The Poetry of Retreat

Wake up well before dawn.

Set an alarm, just in case. I don’t want to miss a moment of the five a.m. sadhana.

Under the veil of darkness, stroll along the starlit, lapping lake to the candlelit temple where White Tara beams down upon us all every day and night.

Location: Sumaya, which means “a long awaited dream come true”; a.k.a. paradise found.

Akasha shares his personal practice with us, in such a down-to-earth, accessible and friendly way. Casually imparts the wisdom of years and decades of practice. So humbly, with the authenticity of actions and the nebulous precision of words. The time flies by.

Breathing, chanting, moving, holding, listening. Paying attention.

Sun rises, pastels paint the sky. We invite the morning light. The lake’s daily awakening. All the sounds, the water, the boat motors, voices, birdsong.

And now, a series of seven-minute chants. I read from the sheet and marvel at all the people in the room who has these long strings of Sanskrit syllables memorized.

Mid-morning Ashtanga practice. Powerful. Right effort. Knowing boundaries, challenging limits. Mountain men and women gaining strength, vitality. Soaking up inspiration from our teacher and his teacher’s teachers.

Just one week, and yet we go so deep, transforming energy on all levels. Strangers swiftly become sangha, friendships are forged over meals and spirit animal tarot cards.

Healing circle, full moon, New Year’s Eve evening; glowing hearts, positive energy, splendid synergy. Giving and receiving.

Inner transformation, outward evolution. Deep bow of gratitude, dream come true. The closing of one chapter leads to the opening of the next.

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Thank you. I love you. Please forgive me. I’m sorry. Namaste.

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The Yoga of Yawning

By Michelle Fajkus & Charles MacInerney

{Read the full, original post on Elephant Journal}

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Only we humans, conditioned to be polite, suppress our urge to yawn. Our suppression of a natural, healthy, physical urge is actually detrimental to our health.

Yawning is an ancient and vitally important reflex. Human fetuses begin to yawn and pandiculate (stretching and yawning at the same time) during the 12th week of pregnancy. All vertebrates yawn—humans, primates, mammals, marsupials, birds, reptiles.

There is a misconception that yawning implies boredom, disinterest, or tiredness. Yawning helps us transition from wakefulness to sleeping at night, and it also helps us transition from sleeping to wakefulness in the morning. Yawning increases circulation of cerebrospinal fluid and plays a role in arousal. Yawning also helps us relax and reduce our stress levels, which is why Olympic athletes are often seen yawning prior to competition.

I (Charles) began taking yoga classes in Oxford when I was 11. At the end of the practice, during savasana (corpse pose), I went into a state of deep relaxation. When my teacher closed the class with an Aum chant, I started to yawn. Not wanting to be disrespectful, I tried to suppress the urge and when it got away from me, I covered my mouth.

After class, my teacher advised, “Don’t suppress the urge to yawn. Let it out,” and yawned herself. After that, I indulged in yawn after yawn, until my eyes watered, and I felt alert, calm, and happy.

In a workshop he taught at the Texas Yoga Retreat last fall in Austin, I (Michelle) witnessed the humorous way in which Charles can yawn with his entire body—mouth, arms, legs, fingers, and toes! He encouraged all of us in the class to practice yawning and considers it the perfect yogic “complete breath” and an underutilized form of pranayama. (Charles is one of the main organizers of the annual weekend retreat and always offers a few fun, fascinating workshops.)

The scientific community is just beginning to realize how important yawning is to our overall health and well-being. Repetitive yawning increases the beneficial effects.

Read more

Earth Heart

I had just fallen asleep when the earth shook.

An 8.0 magnitude earthquake had hit the coastline of southern Mexico, and we felt it here at Lake Atitlan in Guatemalan highlands several hundred of kilometers away. My husband and I jumped out of bed, looked at each other, deer in headlights.

I always think they will pass and they always do. I have never been in the epicenter of an actual earthquake zone, only felt the shakes (temblores) on the periphery. Many times I have felt those, over the past eight years living in Guatemala. Prior, my weather fear in central Texas had been tornadoes. Austin was too far from the coast to get much damage from a hurricane, nowhere near as vulnerable as Houston, Corpus or Galveston.

This one lasted a longer time than most, but due to my half-asleep state, I didn’t register anxiety as much as curiosity. Why won’t it stop? Our daughter continued sleeping soundly, so we stayed in the bedroom of our tiny two-story cabin and moved with the earth. Finally, it did cease and no aftershocks came.

Now I wonder, what will it take for us, as humans who live on Earth, to care for our planet? I wonder if it is even possible to reverse the course we are already so far gone on?

I live at a lake, a beautiful lake which absolutely should be a World Heritage Site, should be protected, a national park, a trash-free zone, something. Anything.

This lake appears to be gorgeous and healthy, from a distance. There are three mammoth volcanoes looming over its southern shore. I am on the north side, with a view of these three beauties every day, though partially obscured by trees, I can see the lake and volcanoes from the balcony where I write.

I have, especially over the past two years, come to live a much more earth-loving, “eco-friendly” life. I no longer have a car. I no longer use electricity, only solar power. I no longer have a flush-toilet, only a dry compost toilet. (Yes, I still use cars, electricity and flush toilets when I’m not a home. But I’m usually at home.) In fact, I have not left this lake basin, except for a brief weekend at the beach in February, in eleven months, since returning from my last trip to the States (and Canada).

Now, British Columbia is on fire. Washington and Oregon are on fire. Southeast Texas is underwater. Florida is underwater. Bangladesh is underwater. So many more places around the world experiencing floods, forest fires, rising temperatures, extreme weather. Climate change.

From the outside, the lake looks pristine. Its clarity is better than in the recent past, especially those times over the past decade that have brought major algae blooms, a thick film of greenish yellow cyanobacteria that eventually turned blue and purple and brown, stinking as it decayed.

The lake looks clean, but it is not. It is suffering from a lack of oxygen. This is a lake that was formed by a volcanic crater many millions of years ago, and has no rivers going out to the ocean. The rivers feeding into the lake contain chemical runoff from the farms now mono-cropping corn instead of growing diverse vegetables, grains and fruits as they used to. And untreated or poorly treated sewage from the dozens of villages around the lake basin. And many tons of trash: plastic, styrofoam, rubber, more plastic.

Hence, unless drastic action is taken by the communities and individuals around the lake, as well as the Guatemalan government to outlaw both littering and contamination of the lake at the corporate level, this beautiful gem of nature has a death sentence. No one knows for sure. Maybe 7 years. Maybe twenty?

Isn’t the same the true of the entire planet Earth? She appears to be okay, if you’re not in an area ravaged by natural disaster or an “underdeveloped” nation with trash lining even its most remote rural trails. Some people can even deny the reality of climate change still, because they haven’t witnessed firsthand a heatwave or the rising ocean reducing the shoreline. How long does the Earth have to live, unless we change our ways?

I don’t have the answer, and I feel so helpless when I learn about the vast, greedy corporate/government misuse of funds and desecration of the environment. I can only change my own behavior and try to influence those around me.

When are we going to wake up? It’s seriously now or never.

I stumbled upon this infographic the other day. This has cemented my decision to have only one child. My daughter is perfect and she’s not going to have any biological siblings. I want to pass a healthy, glorious, wonderful earth onto my grandchildren, onto all future dwellers of this plentiful planet.

This has also renewed my commitment to vegetarianism. A plant-based diet. This is not to say I will never ever eat meat, but I plan not to be lax about it, even when visiting Texas over the next couple months. Delicious, nutritious vegetarian options are always available. It is a choice. Mindful eating: plant-based, smaller quantities, slow eating, appreciation of the food, its ingredients, cook, server.

I feel good about not having a car. I drove one from age 16 to 29 in the USA, then for another few years here in Guatemala. It is a luxury and a freedom, a vehicle. I enjoy driving, going places, road trips. However, not having one is, according to this study, one of the best ways to positively impact Earth. Walking. Biking. Taking public transportation (and fewer transatlantic flights).

May we wake up and start caring more for ourselves, our fellow humans and our mother Earth. May our daily actions and practices serve to benefit all beings and our precious planet!

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I Speak for the Lake

“One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” Pema Chodron

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Health is the most important thing. Health as in balance, vitality, proper use of energy. Right action. Wisdom. Our health, in the larger sense of where we are, is in our families and homes—in the water and the soil.

The most important thing is to stop polluting the planet. To cease contamination, to halt habits that are destroying not only our precious, sacred Lake Atitlán, but all bodies of water—including our own human bodies, which are 78 percent water.

The most important thing is the health of both individual and community. Both family and globe. However, global thinking is a bit like magical thinking—too conceptual, unfathomable, oversimplified. Local, present-moment, current, heart-centered thinking is what’s needed.

We are all (to some extent) guilty of being ostriches, and we need to pull our heads out of the sand. Pachamama, Mother Earth, is crying softly—but, before long, she’s going to start screaming. Sometimes she shrieks in silence, and only some of us are awake enough to hear—alert enough to listen.

We must speak for the lake, for the forest, and all the species. Write, and talk, and make documentaries, and raise awareness, and inspire action in ourselves and others.

Instead, most of us, myself included, are increasingly distracted by busyness and by using technology as a toy, rather than a tool too much of the time.

What is the most important thing? Earth. Breath. Air. Oxygen. The lake is suffocating. We need to give her her lungs back, to let her breathe, let her keep inspiring and feeding everyone who comes into her aura, her basin.

Earth is the most important thing. This grain of sand, this blade of grass, this flower petal, this cloud formation, this ocean wave, this full moon, this universe.

If planet Earth goes, we all go. Pay attention to the cries of Mother Earth, of “Grandmother Atitlan.” Pay attention to what you are putting into your body, mind, and heart. Pay attention to how you sit and stand, move and behave in the world, in our home.

The time is now.

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The Story of the Texas Yoga Retreat

TYR3In creating their vision statement—“Building a caring, diverse and empowered yoga community”—the Texas Yoga Retreat co-founders realized they wanted to combine the best attributes of a conference (experienced, high-caliber teachers, multiple workshop options during each time slot), with the best aspects of a yoga retreat (community, compassion, and shared experience).

Bringing famous teachers on board was actually counter-productive to this goal of building community and keeping the retreat affordable. Over the years, they have continued to deliberately invite amazing, local teachers (mainly from Texas) who are not yet famous but should be.

The moment you step onto the grounds at Radha Madhav Dham Ashram in southwest Austin, the incredibly peaceful and loving energy field there is palpable. Built in 1990, the ashram grounds feature 230 acres of rolling green hills, lots of wildlife, including dozens of peacocks milling about (babies are born each spring), luscious gardens, walking trails, and the Ancient Yoga Center, a section of the ashram specifically intended for retreats. With no TVs or cell phones in sight, the ashram is a true sanctuary, enabling all those bathed in its glory to restore their body, mind, and spirit.

Charles, Donna, and Ellen met a devotee from the ashram at a gathering of the Austin Yoga Teachers Association in 1999. When they inquired about the possibility of offering a yoga retreat there, the three were invited for a meeting with a man called Swamiji who was the spiritual leader of the center at the time. They apparently passed the test and were later told that Swamiji had requested the meeting because he needed to look into their hearts. He must have found their intentions to be pure and true. The colleagues were also instrumental in organizing the first few years of the annual Free Day of Yoga in Austin on September 1st, and the three also collaborated to create a yoga teacher training called the Living Yoga Program which continues to be held regularly on the grounds of Radha Madhav Dham.

The inaugural Texas Yoga Retreat in November 2000 was the first time that the ashram had ever invited an outside group to host an event on the property. Year after year, the ashram has been a wonderful spiritual home and the devotees who live there feel like family. The Texas Yoga Retreat is a unique, beneficial, and authentic gathering that has been held annually each fall. Back when it was just beginning, I volunteered to help with marketing and promotion. Throughout the early 2000s, I was blessed to be able to attend the event several times and participate in many inspiring workshops led by talented teachers across many diverse lineages and style of yoga.

Much has remained constant over the nearly two decades since the retreat began. The organizers collect student evaluations after every workshop. The majority of presenters are chosen from the best of previous years’ retreats. These presenters not only deliver quality workshops, but more importantly, they love teaching at the Texas Yoga Retreat and immerse themselves in the experience, rather than just showing up to teach and leaving again.

About 20 percent of the presenters are chosen for the quality of their reputation and the content of their workshops. Ellen says, “The teachers we hire are deeply steeped in their own field of practice and this comes through in their teaching. Although you may have been studying yoga for years, these classes are specifically designed to take you to the deeper level, a more authentic level of teaching that you will not typically find in a regular yoga class.”

 

Keep Reading (full article on elephant journal)

This year’s retreat will be held from October 20-22. You can attend the entire weekend or just come out for the day on Saturday or Sunday. Find more details here.

Collected Writings 2010-2017

51hV0yux+mLMoving abroad eight years ago was a rebirth for me.

The choice to uproot from my home country, the United States of America, and plant new seeds in my host country, Guatemala, suddenly changed my whole life and lifestyle.

I was bestowed with the best gift of all: time. I used my newfound abundance of this magical time and mental space to focus on my personal yoga and meditation practice—and to hone my writing skills. I started this very blog on WordPress in early 2010. In October of that year, I crossed my fingers and submitted my very first article for publication on Elephant Journal. (I’m so grateful that they accepted it and hundreds more since!)

Over the years, I’ve maintained my passion for yoga and writing, though of course both practices have fluctuated over time and with the influence of life, work, partnership, parenthood and all the little moments that make up our days.

I’m delighted to present my latest e-book offering: The Best of Yoga Freedom. These collected blog posts and essays from the past seven years deal with everything from developing and deepening spiritual practice to stories of shame and sexual healing to heart advice on long-term partnerships and healthy, simple lifestyle choices. If you’re new to this site, this is an ideal place to begin.

The book is available on Amazon/Kindle. If you would be interested in reading and writing a review, please connect with me and I will gladly send you a free copy.

Thank you for reading!

{Get your copy of The Best of Yoga Freedom}

Smiling Meditation & Homemade Toothpaste

Last week, the planets aligned, and a long-awaited dream came true: I learned how to make natural toothpaste.

I had long since learned the dangers of fluoride and other substances and additives in “mainstream” toothpaste brands such as Crest and Colgate.

For years, I’ve been buying supposedly natural, “organic” toothpastes from the store. However, where I live in Guatemala, these are imported and prohibitively expensive. Plus, they all have some questionable chemical foaming agent. We are conditioned to believe that toothpaste needs to foam in order to make our mouths clean.

I’d heard how easy it was to make a natural toothpaste at home, yet I never took the crucial next step of learning how. So last week, I took a workshop on aromatherapy, in which we learned the basics about essential oils and also made a few products to take home, including deodorant, insect repellent, and toothpaste.

The toothpaste is made from coconut oil, which is liquefied and mixed with bentonite clay and drops of peppermint, clove, cinnamon, and ginger essential oils. We also added stevia powder as a natural sweetener.

However, having a fresh, clean mouth and lovely teeth is only half the battle. Our smiles must also be real.

Here are instructions for practicing smiling meditation, as taught by the amazing Thich Nhat Hanh in his classic book, Being Peace.

“During walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling.

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment

I know this is the only moment.

‘Breathing in, I calm body and mind.’ This line is like drinking a glass of ice water—you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.

You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile. ‘Dwelling in the present moment.’ While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here and I know where I am. This is very important.

We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, ‘Wait until I finish school and get my Ph. D. degree, and then I will be really alive.’ When we have it, and it’s not easy to get, we say to ourselves, ‘I have to wait until I get a job, in order to be *really* alive.’

And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive in our entire life.

Therefore, the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment. ‘I know this is the only moment.’ This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most important task. ‘Calming. Smiling, Present moment, Only moment.’ I hope you will try it.”

I vow to smile. I vow to try it. I vow to be grateful—to see the beauty on the path—right here, right now.

Natural Remedies for Bad Belly.

Living in Guatemala, I’ve come to learn a fair amount about the human digestive system over the years.

Effective cleaning is the fundamental law of hygiene and the primary tool for combating disease and preventing ailments caused by microorganisms. We also need to be conscious of our consumption habits, giving them greater priority in our lives.

We are what we eat, so we should eat well and know how to choose our food wisely. Our eating habits affect our lifestyle, quality of life, and the amount of time and money we invest in our nutrition. (Of course, on the flip side, there are also the people and businesses responsible for producing and distributing our food.)

Yet, even when we have a healthy diet and exercise regularly, digestive ailments can arise for a variety of complex reasons.

Here are some methods I have found helpful in knocking them out and feeling good again. May they be of benefit!

1. A shot of lime juice and crushed raw garlic. Take it on an empty stomach. Continue to take a shot every four to six hours as needed.

2. In the case of diarrhea, stop eating carbs and sugars immediately. Parasites feed on sugar. Raw fruit and veggies are difficult for the system to digest, and fruits have natural sugars. Opt instead for proteins and steamed vegetables.

3. Activated charcoal tablets are a potent natural remedy, which enables toxins and chemicals in the body to be eliminated. Be sure to use one that is made from coconut shells or other natural sources.

4. Bentonite clay or diatomaceous earth will help with intestinal pain. Take one teaspoon dissolved in a small quantity of hot water on an empty stomach.

5. Grapefruit seed extract is an excellent anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal medicine. It can be taken in liquid form, drop form, or tablets. Papaya seeds are also helpful.

6. Swedish bitters is an excellent aid to disinfecting the digestive tract. It is made in high-quality vodka with a mixture of 13 herbs. (To take it without ingesting the alcohol, put the dose of Swedish bitters into a small mug of boiling water, and the alcohol will evaporate away.)

The benefits of Swedish bitters tincture include: promotes biliary, pancreatic, and gastric secretion; soothes digestive tract, bloating, flatulence, gas, cramps, and nausea; encourages toxin elimination, regenerates the digestive tract; acts as a gentle laxative and restores natural stomach acid balance; and stimulates circulation and liver function.

7. The herbal teas that are best for digestion include: clove, jacaranda, papaya leaf, lemongrass, ginger, chamomile, peppermint, and senna.

If, after 10-14 days of consistent application, these methods are not effective, you may want to consider an antibiotic option, but this should be a last resort. Hopefully, with the practical, natural remedies listed above, your good health will be restored. Here’s to digestive harmony!

Read the original post on elephant journal.