Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thank you for Blessing this Journey

Image from the flower festival in Mumbai. I'll be there Friday!

Tomorrow I fly out to Mumbai.

I've dreamed of going to India for most of my life. I hatched a plan when I was 18 but was distracted. In retrospect, I'm glad. It gave me time to know myself better, know my home environment more intimately, build family & community. I think I'm better ready to be a student on this journey.

I'm training to be a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher in Yoga's ancestral land. I'm very grateful.

I feel blessed and supported by so many.

Kevin was the first who said he'd support me. I'll circle back to him...

My Aunt Ria was the second who said that she thought this was a wise undertaking. She encouraged me and pointed out when aspects of this journey seamlessly fell into place.

My Mother-in-Law, Barbara, and my Father-in-Law, Donny, gifted me the required props and yoga supplies to take to training. She also is sending me off with books by my favorite authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy. 

My Mother gave me white clothes for Satsang and suggested jetlag prevention remedies like plum extract and homeopathic jetzone.

My friend, Sheena, talked to me about the implications of being a white US student in India. She helped me understand how I could hopefully be a more respectful presence. I'm really grateful for her time and energy.

My friend, Avir, talked to me about the realities of a US-accustomed digestive tract in India. He made sure I had what I needed!

My friend and colleague, Rachelle, gifted me white clothes for Satsang.

My friend, Jill, gifted me white clothes and a camera.

My friend and YogaTree's owner, Lynn, gifted me white clothes for Satsang.

My friend, Erica, gifted me white tunics and stretch pants perfect for Satsang as well as wormwood, clove, and black walnut extract to prevent malaria. (Erica would know-- she lived in New Delhi.)

My friend, Joanne, surprised me with a card and money so I could purchase incidentals! She also gave me nutritious snacks, handiwipes, and travel sized goodies. I also have a card packed that I'm not allowed to open until my birthday, on February 12.

My friend, Cindy, gifted me her copy of Eat, Pray, Love, for when yogic theory feels heavy.

My friends and colleagues, Danielle, Jess, Melissa, and Chuck for covering my Yogawood classes.

The larger Yogawood community for continuing to make me feel both connected and inspired.

People like Catherine and Jen offering me extra work projects to help off-set the cost of tuition.

My colleagues at Yogawood, Ceremony Officiants, and the Wellnest for their understanding and support.

Jivamukti Yoga granted me a partial scholarship that covered my flight. For their method, teachers, and on-going inspiration, I'm so grateful.

Lady Ruth, who will be a facilitator on this training, spoke to Kevin and I this past fall. We went upto NYC to take a class with her. Afterwards, I introduced myself and Kevin to her, explaining I would train and that Kevin was supporting me. She spent time patiently sharing some of her own experiences of training in India away from her husband. She explained that she always prioritized being with him and was very considered when she trained by herself. She said that really helped him understand how important he is to her and to keep them close. Kevin and I both were so honored by her sweet gesture.

My friend, teacher, and collaborator, Beth, started my "hope chest" of white clothes at clothing swaps our friends hold some time ago. It was all intended for my Jivamukit training prior to my even knowing that this would be a reality! She's talked to me over the years about supporting me in fundraising for the tuition. She's supported my projects that have enabled me to participate! Yesterday, she and I met to go over the St Lucia retreat we just offered, and some other incidentals. Before I left, she gave me a bag to hold my mala beads. When she did her Jivamukti training, she purchased a scarf. She took a bit of it to create the bag.

And to Kevin. He's my favorite person. He told me that this was the right thing for me and that he would help make it happen, and he has. He's helping me see through Dee & Carrie's Winter Mountain Retreat by taking over my duties as Coordinator. He's taking care of so many big picture and tiny details so that I'm free to go and learn. We always said to one another that we want to be close, keep moving our lives alongside one another's, and also make sure that each of us can pursue what lifts us up and helps us grow. Reluctantly, often grumpily, I made room for him to complete his degree at Goddard. I have to say, he's been much warmer about my on-going education. He's my favorite person to adventure with. I'm really sad that he won't be with me but also grateful that he's giving me this opportunity to grow. I got a 10-year-multi-entry visa to India mainly so that he and I can go back together. When I get home, we're going to adopt kittens together. Thank you, Kevin, for loving me so well. I love you more.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The sweet ease of the Solar Vortex Retreat to St Lucia

Last night I landed in Philly after co-leading the Solar Vortex Yoga Retreat to St Lucia with my collaborator, Beth. I am tan, rested, and content.

Last year, Beth and I offered two retreats to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. The retreats were big experiences, rich in the wonder of their location, and always dynamic with the co-creative powers of the participants. I always ask participants to complete exit surveys so that I can offer what best serves. While there is a lot of interest in recreating that experience, a lot of participants also said they would like something fly in, fly out, as opposed to fly in and then travel 4-5 hours overland as was required to reach Lake Atitlan.

I went to searching. I love the Caribbean, having studied abroad in Cuba and visited the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, but given that it's a bit more accessible, it's also often more costly. Plus, there are a lot of mega resorts in the Caribbean that have questionable labor and environmental practices. It's important to me to cultivate a unique experience that's authentic and as respectful for all involved as possible.

After a ton of research, I found Balenbouche. A series of eco-cottages spread out on a sprawling estate with several undeveloped beaches, an organic cooperative farm that feeds guests and the community, and a rich history. The northeast of the US is serviced by direct flights that are often on sale. Perfect.

The retreat sold out with a wonderful mix of participants. Each retreat experience is distinct. While the Salute the Sun retreats to Guatemala offered participants the independence of access to San Marcos town, this retreat offered participants a more remote, contemplative experience in the St Lucian country-side.

We dined on Balenbouche's main house porch. The meals were vegan, sourced from the on-site organic cooperative farm. The meals were a lovely exploration into St Lucian cuisine, which was shaped by West African, East Indian, French, and British influence. We sampled sea moss smoothies, cassava bread, and drank locally grown coffee made creamy with home-made coconut milk.

The local organic farm cared for several cows, bulls, horses, and goats. As the retreat was full, Kevin and I stayed off site at an Airbnb. As we walked to and from Balenbouche, we were greeted by this guy. I loved him.

Uta, one of the Balenbouche's owners, installed lily ponds to make the property even more beautiful. A remarkable woman with a full and vast life, she home-schooled her two daughters on the estate. She wanted to entice them to return by choice as adults, and offered her lilies to lure them back. It worked! Her daughter, Verena, manages the property and Anitanja designs jewelry and cares for her young son nearby.

Uta is such a compelling figure, I can't imagine not relishing every minute with her!

In addition to the farm, there were kitchen gardens on site. As the tropics are so distinct from our home climate, I couldn't recognize everything. I did spot lots of squashes and pumpkins, some hot climate varieties new to me. There was also okra, cucumbers, peas, malabar spinach, various greens, and tons of fruiting trees like starfruit, avocado, mango, grapefruit, sour orange, calabash, and tamarind.

Our yoga barn shows it's age from the outside, but we all treasured the space. Outside, sugar cane grows. I fell in love with watching the sugar cane leaves during practice, noticing the rain drops during the tropical showers. During yin practice the sun set, leaving palm silhouettes against the night sky. We all marveled at the stars. So many! So little competing light! We found constellations and the creamy milky way.

One evening, I snagged votives from the main house for Yin.

In the morning, we sat for meditation or practiced walking meditations weaving past the lily ponds. Then, Jivamukti yoga practice. At sunset, yin practice to soften into the evening.

The estate was once a sugar mill. The island on a whole was under French and British control at various points. St Lucia gained independence in 1979. In the early 30s, a mysterious wrench was thrust in the controls of the mill, making the slowly decrepit industry defunct. The estate fell into loose ends until Uta went on site to build farming, cooperatives with the community, and ultimately open up to guests to make the site sustainable.

The property has trails to two beaches and a third that's harder to find (we never did but I also didn't seek it out!). This beach was not swimmable but wonderful to walk to, wade around, enjoy a book, or watch the sun rise or set.

The second beach was swimmable, but I'd advise entering the water in keens as it's rocky! Once past the rocks, the water was so refreshing! I often seek out the Pacific because I like cooler water. The Caribbean waters I experienced in Cuba were so warm! I loved the water in St Lucia, as it's the juncture of the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans. The water isn't too cold but it's also not too warm. I found myself staying in the water for so long simply because it felt so wonderful!

To get a better sense of the island, we took a few excursions. Sandy Beach in Viex Fort is close to the airport. It's my favorite type of beach vibe: two little cafes, a rental shop for paddle boards, public thatch huts for shade, and sprawling beach.

It made us sort of comatose. We set up camp and promptly napped.

We alternated the excursions with days devoted to simply being at Balenbouche. Many took advantage of getting body work or energy work done by local practitioners. Above, Uta hung a curtain in the yoga barn for privacy.

Off-site, at our Airbnb in a residential neighborhood, the owner showed us how to access a public beach. Recently, the surrounding land was bought by a French developer. We had permission to cross the land to access the beach, but it totally felt like trespassing!

The ocean at the end of the road.

We showed retreat participants the beach. These coves created awesome wave patterns. Some serious body surfing went down in that water!

On Wednesday we went on the peak excursion. First, hiking the Tet Paul trail where we saw Noni fruit growing on trees and ran our fingers through lemongrass. We took a group shot by Petit Piton, missing only Nancy who was nursing a cold. She stayed back with Uta to rest.

For lunch, we visited nearby Soufriere. Jah Lamb, a local Rastafarian, created a delicious and ample vegan lunch for us in his tiny restaurant. 

Afterwards, we drove down to the public beach access by the Jalousie resort to enjoy Sugar Bay and the epic view of Gros Piton.

Snorkeling in the sweet sea light. At sunset we went to the New Jerusalem Hot Springs. As the light dimmed, it was hard to get a good shot. We hiked down to a quick creek crossing. Up the mountain a bit we stumbled upon a volcano heated hot bath that flowed into a lower mid-temperature bath and then onto a cool bath. The cool bath felt like an infinity pool over the towering waterfall. The springs were largely undeveloped. You soaked in the warm waters and watched the jungle around you.

Shabee drove us on these excursions. He also took several participants to Ladera resort so they could dine at the famous Dasheene restaurant. On Friday night, several other participants joined Shabee in Gros Islet for the weekly street party.

The menfolk AKA the Knights of the Solar Vortex! Refreshed and awaiting luggage when they returned to Philly.

I'm sure more photos will emerge as we only landed last night. Plus, one of our participants and my friend, Sue, is a professional photographer! I loved this shot of Malika and Giuliana taking an afternoon stroll through the grounds. It captures the atmosphere of our time at Balenbouche: warm, dreamy, enchanting.

If you're interested in joining a retreat, check the listings on my website. Also, know that the next big international retreat will be in Hoi An, Vietnam, next January! Enrollment opens in early March. Stay tuned on my site and blog for information.

Friday, January 16, 2015


When I first met Phil, I was preparing myself to really hate men.

Like many women, I'd been hurt in a variety of ways by men. To cope with the hurt, I was shutting down and becoming less available. There were a few relationships in my life that helped me figure out different ways to be self-protective but to not shut off from safe and healthy intimacy. Obviously, marrying Kevin was fundamental. In a different way, becoming close to Phil taught me how to recognize and cultivate nourishing friendships.

On the surface, Phil and I should not have been able to relate to one another. I'm now 33 but at first meeting I was probably 22. I'm white from the 'burbs. Phil is a Black man who grew up poor in Philly. He was incarcerated for the duration of the time we knew one another.

And Phil got where I was coming from. Hell, he was suspicious of most men too! If anything, he taught me how to be more cautious, conscious, and aware. He was clear and instructive in offering me ways to keep myself safe. He always told me to value myself, respect myself, and listen to my intuition. 

As he gave me these tools to feel empowered and secure, his example showed me a man who was warm, familiar, and respectful. He treated me like was a close niece. He gave me advice, listened, and offered warm shelter. He was playful and messed with me when I was too serious. He called me to check up on me. He kept me busy when he saw that my mind was obsessing. He painted pictures and drew sketches for me. He gave me attention. He gave me aspects of himself and his experience. He urged me to be close to my husband, Kevin, and told me how much he cherished his wife, Janine. He constantly reminded me to be available to growing in love. He told me to engage love like we would exercise-- to let ourselves get stronger in the practice. To be changed by it.

We had several art shows of his work. The above photo is from last August, when we had a unique exhibit. People emailed a copy of one of Phil's pieces. I blew it up and displayed on the walls. Each contributor also wrote about where they displayed the piece, what it meant to them, and it's reach. Some had taken the art pieces on tour in Venezuela, Cuba, and Mexico. Others had shared it in community spaces throughout the US. The reach was profound.

Folks came in off the street and learned more about Phil. They learned that despite being incarcerated for the last 35 years of his life that he never stopped living. He never let his circumstances limit him. He stayed close to his wife. He developed friendships with people like me. He inspired and connected with numerous people all over the globe. He kept us close to him and we cherished the link.

One time, I saw a bear while I drove up to visit him. When I was going through a particularly rough patch, Phil drew a card (that I later framed. It's still on my living room wall) that he and his brother, Del, signed. They said, "Your Grizzlies have got you." And they are my grizzlies. They're warm, fierce, grizzled men. They taught me that there are beautiful men out there that I can cherish, trust, and grow with.

In Phil's honor, Kevin and I had grizzlies tattooed on our arms.

Before Thanksgiving, our beloved, nearly 20-year-old cat, Laz passed. I knew it was coming and wrote Phil before hand. He replied to me, "Don't dwell over it. When it happens, it'll happen, and you'll just have to be ready to be strong and deal with it. Don't get your mind set to fall apart. Be prepared to deal with reality. I'm not trying to tell you it's going to be easy, just that it's going to be and not to plan on falling apart. Just know you get to be strong and keep on moving. With you, all I see is you still hold onto things that happen to you, which is not good. It will make you feel like things are piling up on you, when what is really happening is that you're not letting things to go like you should. You've got to deal with stuff and then move on by letting the past go. The India trip will keep you motivated and take some pressure off you. Being happy is being right. Do the work to be happy."

His words helped me navigate Laz's transition. When Laz passed, I wrote Phil to tell him. On 12/2/14, he wrote me a reply, the last letter I received from him. He wrote, "We have been trained to see Life moving on in a cycle as a sad thing. When you look at the old cultures, those with religions more Earth/Nature based, you see how they celebrated the cycle of life. I'm glad y'all had family around to help y'all so that y'all were able to help move Laz along in the cycle without any suffering. That was the most important thing. No one or nothing stays on this level forever, that would go *against* Life's cycle. It would throw things *out* of balance. I know Laz is glad that he had y'all to be there for him when his time to move on came. You have to work to never feel like you're 'without'."

And once more, Phil offers me exactly the advice I need to move through transition. He provides the sage counsel to now mourn his transition, understanding that he too is Life. He too still is, but not in the form I've come to know and love. I hold his words close, his memory close, and cherish his presence in my life. I'm grateful to have known him and to know that he is at peace. I'm still fighting for freedom. I'm still moving. I'm still loving.

We love you, Phil.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Silent Weekend at the Garrison Institute

For awhile now, I've wanted to shut up.

When Kevin and I first traveled to Guatemala, we encountered a meditation school where students worked up to a practice of 40 days of silence. I'd never thought of practicing silence. It seemed really weird and then truly wonderful. 

When we offered our yoga retreats to Guatemala, I said to Beth, my collaborator, we should do that! Honestly, in part I thought we should do it because I knew some attendees weren't morning people and I can be super exuberant in the a.m. I thought this might protect them from my early day enthusiasm. When we did practice silence, I noticed more. I felt like I was "doing it wrong" (I didn't talk, which really seems to be the only way to screw it up but anyway...) but I was still interested. 

As a yoga teacher, I'm trying to speak less. Minimally. If you've taken my classes you're likely cracking up reading this, but seriously, I'm working on it. I've taught silently maybe once and I loved it. I would love to communicate efficiently without words but I'm not there yet.

Slowly, I've been drawn towards this practice. Kevin too. Neither of us could really explore it because we were conscious of our already demanding travel schedule given that Laz, our cat, was depressed when we were gone. We made sure one of us was always there, or if that wasn't possible, his favorite cat sitter. When he transitioned, we realized it was time to enter this practice.

Kevin wanted to barter to lay on a cold board in some monastery. I wanted to do a 12-day vipassana sit, which is intense, but very structured. We figured the middle ground was an unstructured (meaning no programming, do what you will) silent weekend at the Garrison Institute.

View of an internal courtyard. Our bedroom window. A former monk's cell.
The Garrison Institute overlooks the Hudson River across from West Point (YEAH. I DIDN'T KNOW EITHER). It used to be a Capuchin Monastery. The Catholic Church didn't need it? Could no longer afford it? We didn't get a clear answer, but, the property was being protected by one organization and I get the sense the building was falling into disrepair.

A Buddhist couple bought it. Their teacher stressed it should be an interfaith facility. When you walk in, you push hard against imposing doors. The building is impressively restored and the catethedral beautiful. Against the stain glass, on the central altar, a huge golden Buddha. Along the walls, small adornments. In the hallway, a bust of the Dalai Lama.

Beautiful. Bizarre.

The simple, clean kitchen largely sources from their garden and neighboring farms. The food was really amazing (but, when you're silent, food starts to taste really good. Or you pay attention...?). There's carefully planted bamboo in addition to native plants.

A labyrinth offers the perfect place to practice walking meditation.

This view is from the back of the Garrison. The facade looks over the grey, winding Hudson. The train stop is a short walk down a steep hill! Easily accessible from New York City.

I walked the labyrinth twice, the first time as snow fell. The second time, the following morning, I was not the first on the path. There were several animal prints throughout the path.

What does snow sound like rustling through bamboo? Like it's hushing you.

I spent my short retreat doing seated meditations, walking meditations, practicing yoga asana, reading Thich Nhat Hanh, and taking walks. Nhat Hanh related a story of a cold day when he took a walk. Returning to his home, he saw a fierce wind had blown the papers of his house in disarray. Upon returning, he closed the windows, made a warm fire, and put his affairs in order.

This weekend, I felt like I closed the windows.