Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Purnamidam Retreat to Vietnam: An Bang Beach

Julie saw the shot and said, "it looks like an old time-y postcard." I think she meant both the photo and the reality.

An Bang beach is not the most glamorous beach in the world but it is pretty magical.

This section of South China Sea was often choppy and grey. It's bounded by low lying mountains and threaded with clouds. Sometimes, you can see Cham island in the distance. Cham island is of the Cham people, the Hindu Indigenous group responsible for the My Son ruins.

Along the mainland coast line, there are villages largely populated by fishermen and those working the rice paddies and crops a bit inland. Fishermen ride out in round, basket-like boats that they paddle with long oars. They use big nets to catch fish.

After the hustle and bustle of Hoi An, it's cobble-stoned streets, wild markets, and laughing tailors, An Bang felt sleepy and just right.

As I mentioned in the My Son post, the temperature took an unusual turn. On the night of the full moon, the highs went from the high 80s to a few days of highs in the 50s and 60s. It wasn't what we hoped for at the beach, but we still had fun. There were many walks, bike rides, and some still swam. And of course, you're never far from a massage!

A few of our participants had birthdays during or near the dates of the retreat. I'd been trying to figure out a bakery and a way to honor these milestones. Linh, always with an ear to the ground, made it happen.

One night at dinner we sang and ate cake with Shameka and Christine. We saved a piece for Marie who was working remotely. This retreat was part of her investigation into working remotely and traveling consistently. So far so good!

When day broke, we took practice and took in the sun. One of my favorite parts of this beach are the easily accessible beach chairs and umbrellas. You can either pay a very low fee to rent them or simply buy something from the owner and the chair is yours for the day. I love Vietnamese iced coffee and that was sufficient payment. I'll never get over being served Vietnamese iced coffee on a lounge chair on the South China Sea. I may have peaked.

In addition to selling fresh coconuts with straws, drinks, fruit, and food, you could also buy various trinkets. I won't lie-- I may have purchased some gifts for those back home while on a lounger.

Practice on the beach can be a bit distracting. Sand gets EVERYWHERE, it can be hard to hear with the wind, and sometimes cool thanks to the same wind. For these reasons, we practiced in the garden of one of our homestays. We had more privacy and more shelter from breezes. So many crows took flight during our beach-y sojourn.

The whole group. Twenty-two brave adventurers who flew around the world to see what they found.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Purnamidam Retreat to Vietnam: The Fortune Teller

Throughout Vietnam, you encounter tons of shrines. There are large shrines that you can enter but there are also shrines in rice paddies to bury ancestors. This particular practice has recently been outlawed, but no one will move the existing burial grounds. More so, you'll find small shrines in practically every home and business. There might be a few small statues, definitely a handful of burning incense, and some fresh offerings like water and flowers.

On our bus ride to My Son, Kevin asked Linh a bit more about the reality of Vietnamese spirituality in daily life. Linh mentioned tending to these shrines. Kevin asked why-- who are these shrines for? Linh explained that the majority of Vietnamese spirituality is in reverence to ancestors. Most of these shrines are to ancestors, be they familial or maybe the spirits that inhabit the place. She started pointing out details that our eyes had missed. Most homes have cactus planted near the door. Cactus deters bad spirits who may wish harm upon the home. 

Whenever there's a question about how to worship ancestors, if a living person's life is being interfered with by a spirit, or what choice to make, Vietnamese people often seek the guidance of a Fortune Teller. Kevin was intrigued. He asked Linh if she knew of someone that local people trusted, who might be willing to meet with him, a foreigner. Linh said she knew of someone highly regarded in Da Nang. Her family trusts her insight and consults her regularly. Linh said she would ask.

A few days later Linh told us that the Fortune Teller in Da Nang agreed to meet with us at her home. By that time, about 8 of us were interested in visiting the Fortune Teller. As we traveled we asked Linh questions in the hopes of behaving appropriately. Linh told us to make offerings in respect to the Fortune Teller. She reminded us that in Southeast Asia showing the soles of your feet to an altar or a person is considered disrespectful.

We arrived at a home in a residential neighborhood in Da Nang. Workers strung lights across the street in preparation for the upcoming Tet holiday. As we entered the home, we found motorcycles against the wall in typical Vietnamese fashion. The TV was on showing Vietnamese cartoons. Smoke hung in the air and a dog barked at us relentlessly. A small girl in diapers was terrified by us! A few tried to smile and play with her but she was not having it one bit! We waited for probably an hour but the Fortune Teller wasn't there. Her family members suggested we get snacks at a nearby stand and come back. We did. They suggested we walk around the community gardens nearby and come back. We did.

Ultimately, they said that Fortune Tellers have a lot on their mind. She missed the appointment and we were sent home.

Kevin started whispering his theory that she was there watching us to see if she wanted to consult with us. He said the child crying and the dog barking warned her away from us. 

The following day Linh told us that the Fortune Teller regretted missing our appointment. She volunteered to meet us at our homestay in An Bang and give readings. We set up a make shift room for her in Kevin and my bedroom. While the rooms at the homestay are lovely, this was a narrow set up!

The Fortune Teller arrived on the back of Linh's motorcycle. It was hard to determine her age but she seemed wise and like she'd lived. She was small and lean, in pumps and a silk suit. She asked if she could smoke and she had a bearing that made me gulp at the thought of saying "no." I said "yes." 

Prior to her arrival, we had given Linh a list of our names and our birthdates. She asked to see those who were couples together. It was actually great that she saw us at the homestay because she spent a good period of time with each person or pair. As we were on our home turf, we could wait on the beach. The sun was finally warming us up again so that was welcome!

Those who received the first readings began to emerge with big, bewildered eyes. There were reports of the Fortune Teller looking through you (I believed that!). For some, she invited them to point at Chinese symbols. With others, she focused on your Chinese animal which is related to your birth year. Others, your element.

She and Kevin and I sit together. Linh translated the whole ordeal (8 hours! Linh is amazing!). Linh had a similar sensibility to many of us. She said under her breath, "I don't believe this but it doesn't matter. She's always right."

The Fortune Teller looked at Kevin and I for a long time. She said my element is metal and Kevin's is earth. She said that sometimes I'm too hard. She said that Kevin has an ancestor who sometimes bothers him. I need to be patient and understanding with what he's going through.

She told Kevin to protect himself better in business. She said money comes and goes. He should keep more. 

She then turned towards children. Linh explained that the Vietnamese love children so they always think everyone wants children. She said advice will always be how to conceive. The Fortune Teller said that I am year of the chicken and Kevin year of the pig. She told us not to conceive prior to Tet but once Tet arrived, do conceive in the year of the monkey. Otherwise, we should wait a few years for a better animal.

She told us both to worship our ancestors.

This was the piece that stuck with both Kevin and I. We've talked, since, about how there isn't much talk of worshipping ancestors in our culture. I see it in African American culture and so many other cultures. It's maybe most pronounced, in my experience, in Vietnam. I've had a lot of ambivalence around this idea. I want to have love and connection to my ancestors but in all honesty, I don't. I don't know a lot about them. What I do know troubles me, like their involvement in the brutal race history of the US. I don't know how to feel connected to lineage in a way that's honest and responsible.

Recently, I read that by healing ourselves we heal our ancestors. That made a lot of sense to me. If I have an inner sense of reconciliation of my own flaws and trespasses, as well as my gifts and strengths, maybe I can have the same nuanced view on those who came before me. Kevin has also heard teachings along the line of once we leave this realm of incarnation and become ancestors, we're not the same. So, an ancestor who committed crimes in the flesh might have greater wisdom on the other plane. Interesting thought!

Kevin has heeded the Fortune Teller's words. He's paying greater attention to ancestry. It's actually been really helpful. When we came home, his grandfather, who played a central role in his life, passed away. This idea of staying connected to ancestors was comforting during this time of grief.

Linh told us that many Vietnamese know something about palm reading. She wound up doing some other impromptu readings. It was an incredibly powerful way to better understand our surroundings and how Vietnamese view the world. 

The Fortune Teller left in the evening as Julie taught a yin practice. The Fortune Teller walked past the students practicing in the garden to the path outside. I went to thank her again for coming and offering us readings. I couldn't understand her and Linh was elsewhere so she and I bowed to one another, giggled, and acted out what we wished to communicate. She gestured to the students practicing yoga, nodding in affirmation. She squatted down and did a few yoga poses, giggling in her silks and heels. Linh came out and the Fortune Teller jumped on the back of the motorcycle, cigarette, a mile of ash, still dangling from her fingers.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Purnamidam Retreat to Vietnam: My Son

As I prepared for the retreat to Vietnam, I revisited all that the south central coast of Vietnam has to offer. I came across reports of beautiful Cham ruins about an hour from Hoi An. The Cham people are Hindu and the temples were erected in devotion to Shiva. While Vietnam has some Hindu influences, the blend of Buddhism and Animism is much more visible to the naked eye. I was intrigued by this religious and cultural intersection. 

Our lovely Linh agreed to make it happen! We set out by bus through the Vietnamese country side. We traveled over an hour through green rice paddies, ancestor shrines, houses on stilts, and packs of children playing by low palms.

Lovely Linh got us there and got us around. She gave us an informed history of the My Son ruins. We passed craters where bombs fell during the US-Vietnam war. We stayed on the paths as there are still said to be some live land mines. And we stumbled upon the temples.

Here, beautiful Leslie stands at the threshold of one of the Shiva temples. Each of these temples had a specific purpose. In some, you were meant to fast, meditate, and ready yourself for a greater ritual. Then there were other temples to enter once you were prepared for rituals of great devotion.

A few said, "we should chant!" So we did. We assembled off to the side and Julie started us off with call and response chants to Shiva. It was so interesting to engage with our understanding of Shiva, the legacy and stories, in this place of such reverence to Shiva.

Shiva is often revered in the form of the lingam, the symbol of male potency. Fertility and sexuality is a big part of this spiritual understanding, not separate from as we sometimes find in the West. Shiva lingams were erected throughout the temple sites. Sometimes, rituals occur where water is poured over the lingam. The water is said to gather potency and then might be washed over a worshipper. Sometimes the lingam was placed on a yoni, a symbol for female fertility, receptivity, and creativity.

Here we find a lingam. Cindy claims to not know what she was doing with her hands.

As you see from the photos, we were in My Son on a typical January day in central Vietnam. It was HOT. On this hot day, we chanted to Shiva. The next day, we experienced the full moon, torrential downpours, and a thirty degree drop in temperature that swept through Southeast Asia. The caretakers in My Son, Angkor Wat, and temples throughout Southeast Asia worried about the effect of such sudden temperature shift on the temples. 

From highs in the high 80s to low 90s, in a day we went to temperatures in the 60s. They stayed that way for a few days.

I have to say, Shiva felt really powerful in that moment.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Purnamidam Retreat to Vietnam: Marble Mountain Visit

Between the city of Da Nang, Vietnam and the South China Sea there are several karst cliffs that rise up from the otherwise flat land. These mountains are associated with various elements and deities. This area of Vietnam, like a lot of Southeast Asia, has a spiritual history of animism blended with Buddhism and some Hinduism. Marble Mountain, one of these sacred sites, became a hospital for Viet Cong fighters during the US-Vietnam war. While US soldiers were on RnR on the China Beach below, Viet Cong were tended to by monks above. 

So you know we wanted to visit this place.

It's incredible. You can hike up this vertical mountain or take a recently installed elevator up to the top where you'll find most of the cave altars. Wandering into quietly dripping moss, bat echoes quiet the pilgrims.

The big attraction is a much more recently erected 60-foot Buddha. This Buddha watches over the South China Sea near statues of Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy who is said to be the patron saint of this region.

The Buddha also faces this cliff of demon serpents and buddhas. The serpents, also known as nagas, are featured in many stories. I love the proximity of ferocity and peace.

Kwan Yin is represented throughout the region. She is the archetype of mercy and compassion. I had visited Hoi An before and never knew it was presided over by this feminine understanding of grace. 

Kevin is a big fan of these weird pickled, salted, dried plum candies. They're said to be good for your uterus. If you want to get a more accurate read on their taste see Cindy's face in the photo below.

Marble Mountain is so uniquely Vietnamese in that it represents the intersection of all these compelling forces: spirituality, history, culture. It's a place of great excitement-- I mean, planes were shot down from the mountain over the ocean! It's a place of great tragedy and loss. It's also a place of great reverence and meaning. Monks are buried beneath the statues of holy figures, adding their potency to the earth.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

March Madness at Yogawood!

I'm a lucky duck. I'm a yoga student at Yogawood. I was trained there. Now I get to teach there. It's an incredibly vibrant learning environment and it's also a really supportive and collaborative work place. I'm grateful.

One of my teachers and friends, Rachelle Damminger, started up 6 am yoga classes forever ago. I got to ride on her coattails by teaching some more 6 am yoga classes. Now, we offer 6 am yoga classes 5 days a week. Practicing yoga at 6 am is a decision. You have to make that happen, it's never accidental! As such, the students who practice at that time tend to be really consistent and invested in one another. That level of community and accountability are really valuable.

I really respect the students who make it happen, which is why as the teachers, we want to support that consistency as much as possible. The other day, Rachelle, Jess (the Tuesday 6 am teacher), Beth (the studio Director), and Carole (the studio manager) thought it might be fun to make this support really concrete and visible. We devised #YogawoodMadness for the month of March.

Throughout the month the classes will focus on fun, accessible, and challenging inversions. Waking up early sets the tone for your day but much beyond that. You tend to feel really accomplished and powerful if you make early practice happen! It's a pretty good cycle to find yourself on. Turning upside down before the sun is out?! You're invincible.

To chart the progress we'll all take photos of these inversions, or if that's not your bag something else that's shifting in your environment during this time. Tag all photos with #YogawoodMadness so we can high five along.

At the end of March, Carole will calculate which student practiced the most consistently. That student gets a complimentary private practice! This is a serious value.

I'm excited. We should all practice first thing every day. That's just good policy, there's really no down side. But consistency is hard, that's why we all have to make choices, find accountability, and stay steady with our priorities. Mixing it up a bit can help get us back on the track that serves us best.

All things are possible. See you on the mat!