energy and what a perfect way to start off a day that can be chaotic for so many people. Thank you ALL for coming and contributing to the experience. I hope to see you again really soon!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Humanitarian Argument for a Plant-Based Diet

This was a tough one to write, but given the many people who remain unconvinced as to the benefits of a vegan diet because they consider themselves humanitarians first, I was prompted to write this piece. A vegan diet benefits us ALL. You can do more. We can all do more. (For example, I could have written more!! This piece doesn't even get into the environmental impacts of animal agriculture which are huge and tragic and impact us earthlings immensely.)

A shift towards a vegan diet is not fully about the rights of animals, but also those of us humans. The mechanized process that brings us the bacon (literally, as it were) also involves human cogs. These human beings involved in the slaughter of animals for food day in and day out are desensitized and dehumanized. Their jobs involve the repeated and brutal slaughter of unwilling, fully aware and resistant victims. A pause of empathy or compassion creates a slow-down in the line and in production, so these natural human emotions must be shoved down, repressed, and forgotten. The animals slaughtered are viewed as products and nothing more. No high-volume, mechanized slaughter can be performed with compassion (and, I'd argue, no slaughter at all can be compassionate based on the very nature of the act). The built-up frustration, anger, and sometimes drunkeness of the workers is taken out on those most vulnerable, adding to the horror of their impending deaths, and surely leaving behind psychological scars on those who commit these acts. In the book Slaughterhouse, one worker is quoted as saying, "Animal abuse is so common that workers who've been in the industry for years get into a state of apathy about it. After a while, it doesn't seem unusual anymore. Animal abuse is so commonplace nobody even thinks about it."

In communities where slaughterhouses open, crime rates have been shown to increase. This violence and apathy makes it's way out from behind the walls of the animal agriculture infrastructure and into the lives of the husbands, wives, and children of these workers. Into the community. Into the homes and lives of those who have done nothing else but lived in a town where a slaughterhouse has set up shop.

Think of these people as children. These workers were not born with the instinct toward this inhumane treatment of their fellow being, but the cruel, fearful, and painful work environment has made it's mark. Either that, or some other horrific life experience has led this person to seek out a situation where they can take out their unresolved emotions on those who are defenseless (were the victims human, or even those animals we call "pets," this action would be considered predatory). If not one of these, then every single animal agriculture worker in the world who routinely commits acts of abuse against these animals is what... pathologically insane? If that is the case, then why are we content to eat their victims?

The cruelty against the animals who become our food extends too to those who are used as machines to create our food. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated so that they can remain constantly pregnant and capable of milk production. They will, however, never see a bull in their lives. The semen used to impregnate them is collected by human hand. This process, while clearly sexually abusive to the animals (the machine which is used to impregnate cows and pigs is sadly and accurately called by the industry itself the "Rape Rack"), is degrading to the human beings who do this work to survive.

And how could a job like this allow anymore than just that? Basic human survival. While many of us have jobs that are slightly less than satisfying, compare your "boring desk job" to one where you are paid to kill, torture, and rape living beings capable of fear, pain, and horror. What healthy personal satisfaction comes from a job like this? A paycheck and the ability to provide? Perhaps, but shouldn't we aim higher? As consumers, we have the ability to create a marketplace where we support industries that employ our fellow human beings to do ethical, humanizing, fulfilling work providing a product that does not stem from fear, hatred, or frustration. Where our dollars are not funding the continual downgrade in both animal and human rights. It IS possible and you are even more instrumental than you think.

Karma Yoga - November Newsletter

Here's a little something that was written up for the November Newsletter. Enjoy!

Karma Yoga, the action of giving back, is one of the many paths to liberation and is discussed flawlessly in the eternal classic, The Bhagavad Gita. In this text, Krishna (as a manifestation of the divine) explains that our attachment to our actions keeps us bound to an unending cycle of karma creating repeated births, deaths, and misery as we reap the seeds of our previously selfish actions. The only way for us to end this suffering is to end these attachments.

Our attachments are many. We're attached to comforts, to our families, to our possessions, to our titles, our ideas about ourself, and even to our spiritual practices (including yoga). A yoga practice based exclusively on the physical aspects can lead towards self-indulgence as we fixate on our newfound skills, our abilities, and other related obsessions. Resist the urge to pamper the ego and instead, try to exchange these thoughts for others - a mantra, a prayer, something devotional (this can be a non-secular devotion). It requires a concentrated effort to adjust the workings of the mind, but it is not impossible. Shifts come little by little and stick with us if we make the effort to catch ourselves "in the act" and redirect to something that is deeper and ultimately more rewarding.

It is for this reason that work without expectation is so beneficial. If we can do for others, without reservation or hesitation, and without the expectation of any reward whatsoever (this is a hard one - no thank you, no feeling of personal satisfaction, nothing!), then we are performing Karma Yoga. Even as we lessen these attachments (this is not an over night practice), we begin to see the true benefit and purpose of our work. We are a part of the bigger picture. We see something that needs doing and we do it. Tough, but ultimately, a practice that can be rewarding on the deepest levels imaginable (or currently unimaginable) as we explore below the surface of our Selves.

"But verily, the man who rejoices in the Self and is satisfied with the Self and is content with the Self alone--he has nothing for which he should work. He has no object to gain by what he does in this world, nor any to lose by what he leaves undone; nor is there anyone, among all beings, on whom he needs to depend for any object. Therefore always do without attachment the work you have to do; for a man who does his work without attachment attains the Supreme." - Krishna speaks to Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Yourself

With the occupation of America taking place, starting with Wall Street, and politics in the country as they are, our attention is turned more to the idea of "corporate greed" and our role and responsibility as citizens. While many of life's circumstances are out of our control, only we can give ourselves up to being truly victimized. Afterall, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Though we may feel powerless to influence change at the highest levels of government as our system currently stands, that does not mean that we are actually powerless. Our votes come in smaller, subtler ways, but they are no less powerful. Every day we decide who and what we support by where we send our energy.

The most contentious form of energy (and after all, it IS just another form of energy) is money. Think of every single dollar you spend as a vote. Where does it go? What are you most enthusiastically supporting by voting for time and time again? Basic living expenses sometimes require us to pay up to those "big corporations," but what necessities are actually "basic"? Do we need that cable package (sure, they may call it "basic," but really)? Do we need to turn on every light in the house at once? Does our food need to come pre-prepared, over-packaged, and de-nutritionalized or can we return to a more basic, sustainable diet at a lower cost to ourselves and the planet? Can we shop locally and support small business rather than supporting the rate-cutting big boxes? Can we think of purchases as investments in the recipients of our votes (and ourselves with quality products and experiences) and not as a scramble to hoard every penny?

Additionally, should we spend our evenings and weekends rapt in self-absorbed leisure, or should we make some investment in passing along our good fortune to those who have less by giving some small amount of what we have to those causes that stir our souls (and oh, they're out there)?

These are, none of them, criticisms. They are tools that we can all use to shift gears in our own thinking about the way in which our energy is currently expended and the ways in which we may find a desire to make a change. We are not powerless, we are empowered every day by our ability to choose. Only you can decide where your line is drawn, but every movement towards your best self is one that benefits not only you, but those around you and those around them and those around them and those around them and those around them... by the ripples of careful and conscious consumerism that you've begun.

Indeed, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." (Margaret Mead)

(Photos courtesy of Truth Control, which has been documenting the occupation of Chicago. Please share this site. It is being updated regularly!)